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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