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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