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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

From the backyard to one of Indy's best barbecue joints -- Judge's

Judge Smith at one of his 10 Weber grills
Walking into many barbecue joints, you might ask yourself, “Could I ever do this?” Well, Judge Smith, namesake of Judge’s Tip ofthe Rib Bar-B-Que, is one of us.

Smith grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, in Ofahoma, today an unincorporated area located along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Leake County. While raised on the food of his mother and the barbecue of many friends, it was not until he was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Purdue University, that he began to hone his craft.

“I didn’t barbecue at all while I was down South,” Smith acknowledged. “When I left Mississippi, I was only 21 and just out of school and cooking wasn’t the big thing.” 

That's not to say that he didn't like cooking, but he did not take it up seriously until years later after he reached Purdue, based in West Lafayette, Ind. (Smith also is a graduate of JacksonState University in Mississippi.)

“There was this radio station, WBBM in Chicago, and it had a program, ‘Meet the Cook,’ and one day, they described the barbecue sauce – a basic sauce – and I wrote it down,” he said, adding that he later wrote the station for the recipe.

Ribs from the buffet.
“That was the beginning of the barbecue sauce that I have now,” Smith continued, “It didn’t start out that way, but it evolved over a period of years until I got it to the point where I liked it and almost everyone else who had it liked it. That was the forerunner of my cooking barbecue.”

Like a lot of other Hoosiers at that time, Smith first had to learn the difference between grilling and making barbecue.

“I discovered that a lot of barbecue is cooked too fast, on an open flame and it had a tendency to get tough. So I said I needed to figure out a way to cook it where it would be nice and tender, without putting it in a crock pot,” he recalled.

He continued to be a regular listener of the radio show on WBBM, picked up tips from other sources and worked hard to find out “what works.”

Smith began to experiment with the same Weber grills that many backyard cooks use today. Initially, he found the round-chambered grills to be somewhat unattractive, but later realized that their unique design could be used to a cook’s advantage – and in his case to make good barbecue through indirect heating.

“The way I discovered them, they were in the Army PX, on sale for half price,” he said. “I said I couldn’t beat the deal. That’s how I got hooked up with Weber.”

Today, Weber grills are at the heart of his operation, which opened at its current location at 2104 W. Michigan St. in 2004. He also had a stand at the Indianapolis City Market from 2002 to 2007. His first grill was an enormous Weber Ranger Kettle – described by some as “part grill, part wheelbarrow.”

Judge's offers a nice selection of freshly prepared sides.
Today, he uses 10 Weber Ranch Kettles -- the largest grill the company makes, with a total cooking area of 1,104 square inches. During the warm months, he may smoke more than 2,000 pounds of barbecue pork, using only 35 extra-large bags of charcoal in converted shipping create behind the building. Special racks inside of the commercial-grade Weber grills keep the charcoal burning efficiently.

In addition to charcoal, Smith uses hickory wood to provide flavor.

While he said that his barbecue knowledge not the result of a passed-down family tradition, he believes today “it’s a close to it as I could get.”

After completing his training at Purdue, Smith was stationed in Virginia, South Korea, Germany and then back in Indianapolis, before retiring from the Army in 1991. Everywhere along the way, he picked up new ideas. “For a good 10 to 12 years, I was cooking and testing and getting feedback from people,” he explained.

Located in a historic 100-year-old building in Haughville, a working-class neighborhood west of downtown Indianapolis, Judge’s is a welcoming establishment. It has to be the first barbecue restaurant I’ve found to also feature a smoothie bar. You need to come here between Monday and Friday, because it is closed on the weekends.

Owned with his wife, Sandy, the restaurant has received a number of local accolades, including being on WRTV’s “A-List,” and has been profiled in Indianapolis Monthly, the Indianapolis Business Journal and Dine magazine. Colts coaches Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell have been here, as well as Indiana politicians Bart Peterson and Mitch Daniels.

A smoke ring and good bite marks attest to the quality
Every day during the work week, Judge puts out a barbecue buffet spread that has to be unrivaled in Indianapolis. It features succulent pork spare ribs, moist pulled pork and chicken and rib tips. A simple but effective salt-and-pepper rub was used on the ribs. They complement the meats with three difference versions of their vinegar-based sauce, varying in heat level.

The baked beans also were smoky, seasoned by the pork. Their macaroni and cheese was notable because it really is macaroni and actual cheese (no Velveeta could be detected). Also on the buffet were candied yams, a creamy cornbread pudding, collard greens and a coleslaw liked very much by my picky spouse.

Their menu also features chicken wings, a BBQ meatloaf, a rib eye steak sandwich, burgers, salmon and smoked turkey.

While Judge’s Tip of the Rib is located away from downtown, it is worth the brief trip west, where Smith believes things are coming around. At one time, a former Link-Belt factory buzzed with activity. But up the street from his place are a new gas station, convenience store, computer shop and an apartment complex to help homeless veterans. There is a library across the street.

“The community is trying to improve beyond what it was, what it had been the past 20 to 30 years,” observed Smith, himself a believer in pursuing a dream. 

Location we visited:
Judge’s Tip of the Rib Bar-B-Que
2104 W. Michigan St.
Indianapolis, IN

Judge's Tip of the Rib BBQ on Urbanspoon

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