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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


  1. George V. is spot-on with this review. Gave this early-birder gathering spot two tries; we were revolted each time: Not by the mundane sauce, nor the dried-out bird, both of which were worthy of a turn toward the doors, but rather by the paste-like, compost-ready cornbread salad and other Sysco-supplied "food" stuffs. Bloomington deserves better, and it's at the Short Stop. We thought East Texas would be the only place where a gas station guaranteed good bbq, but it's the head-to spot in B'town.

  2. I have to agree with this blog wholeheartedly. I am a non-traditional student who just graduated from IU. I lived there for four years and sadly gave Smokin' Jack's three attempts while in Bloomington. I was so disappointed every time!!! I LOVE good BBQ and this was far from it. The worst BBQ joint I have been to, and I have been to a lot. I used to travel the country for work and would always try to find a local BBQ joint. I have to say again, this was the worst...

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