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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Toledo’s Shorty’s True American Roadhouse sets the bar for itself

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.

Shorty's True American Roadhouse on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Big Shoe's Barbecue left behind hard shoes to fill in Terre Haute

“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 -- -- 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.

Big Shoe's Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Carry out from Hank's Smoked Brisket in Indianapolis

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.

Hank's Smoked Brisket on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sorry ... But They "Don't Know Jack" at Bloomington's Smokin' Jack's Rib Shack

Back in 1988, I picked up the book, Real Barbecue: The Only Barbecue Book You’ll Ever Need, by fellow Indiana University alumnus Greg Johnson and Louisville legend Vince Staten (pictured below). The book, which came out in a second edition in 2007, was the first real guide to the best barbecue joints in America.

After logging thousands of miles together, the two journalists selected their top 100 “hot barbecue joints,” and listed them by state.

While some of the place described are now gone, most are going strong and remain a testament to what they called “truly the pinnacle of culinary creations, the most coddled and cared-for food in the world.”

The book remains a useful reference.

A couple of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Johnson, then features editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and later eating at Staten’s Old Time Barbecue restaurant in Prospect, Ky. I met Johnson in his office, surrounded by dozens of bottles of sauce from every Mom-and-Pop place imaginable.

I told him that I was a big fan of the book, but asked him why the Kentucky chapter didn’t include any places in Louisville. He told me that, frankly living and working in Louisville made it impossible to reveal his favorites.

My previous post in Barbecued Adventures was the delightful story of Short Stop Food Mart, where a great deal of effort and earnestness has led a former engineer to strive to serve real barbecue.

However, in Bloomington, Ind., there is only one restaurant that completely focuses on barbecue – Smokin’ Jack’s Rib Shack, 505 W. 17th St.

Bloomington has had its share of valiant attempts at barbecue. Longtime residents may remember The Barbecue Train on Walnut Street, Fatman’s on west Third St., and even The City Grill downtown, when it was good.

On its web site, Smokin’ Jack’s claims to be “the home of the Midwest’s Best Old Fashion Barbeque.” They’re patting themselves on the back. After my last dining experience there on Aug. 24, I can tell you with great confidence that Greg and Vince wouldn’t have placed Smokin’ Jack’s in their top million hot spots.

We have been there several times over the years and have been progressively underwhelmed by the place. But after starting this blog, I decided that I had to return and give Smokin’ Jack’s a second chance. I intended not to write anything until after several more visits – just to be fair.

It only took one more visit to change my mind.

After all our experiences eating at barbecue meccas across America, we realized that the bar for us had been set very high. Unfortunately for us and for the diners at Smokin’ Jack’s, we now know how low the bar can go. My wife advised me that – even though we live here – that I needed to give you the truth.

From a monetary perspective, Smokin’ Jack’s seems like a bargain. Wednesday nights are “buck a bone” nights for ribs and pulled pork sandwiches, with a side, cost $5. They do offer a senior special to people age 50 and over. If only that was the retirement age.

But Smokin’ Jack’s not a bargain at any price. The quality of the meat is atrocious and the sauce is so devoid of flavor that the food is inedible. We have good reason to suspect that we were served warmed-over food from days before.

The pulled pork lacked any texture and was nearly gelatinous. The meat on the ribs was so badly burned that it was black and tough for nearly a half-inch from the outside in.

Meat is supposed to pull away from the bone, but the rib bones were so soft from being overcooked and subsequently re-heated that they disintegrated into a gritty mess when you took a bite. The quality of the meat used is suspect as well. They were poorly trimmed and featured as much fat as flesh.

If we'd wanted leftovers, we would have stayed home.

My wife admittedly doesn’t like her sauce to be too spicy, but she readily agreed with me that it lacked any distinctive flavor. Was it meant to be sweet or spicy? Who knows.

While we typically rate barbecue joints on the main course, the sides we had weren’t much better. We weren't surprised that the green beans came from a can, but the onions added for flavor were raw and hadn’t cooked. The french fries were the best thing on our plates, but then it’s hard to mess those up.

In short, this was the worst barbecue we’ve ever eaten, and we both became ill afterwards.

If you’re wondering, we did complain. We asked for the manager, but were provided with another server, who seemed apologetic but also dismissive. Smokin’ Jack’s is operated by the same proprietors as the Kilroy’s family of drinking establishments. Perhaps they should stick to serving drinks to under-aged minors.

Smokin' Jack's Rib Shack on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fueling up at Bloomington's Short Stop Food Mart

Editor's note: This article was updated on Oct. 6 to include information about Short Stop's first attempt at beef brisket, which also was posted to Urbanspoon.

Chris Smith is so confident that folks will keep coming back for Short Stop Food Mart barbecue that he’ll hand you the recipe. He gave me a printed copy. He also posts his joint’s cole slaw and pasta salad recipes on his web site.

Meeting Smith for the first time, he was eager to share his story, but not in a way that would suggest cockiness. He realizes that most people will appreciate that it’s not easy to make good barbecue.

Interestingly, for Chris Smith, serving good barbecue in Bloomington, Ind., home of Indiana University, came by “inadvertently.”

Since 2001, the Bloomington native has been the land owner for the Short Stop Food Mart. The neighborhood grocery and gas station has been a fixture at the corner of Smith Road and 10th Street since 1979.

For several years, the Short Stop had merely been a good investment property for Smith, but the historic recession and skyrocketing fuel prices led him to take a more active role when the store’s operator suddenly declared bankruptcy.

In January of 2009, Smith left a position as a civil engineer in Charlotte, N.C., to take the empty place over. His stepfather previously owned the property and developed a neighboring self storage business next door in 1985. Smith didn’t want to see another community-based business die. He acknowledges that he started out selling barbecue as a means of selling more milk and gas. Now it seems to be other way around.

“My family’s not into barbecue,” he admitted. “Three years ago, we took over the store and needed to differentiate it from other stores. My brother-in-law said, ‘Let’s do barbecue.’”

They started out slow-cooking pork shoulder (but not over a grill) and sold quite a few pulled pork sandwiches that summer. But soon he realized that he needed to do things better. He turned to a best friend’s father, Tom Vernon, a serious “barbecue guy,” a 20-year member of the Kansas City Barbecue Association, for guidance.

The Ellettsville resident, who Smith said he considers like a second father, showed him the ropes and shared with him recipes for his rubs, sauces and beans. He also sold Smith a 17-foot long locomotive-themed mobile grill, the Barbecue Train, which Vernon built in 1997.

“I asked for help and in 20 minutes he gave me 20 years of barbecue experience. He just laid it on the table and said this is what I use,” Smith said in a recent interview. “That evolved into what we have today.

“We started with doing 10 shoulders – we did 100 this week. We did about 120 slabs of ribs this week and it all will sell today … It’s all because of Tom’s rub and Tom’s process. He went out and helped me find my first grill,” Smith said admiringly.

Today, the Short Stop serves some of the best barbecue in South Central Indiana. It is a winner of the Herald-Times’ reader’s choice contest, as well as the palates of hundreds of hungry Hoosiers who turn out each Thursday, when the parking lot is transformed for a weekly barbecue.

For those who don’t want ribs, pulled pork or chicken, they also sell brats, burgers and hot dogs.

Gerrick DeVane, Short Stop’s grill manager, is a fixture behind the grill on Thursdays. Every Thursday from April through October, they get going before 8 a.m. to set up and tear down a party atmosphere just outside the store and not far from the gas pumps.

While Vernon’s recipes and techniques are Midwestern in origin, the Short Stop’s sauces and cole slaw recipes lean toward the Carolina influences Smith gleaned while living there. One of the sauces is called “East I-95.”

“Barbecue connoisseurs know that’s where the tomato stops and the vinegar starts,” he said. “That’s the first time I had real barbecue, because in Indiana it’s that mushy pork filled with sauce and plopped on a sandwich.”

“When we decided to do this, we decided dry rub, dry pulled; vinegar-based sauce and vinegar-based slaw … no sauce on anything. It’s all on the side.”

It’s taken nearly three years for Smith and his team to get to this point, and while he’d eventually like to try his hand at competitive barbecue, he also is cautious not to mess with his success thus far.

“We’d like to do Madison Ribberfest (a Kansas City Barbecue Society event),” he said. “They’ve asked us to come but we’re just not old enough yet. Eventually, we’d like to do the Indiana Barbecue Association competition … But with what we’re doing here – we’re so busy – we don’t need a pat on the back to say we serve good food.”

In August, Short Stop Food Mart began offering pulled pork seven days a week and also found an interesting partner, Bloomington Bagel Co., which also now sells its version of the sandwiches on challah bread. It also does catering.

They fire up the grills four to five days a week.

From a barbecue standpoint, Indiana is not Carolina. Nor is it Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia or – gasp – Kentucky. There are many pretenders here who don’t understand the difference between grilling and barbecuing. Smith and Short Stop Food Mart have more than good intentions.

“The Carolina and Texas folks have both given us thumbs up,” he said. “They’ll be in town with family, who’ll say they’ll take them to a barbecue joint in a gas station parking lot … They’ll walk up to me and say, ‘That’s worth it.’

“I went from doing real estate and engineering to retail and it’s been an interesting two and a half years – wonderfully painful.”

Short Stop Food Mart on Urbanspoon

An update:

What I like about Short Stop Barbecue is that they continue to focus on making the food product the best it can be and are willing to try new things. After hitting their stride with pork and chicken, today they introduced beef brisket to the menu.

The brisket here definitely is tailored to a health-conscious Bloomington, Indiana clientele. While some places will offer you the choice of fat or trimmed pieces, Short Stop presents a sandwich that is all beef, featuring a pronounced smoke ring and a gently seasoned rub.

It was tasty but still is a work in progress if they aspire to making something a Texan would gush about.

Judging from the crowd today, a lot of people are going to go through serious withdrawal symptoms when the Thursday BBQs end soon in October.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

It's True: 17th Street's Barbecue = Food + Family + Love

Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to Trent Cannon, our server; and Chris Williams, assistant manager, of 17th Street Bar & Grill in Marion, Ill. Two of the nicest people we’ve met in a while, who I hope won’t been too upset that it took me eight months to write this column.

Back in 2007, I took copious notes while watching a special on the Food Network, “Bon Appétit Picks the Best.” The television program had followed the magazine’s September 2007 issue, which named 17th Street Bar & Grill as having the best ribs in America.

Those notes became the start of a “bucket list” for barbecue for me.

Coming home from a long road trip on a rainy New Year’s Eve in 2010, my wife Donna and I pulled off I-57 in Marion, Ill., to fuel up and find a satisfying meal that didn’t come in a paper bag.

We don’t have a GPS in our car, but often we are navigated to surprisingly good food when we’re traveling. On this stormy night, we stumbled upon 17th Street Bar & Grill.

As owner Mike Mills (pictured here) himself noted in his 2005 book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue: Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales, and Outright Lies from the Legends of Barbecue, “Most people are a little confused when they learn Southern Illinois is a barbecue mecca.”

In 1985, Mills bought a bar in Murphysboro, Ill., which was locally known for its beverages, burgers and a little barbecue. Three years later, he and his friends formed the Apple City Barbecue Team and began competing in various competitions, both locally and internationally.

They placed third in their very first contest and have gone on to win hundreds of awards, including four times as World Champions and three times as overall Grand World Champions at the Memphis in May international event (Both are records).

Mills also was the 1992 Grand Champion of the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbecue Cooking Contest and he won the Jack Daniel’s Sauce Contest that year as well.

He learned barbecue from his father, who, before grills were invented, would dig a hole in the ground and place a metal grate over it. His grandmother developed the sauce used by his family, which also has won many awards. Mills’ own contribution to the family heritage is his dry rub recipe, a blend of 18 spices that he calls “Magic Dust.”

Today, Mills is world famous. He operates four locations of 17th Street Bar & Grill restaurants – including the one we would visit – as well as three Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas. He also is a partner in Blue Smoke restaurant in New York City.

His book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue, won the 2006 NBBQA Award of Excellence and was nominated for a 2006 James Beard Foundation award. It is a great read.

Jeffrey Steingarten, a leading food writer who many will recognize as a frequent and acerbic judge on “Iron Chef America,” helped to make Mills famous in the pages of Vogue and wrote the book’s introduction.

All of this was much more than we bargained for when we pulled off I-57 at exit 54B, a few miles away from the U.S. Penitentiary that has been home to Pete Rose, John Gotti, Manuel Noriega and many other notable inmates.

Shortly after being seated, my wife and I explained to our server, Trent Cannon, how we were returning from an extended vacation where we had visited many of the places already chronicled in this blog, including those in Lockhart, Texas. We explained how fortuitous it was for us find the place that reportedly served the best ribs in America.

From that point forward – likely out of respect for all of the places we’d been – Trent treated us like famed Road Food writers Jane and Michael Stern.

Donna wasn’t terribly hungry so we decided to share a large pulled pork dinner with extra sides. But could I sample their brisket, I asked. Trent was happy to comply and then waited for my “informed” opinion about it and the pulled pork.

The brisket was on par with what we’d had earlier in the day at Whole Hog Café in Little Rock, Ark. It was succulent and tender. The pulled pork was comparable to the best we’d had in Memphis.

As Mills notes in his book, the Marion version of his restaurant has a relaxed family atmosphere, despite being more upscale than the original bar location. While sometimes it is hard to replicate the quality of an original location, we have no reason to suspect that our meals could have been much better if we’d headed 20 more miles up the road that night to Murphysboro.

This also was obviously a point of great pride for assistant manager Chris Williams. Our server Trent had described us and our culinary quest to him. As we were wrapping up, he stopped by and said we couldn’t leave until we’d tried their pork ribs.

I’m glad that he was so insistent. The meat tenderly came off the bone one bite at a time and was well flavored. No sauce was needed.

Thank you, Trent and Chris, for giving me the confidence and encouragement to write this blog. Our conversation that night about food truly reached a higher level and you helped me to realize that my opinions about barbecue could be meaningful to others.

And thank you, kind reader, for continuing to follow on this journey.

Sadly, we don’t travel often through Southern Illinois, so I’ll ask you readers to give Trent and Chris another pat on the back on your next visit to 17th Street. We hope to see them again soon and perhaps meet “The Legend” when we do.

17th Street Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Word of mouth takes us to Jucy’s, Texas Bar-B-Q in Kentucky

According to a recent study from the University of Michigan, about $86 billion is spent each year on advertising in the United States. But often the best form of advertising is done by word of mouth.

During a recent visit to Mark’s Feed Store barbecue restaurant in Louisville (see my earlier review), we were enthusiastically steered by another customer to a place in nearby LaGrange, Ky., -- Big R’s Bar-B-Q.

Making our way there for dinner on July 4, we were disappointed to find Big R's closed while it moved to a new location.

Undaunted, we went to the nearest gas station to ask the locals for other recommendations. Go to another eight miles down the road to a place in PeWee Valley called Jucy’s, we were told.

We wouldn’t be disappointed, they said.

Our only regret is that we didn’t meet Tommy Hiltzman, also known as “The Jucy Man.” Jucy’s takeout menu and web site make a point of encouraging you to “step up and meet The Jucy Man himself.”

If we had, we would have thanked the Longview, Texas, native for making some of the best beef brisket that we’ve had since leaving the Lone Star State.

According to an employee and the company bio, Hiltzman, frustrated that he couldn’t find good brisket around Louisville, decided to open up his own place in 1994 with his wife Donna.

In August of 1996, they opened Jucy’s along a railroad line at 7626 LaGrange Road (also state road 146).

After you walk in the door, to your left will be something you don’t see as often in Indiana – a steam table with a short cafeteria line. Instead of sitting down and waiting for a waitress, customers wait in line and make their selections.

In addition to beef brisket, Jucy’s also serves pork ribs, pulled pork and chicken, smoked turkey breast and their honey ham. Jucy’s also sells smoked pork tenderloin by the pound. On Mondays, they serve all-you-can-eat ribs (but not on holidays like July 4).

My only complaint is that they weigh your meat on a scale right in front of you – which left me wanting more, particularly after the first bite.

The wood piles outside provide ample proof that your dinner is smoked on the premises. We were told that they smoke the meats slowly over hickory for hours – including beef brisket for 16 hours. The smoker is located, under lock and key, to the left of the main entrance and its pipe extends through the roof.

What we found was that Hiltzman achieved his objective. However, as we experienced in Texas, the beef was superior to the pork ribs, which we found to be somewhat dry and stringy.

However, we also are confident that we would find them even better on another night. Since returning to Bloomington, I’ve be told as much by a few people I trust who’ve also eaten at Jucy’s.

More good word-of-mouth advertising -- although next time we want to try Big R's.

Jucy's Smokehouse Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ken-Tex Bar-B-Q is still open, but the memories are better

I should have suspected that something was wrong when we pulled into the parking lot of a Ken-Tex Bar-B-Q in Shelbyville, Ky., and found it completely empty.

It was about 5 p.m. on a recent Sunday afternoon, but we reasoned that it was a beautiful, sunny day and that it was still a little early for dinner. The only other wheels in the lot were from an old chuckwagon.

We have been coming to Ken-Tex Bar-B-Q since the early 1990s, when Barry Bernson, a friend and Louisville TV news anchor, told me that it was better than anything he’d found in the Derby City.

On his recommendation, a workmate and I drove south on I-64 through a heavy thunderstorm to find this place started by a retired Texas state trooper who’d opened the place after having a vision from God.

We joked along the way, as the windshield wipers struggled to push away the raindrops, that perhaps our obituaries would later read, “He died for good barbecue.”

As the story goes, God -- or someone in a dream (more likely) -- told Ken-Tex’s founder to open a Texas-style barbecue restaurant in Kentucky. On our first visit, we found that the dining room featured a painting of the Lord blessing squad cars, as well as an impressive collection of police patches.

The barbecue was outstanding that night and wasn’t just limited to the basics. On this and several other visits, we enjoyed paying for all we could eat – beef and pork ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken and – if memory serves – mutton.

Ken-Tex also was one of the places where I celebrated with my father IU’s victory over the Duke Blue Devils in the 2002 NCAA Regionals at Lexington – when it seemed like everyone in Kentucky was a fan of the Hoosiers for one weekend.

Sadly, nearly all of that is in the past.

Barry Bernson still does the morning news and his “Bernson’s Corner” features are still worth watching. But the painting and police patches are gone and so is any reason to return to Ken-Tex.

The two teenagers who waited on us on a recent evening were nice but lacking for anything to do. No other customers stopped in during the hour that we were there. Our dinners both featured dried out meats, probably due to the hours they’d spent in a warmer.

As you can see in the photo, there was enough salt on our french fries that they sparkled. The beans were little better, having as much flavor as the cups they were served in.

I’m left wondering whether the founder of Ken-Tex has died, presumably gone to meet his maker, or perhaps sold the business. I can’t imagine that anyone would bless what they’re serving today.

It pains me to write this, my first truly negative review for Barbecued Adventures. However, memories will always remain. In my next entry I’ll reveal a place that perhaps has picked up Ken-Tex’s mantle, another barbecue joint in Kentucky started by a Texan.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Chicken Walks into a Bar

Many years ago, someone pointed out to me an article in the New York Times with the headline, “A Chicken Walks into a Bar,” written by the then relatively unknown Steven Raichlen. By now, many are familiar with the recipe that he popularized in his book, The Barbecue Bible.

For me, the article was a cultural touchstone. For many years, I had cooked my meat – be it chicken, beef or pork – horizontally on the grill. Now this simple, vertical technique always leads to a moist bird on the inside and crispy, seasoned skin on the outside.

The upright position of the bird renders off all of the fat, while the beer steams up through the inside and offers an interesting sight was well. It’s fun and it’s easy.

On a recent Sunday afternoon I made Beer Can Chicken for the first time on my new Weber grill. However, because the lid on the grill lacked the proper height, I found that I had to improvise.

Thankfully, I have a large garage and thus had held onto a Brinkman smoker that I hadn’t used in years (You know the type, it’s shaped like a large bullet).

Guess the lesson here is never throw away a grill that still has a little life left in it, even after you’ve pined after that new, super deluxe model that you saw while shopping for tools at Lowe’s.

Combining the smoker’s lid with the bottom on the Weber grill, the chicken cooked quickly. Prior to cooking, it had been rubbed with olive oil and the rub from Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas. A little Sticky Fingers Carolina Sweet sauce (made in Charleston, S.C.) was brushed on near the end to add another dimension.

Yuengling Traditional Lager, produced by America’s oldest brewery, served as the marinade. Abita Brewing Co.’s Purple Haze Raspberry Wheat Brew complemented the finished product as well as Donna’s delicious au gratin potatoes, first-of-the-season corn on the cob and a salad. Sunday night's dinner is pictured above.

There’s sometimes a question about what to do with the liver and giblets that have been stashed inside the chicken. I recommend placing them in some aluminum foil along with some olive oil and your favorite rub. It makes a nice appetizer for the person doing the cooking.

Personally, I think Raichlen’s recipe is a little too involved, but here is a link:

Go for the gusto.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Juke Jointin’ with Little Ed and the Blues Imperials

Editor's note: I saddened to report that Bushman's Brewhouse, the subject of this piece, closed on July 2. Thankfully, Little Ed and the Blues Imperials continue to rock on.

About a year ago, I first heard about an interesting place called Bushman's Brewhouse in rural Brown County, Ind. Located at a former country club several miles away from downtown Nashville, and definitely off the beaten track, this place is a revelation.

There’s no barbecue on the menu, but it does have one of the best pork tenderloin sandwiches around. With the re-appearance of the Gnaw Bone tenderloin – first made famous in Gourmet magazine – Brown County is certainly blessed when it comes to Indiana’s official state sandwich.

It also has an extensive beer list that runs the gamut from Pabst Blue Ribbon to Texas’ own Shiner Black, and regularly features the best in blues.

In other words, it’s the closest thing to a real juke joint here in southern Indiana. On Friday (2/18/11), it only seemed appropriate that the band was Little Ed and the Blues Imperials. One of the first Little Ed LPs I ever bought was “Chicken, Gravy & Biscuits.”

Admission charge: $5.

John Hall, proprietor of the Bushman Brewhouse, advised me that we should come early. The place would start filling up after 7 p.m., two hours before show time, he said. We made our way through the narrow and hilly roads of Brown County, passing through the tiny towns of Unionville, Trevlac and Helmsburg. Unless you had a map or knew where this place was, you’d never find it.

The definition of a juke joint is a “vernacular term for an informal establishment featuring music, dancing, and drinking, primarily operated by African American people in the southeastern United States.” It’s also called a “barrelhouse.”

Even though we’re up north, this is southern Indiana. Hall quickly made us and everyone else feel right at home. This is HIS place and it IS a juke joint.

In addition to running this place, Hall also has companies that make harmonicas and ukuleles, has a Frisbee golf course and stages a major blues festival in nearby Bean Blossom, Ind., at the site of Bill Monroe’s famous bluegrass festivals. You can find out more about his business empire at

Matthew Socey, host and producer of “The Blues House Party” on Indianapolis public radio station WFYI, introduced the band, but many of us already had met band members Little Ed Williams, Michael Garrett, James “Pookie” Young and Kelly Littleton, who were happy to mingle among us.

I could write in detail about the performance, but needless to say, if you weren’t there, you missed a heck of a show. After nearly 25 years, Little Ed remains an unquestioned showman with his slide guitar. His brother and bass player Pookie and drummer Kelly kept the beat and Mike is a great guitarist and someone you could have a beer with (Many did).

Let the good times roll.