Thanks to the Super Bowl and many hospitable Hoosiers, our nation is discovering what a great destination that Indianapolis can be for sports, entertainment and food. This is a city that is vibrant year-round with many things to do outside the month of May, which is devoted to a 500-mile race.
It’s also becoming a place where barbecue lovers will find many choices as well. If you’ve been a previous visitor to this column, you’re already aware of places such as Squealer’s, Hank’s Smoked Brisket, Pa and Ma’s Barbecue and the first Indiana location of City Barbeque.
Unlike Memphis, Kansas City and other cities, Indianapolis does not have its own style of barbecue, but there are many here who take pride in showing their influences from all points south.
Here is a short primer to other places you might like to try, whether you’re in town for the Big Game or just looking for some great joints in Indy:
-- Black Diamond Barbecue, 6404 Rucker Road, was opened on the north side in June 2007 by two people who loved cooking ribs in their backyards in the dead of winter (people after my own heart). They serve up the usual selection of ribs, chicken and beef brisket by keeping things simple. Don’t leave without having some pie! They can provide catering for large groups.
-- Judges Tip of the Rib Bar-B-Que, 2104 W. Michigan St., also has the distinction of being a juice smoothie bar. Viewers of the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis voted Judge's the best barbecue place in the state. Obviously, that’s debatable but it’s nice to see a joint that also does BBQ Meatloaf and Smoked Salmon. Don’t wait until the weekend to go to Judge’s – it’s not open on the weekends.
-- King Ribs Bar-B-Q, has three locations, but my favorite one is located at a former car wash at 4130 N. Keystone Ave., which makes it easy to take the barbecue with you. Other locations can be found at 3145 W. 16th St. and at 56th Street and Georgetown Road. If you’re looking for something different, try their barbecued pigs’ feet.
-- Papa Roux, which has locations in the City Market downtown, 222 E. Market St.; and on the east side at 8950 E. 10th St. While Po-Boy sandwiches and stews make up most of its New Orleans-style restaurants, they produce a smoked pulled-pork sandwich that weighs more than a pound. Happily, they’ll serve it to you on bread that is gluten-free.
-- Bar-B-Q Heaven, one of Indianapolis’ oldest and most established joints, 2515 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., does a strong carry-out business and will let you place your order online. A second location can be found at 877 E. 30th St. They have an expansive menu that includes rib tips, turkey ribs and pigs’ feet and the best in soul food sides. Take home a bottle of their sauce! Bar-B-Q Heaven also has a direct tie to the game. It is an official contract recipient in the NFL's Emerging Business Program and is participating in the NFL's Emerging Business Challenge. For more information, visit the Emerging Business website.
I could mention several places, such as Garrett’s Smokehouse Barbeque, the Pit Stop Barbecue in nearby Brownsburg and Big Hoffa’s Barbeque), but I want to keep this article brief and whet your appetite for future columns.
And visitors, please don’t judge us adversely because Famous Dave’s is here too.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Monday, January 23, 2012
Charlotte Peters may have passed away in 1988, but she continues to have a major presence at the St. Louis area barbecue restaurant that has been operated by her family since 1977.
As you enter Charlotte’s Rib, located in the Claymont Center strip mall in suburban Ballwin, Mo., a television screening highlights from 23-year career of the “First Lady of St. Louis Television” makes her as omnipresent as the cowboy items everywhere (a mural on the wall greets you, “Howdy Partner”).
Peters, pictured below, seemingly interviewed everyone who came to or near St. Louis from 1947 to 1969, including director Alfred Hitchcock, singer Eddie Fisher and renowned circus clown Emmett Kelly.
However, today we can thank the daytime TV entertainer for talking a Roman chef into giving her his recipe for a meat rub that her father-in-law, a career chef, further modified. They still use the rub today at Charlotte’s Rib.
The restaurant was founded in Kirkwood by Herb and Pat Schwarz, Charlotte's daughter and son-in-law, in 1977. Now at its third location in Ballwin, Charlotte's granddaughter and son-in-law carry on the tradition.
As evidenced by our meal and the numerous trophies also on display near the entrance, the next generation is doing it quite well. The ribs had excellent smoke markings and yet were very moist. Their variety of sauces complimented the flavor but weren’t always needed. The portion sizes were outstanding.
One person in our group surprised us by ordering the catfish, which he found to be delicate and flavorful without being greasy.
According to the book Real Barbecue, which was available for purchase at Charlotte’s Rib, Herb Schwarz entered the Kansas City American Royal Barbecue Cook-Off under an assumed name, Dr. Rollin River. Schwarz, who really was a doctor, was the contest champion for his pork in 1981. A year later, Pat’s chili recipe was an award winner at the Regional Chili Cook Off in St. Louis.
Herb passed away on Valentine’s Day in 2007, but his family has kept up the family reputation in competitive barbecue. Charlotte’s Rib won second place in the cook’s choice category of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue in 2008. Prominently displayed during our visit were several trophies from the St. Louis Home Fires completion in 2011, where Charlotte’s Rib was the reserve champion and brisket champion and won third place in rib category.
The family says its sauce is based on a family recipe, passed down from previous generations. They now have four versions, which they sell at the restaurant and at a nearby grocery store.
Since we were visiting St. Louis, we were compelled to have the ribs, but Charlotte’s Rib also is well known for its pork sandwiches and beef brisket – which we’ll try next time. Also on the menu are chicken, salmon, shrimp and steaks and burgers. Charlotte’s Rib also is known for its onion rings, but we found them to be disappointingly lacking of flavor.
Only on Thursday’s they offer a delicacy, burnt ends -- the trimmings from a smoked brisket. When beef is smoked, there are pieces around the edge that tend to dry out and get very smoky in flavor. After being trimmed off, they are either often used in sandwiches or stews. It’s a phenomenon common in these parts as well as in Kansas City.
As we enjoyed our dinner, we frequently looked up at Charlotte on the TV screen – dressed as a mermaid, a fairy or as Annie Oakley – and traded laughs. If you want to see her during the golden years of live television, her son and famous cartoonist Mike Peters has lovingly posted videos from her variety shows online on YouTube.
As some would say, “What a hoot.”
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
As the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko once wrote, “Restaurants run by short Greeks stay in business and make money.”
Of course, this isn’t always true, but more often than not, many of the best diners and restaurants are owned and operated by my distant Greek relatives – even barbecue joints.
A fine example of this was restaurateur Charlie Vergos, who ran the Rendezvous in downtown Memphis, Tenn., until his death in March 2010 at age 84. While cleaning out the basement of his downtown Memphis diner in 1948, Vergos discovered an old coal chute in the wall and realized that it would be a good vent for a barbecue pit.
Vergos today continues to inspire others, including the Greek American proprietors of Shorty’s True American Roadhouse, at 5111 Monroe St., in Toledo, Ohio.
In 1916, Gus Mancy moved to Toledo from the island of Crete and began a career in the restaurant business in 1921. His descendants today operate four respected restaurants in this northwest Ohio city, including Shorty’s, operated by Nick Mancy.
Stumbling into Shorty’s was a happy accident as we returned from a vacation last summer. While the menu features a strong selection of steaks and seafood, one step inside suggested that this really was a place for barbecue. They use cherry to smoke their meats on site, which we could smell upon entering.
Shortly after ordering a combo platter of pulled pork, ribs and chicken to share, we saw on a wall nearby a list of barbecue joints familiar to most anyone, which included Vergos’ Rendezvous.
Shorty's was setting for themselves a high standard to meet, suggesting that they could even be mentioned in the same company, we surmised.
But perhaps it’s because a short Greek is involved.
Our waitress quickly brought out our food on a round tray covered with brown paper and thankfully we weren’t disappointed. My wife can be hard to please, particularly when it comes to sides such as baked beans and cole slaw.
The beans came bathed in a sweet and thick sauce infused with pulled pork, and the slaw was not overwhelmed by vinegar or mayonnaise. My favorite was the macaroni and cheese highlighted by actual cheese and not a substitute (Don’t you hate it when they mix Velvetta with the pasta?).
All the meat was tender. The chicken in particular showed its smoked pink insides easily without a knife.
Shorty’s two main sauces are private recipes, including one that has smoky, sweet flavor, helped by a hint of pineapple. The other sauce is spicier, but doesn’t overwhelm the food.
Also on the menu are beef brisket and something you see less often, beef ribs, which we’ll have to try the next time we’re passing through. The Memphis Egg Rolls, stuffed with pulled pork and sauce and then deep fried, also looked intriguing.
Shorty’s also boasts an extensive, 15-item desert menu, which includes bread and banana pudding, milkshakes, sundaes and sweet potato pie.
Shorty’s aspires to greatness and certainly will merit a return visit the next time we’re passing through.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
“We barbecue everything but the baby, we boil him.”
So reads a now fading hand-painted sign facing a gravel parking lot at the former location of Big Shoe’s Barbecue at 1112 S. 12th St. in Terre Haute, Ind.
Big Shoe’s slogan once was “the most slyly vicious in the business," noted authors Greg Johnson and Vince Staten in their book, “Real Barbecue.” "The dark humor springs from a gentle soul … a slow-moving bear of a man with the kind face of a basset hound.
"After a handshake and a friendly hello, the joke is obvious: The baby would be absolutely safe with Big Shoe, although a stray spare rib might be in serious danger,” they added.
Alas, Ellis Mills, a.k.a “Big Shoe,” is no more and neither is the historic barbecue joint the Tennessee native operated with his wife, Gladys. Two large signs in the shape of boots still hang outside the building where area-born celebrities such as actors Scatman Crothers and Phil Harris, sportscaster Chris Schenkel and Indianapolis 500 legend Tony Hulman once frequented.
I wish that I could write that I also was among them, but all we found on a recent visit to Terre Haute was a shuttered operation. A fire pit and a couple of smokers stand idled inside one of the buildings, with a couple of sauce mops hanging nearby.
A “closed” sign appears in front of familiar looking checkered curtains in a window.
Big Shoe’s web site -- http://www.bigshoesbarbeque.com/ -- had given us false hope that we would be able to eat at what was once one of only three good barbecue joints in Indiana listed in Johnson and Staten’s guide way back in 1988. Apparently the site remains online in order for the family to market their sauce.
According to various sources, Ellis and Gladys Mills (pictured here) moved to Terre Haute in 1936 and opened the restaurant around 1950, after he had worked for years as an iron worker. Because they had 10 children, they decided to sell barbeque on the weekends to supplement their income.
They sold it around town and later at fairs – including at the Indiana State Fair.
She cooked the meat and prepared sandwiches. He sold the barbeque at various "after hour joints." Because he wore a size 15EEE shoe, he earned the nickname "Big Shoe," which became the name of his business attached to their home.
In the place's early days, at a time when Terre Haute had a reputation as a party hearty river town, Big Shoe’s was the kind of place to go when other places closed. In order to shut things down in the wee hours of the morning, Mills would turn up the jukebox and punch a particular selection, “You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here.”
Today, the jukebox is gone, along with nearly everything else. “Big Shoe” died in September of 1994. Gladys followed him into death in January of 2010.
Their children operated the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays after his death, but all that is left is a web site for sauce. The phone number doesn't work and I wonder whether anyone will respond to an e-mail.
It would be nice to try their “sweet yet spicy” vinegar-based red sauce.
As I wrote earlier, I never had the privilege of eating here, but I’ll conclude by sharing thoughts from an appreciative, anonymous reviewer from San Antonio, written in December of 2008:
“I ate there at Big Shoes over 50 years ago when "Big Shoe" was the grill-master. I have always considered their Bar-B-Q, by far, the best in the world," he wrote. "The small restaurant was just a room with a sawdust floor in one large room with a pit grill. The furniture was just miss-matched old used tables and chairs with butcher paper for table clothes … The flavor was so good that if I could have eaten the bones, I would have.
“There was no where in the world that I have eaten Bar-B-Q that was as good or that came close. Not in Terre Haute, Indiana -- or anywhere else … Here in San Antonio, Texas, people brag on Texas Bar-B-Q, and it is good, but nothing I have ever eaten compares with Big Shoes in Terre Haute, Indiana.”
That's quite a statement.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
When he was a manager at General Motors’ Allison Transmission factory, Hank Fields used to ship parts all over the country. Today, he makes barbecue lovers from coast-to-coast happy when he ships beef brisket made in his smokehouse on Indianapolis’ near north side.
Just a couple weeks back, Fields (pictured here), owner of Hank’s Smoked Brisket, shipped some of his meat to someone in Arizona, following other orders to people in Washington, D.C. and California.
But most people simply stop by the carry-out restaurant located at 3736 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., and take it with them. If you want to eat it there, you’ll have to take it out to the car.
That’s probably as far as it goes for some people, who can’t wait to eat it before getting home. He estimates that 98 percent of his customers walk out with brisket.
"They get other items, you know ribs, baby backs, spare ribs, chicken, sausage links. They get all the other meat, but you can always betcha they’re going to walk out of here with some brisket," Fields said proudly. "We don’t try to attest ourselves as being the best in the state of Indiana, but we do pretty decent."
We first learned about Hank’s Smoked Brisket from a fellow customer at Squealer’s north side location, who told me, "If you want good brisket, you’ve got to go down to Hank’s."
Originally from Henderson, Texas, a city of about 12,000 people about 120 miles east of Dallas, Fields moved to Indianapolis in February of 1973. He has been cooking barbecue only for about 10 years.
Surprisingly, he did not grow up in a family that barbecued. Instead, he developed a taste for the stuff in friends’ smokehouses while he was growing up.
"There were people around in the surrounding community who used to do smoking," Fields explained. "They had their own smokehouse and everything. They would just leave it hanging out in the smoke house, go out and cut what they wanted off it and eat what they wanted to eat and leave the rest of it hanging.
"See, here we don’t worry about brisket going bad or anything when we smoke it," he added. "Matter of fact, occasionally I might leave a couple of them out for a day or two before I put them in the cooler, and they just get better with age. But for the most part, the brisket only lasts around here for about three to four days -- they gone."
He started out selling barbecue at football games in Indianapolis, using a smoker he had built in Texas. It also was a period of testing out and refining his recipes and technique.
"I started out in a trailer, smoking meat and going out to football games," he recalled. "After that, it was all basically trial and error, finding out what works. It took a few years to find out how it works, what makes it work and what makes it come out good."
In 2004, he opened Hank’s Smoked Brisket in a building he had constructed that also houses a barber shop and beauty salon. "I more than likely perfected it now, but it still gets better," he said of his brisket, which is smoked eight to 12 hours over mesquite wood.
During the year-end holidays, Fields also smokes and sells turkeys and rib eye steaks, which he said "probably are better than the brisket."
During our visit, we ordered brisket, baby back ribs and the chopped pork. Helping to seal the deal was the delicious brisket samples that his right-hand employee, Brenda (pictured right), sliced for us. She makes all the deserts and the potato salad.
In its July cover story about the Circle City’s BBQ, Indianapolis Monthly noted, "Other barbecue joints feature brisket, but few give it the front-and-center attention that it gets at Hank Fields’ Texas barbecue takeout … Fields' signature cut is obviously treated with respect, dressed only with a mild, slightly tangy sauce he says is 'suitable for old men.'"
While I might disagree with the magazine’s assessment of other places featured in the article, not so with Hank’s Smoked Brisket.
Fields has never done competitions and says he never will. "My competition is for you to go somewhere else and come visit Hank," he said plainly.
For many other places in Indy, the competition may be for honorable mention, particularly when it comes to brisket.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Bill Pemberton (pictured here with his colleague Greg Welch) is from West Texas, where -- as he puts it -- “they eat barbecue more than they eat hamburgers.”
When he and his family moved to Central Indiana from Dallas about 15 years ago, they would put a lot of miles on their car in search of good barbecue.
“We basically spent two years driving all over the state trying to find barbecue and finally just quit. We’d ask, ‘Where’s your smoker?’ and they’d say, ‘Smoker? We don’t have a smoker,” said Pemberton, who today manages the City Barbeque location in Greenwood, Ind.
City Barbeque (Greg says this is the correct spelling – “Ours is with a ‘Q’”) first opened in 1999, when Rick Malir and other members of an award-winning barbeque competition team founded the first location in Columbus, Ohio. The team has been a winner at the Kansas City Royal Barbeque competition.
Today, the Dublin, Ohio-based company operates about 20 locations across the Buckeye State and in Kentucky. The Greenwood, Ind. location opened on Labor Day Weekend in 2010 and a second Indiana location soon will open in Avon.
We visited City Barbeque for the first time in Greenwood just as it was marking its one-year anniversary. After enjoying a satisfying meal of a half rack of pork ribs with two sides and a half pound of beef brisket and a couple of bottled sodas (including an orange Nehi), Pemberton graciously sat down with us for a few minutes.
He told me about the two decades he’s spent in the restaurant business, which included running some Tex-Mex restaurants as well. Many years ago, he helped to run a Bigham’s Smokehouse in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, while taking classes at Texas Tech University.
I asked him about the challenges of educating both employees and customers about what real barbecue is supposed to be. As I’ve discussed in this blog before, barbecue hasn’t always been understood in the Hoosier state of the pork tenderloin and the fried bologna sandwiches. He acknowledged this challenge.
“It’s difficult just because of the perception of people here -- maybe it’s a Midwestern thing, maybe it’s a Hoosier thing -- I’m not sure. But they assume that when they eat barbecue that it’s some kind of meat, cooked somehow, just smothered with sauce,” he said.
“When we (employees during training) would get out samples of meat, they’d say there’s not any sauce on it, and I’d say, ‘That’s right. There’s sauce on the table, but here’s the barbecue.’”
Speaking of his customers, Pemberton added, “I think that people have become a lot more astute. They know more … We’ve done pretty well and our business has grown.”
The company’s slogan is, “All Smoke. No Mirrors.” We found that statement to be true. The brisket in particular was excellent and perhaps the best we’ve had since crossing the Texas state line. It was succulent and extremely tender. The St. Louis-style pork ribs tore away from the bone in bites and presented with a nice pinkness – both hallmarks of good barbecue.
Unlike some restaurants, City Barbeque is generous with its six different kinds of sauces that cover the map stylistically from Carolina to Texas to Missouri. Not only did we find them on the table, but a condiment and pickle bar also featured heated sauce. The Brush Fire sauce was hot in more ways than one.
We also sampled the North Carolina Pulled Pork, which also was tender and good, but not as remarkable as the brisket. Also on the menu are smoked turkey breast, pulled and smoked chicken and Texas smoked sausage. Sides included the usual staples, including mac & cheese, a vinegar slaw, potato salad, corn pudding (probably another nod to Texas) and baked beans.
What we found nice was that you can purchase the smoked meats by the pound. We had to save the banana pudding for our next visit, but my friend and reader Joe Kiefer -- who lives in Columbus -- suggested that we needed to note it and the cornbread.
City Barbeque smokers burn Shagbark Hickory, which isn’t as common in Indiana as it is in Ohio. Pemberton doesn’t want any cherry, ash or any other kinds of wood mixed into their smokers.
“That’s been the biggest challenge for us,” he said, “because in Ohio they actually have a Shagbark Hickory web site and there’s authorized dealers of Shagbark Hickory in Ohio … It’s a little bit different here … It can be difficult to find a lot of Shagbark Hickory, because at a lot of places there’s other things that grow in with it.”
In November, Pemberton is looking forward to joining several other City Barbeque managers who are taking the certifying class to become Kansas City Barbeque Society judges.
“It’s not that we know it all, because you can always learn something,” he said. “That (KCBS certification) is like the pinnacle – in our opinion -- of barbecue knowledge and for all of us to be able to go through that is a small investment to make for us to better understand the barbecue culture as well as the food.”
Admittedly, we walked into City Barbeque with some reservations. Like Famous Dave’s, it is a restaurant chain, but that is the only thing they have in common. It’s clear that this location benefits from the genuine background and experience of the people who work hard to make it right.