Sunday, September 18, 2011
City Barbeque makes it with a “Q,” which also stands for quality
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.