Since recently deciding to divide my time equally between Indianapolis and Kansas City, I have found that my life has become, gastronomically speaking, twice as rich and, financially speaking, about twice as poor.
With the smell of wood smoke on every other street corner and with dozens of rib houses listed in the yellow pages, Kansas City is a Mecca for the lover of all things charred. This is my kind of town. Regular readers of this page will know that I’m a huge fan of anything cooked over an open flame, so for the time being at least, this part of my life is being pretty well catered to.
Just give me a comfortable chair, a bottle of chilled rosé and a copy of the inestimable The Thrill of the Grill by messrs Willoughby and Schlesinger, and I’m about as close to hog heaven as one is likely to get in this life. There’s something about the simplicity of throwing a hunk of meat onto a flaming grill that brings out the primitive in all of us, and yet this form of cooking, when practiced with skill and imagination, can be as rewarding as just about any style of cuisine you might care to mention. It’s just different, that’s all.
Over the brief span of this nation’s culinary history, many fascinating regional styles of barbecue have sprung up and established themselves as definitive. Each evokes a picture in the mind’s eye: Eastern North Carolina, Texas, Memphis, St. Louis and the aforementioned KC; these are but a few of the stars in the gastronomic firmament that is American barbecue. Every style has its loyal adherents: Some will argue for dry rubs, others for lengthy marinades. Some will insist on serving meat dry with sauce on the side, and others for constant basting. Every loyalist has his or her secret sauce and that sauce has its own secret ingredient. Barbecue is fraught with about as much opinion and contention as pro hockey, and I’m sure there’s been more than one fight in the wee small hours as to whose hot sauce is the best.
In spite of all the wonderful regional variations that contribute to both the preparation of meat and to its saucing, Indiana has yet to really develop a style of its own. There is no tradition of barbecue here, which is a bit puzzling, really, when you consider just how much meat is eaten in these parts. Everyone owns a grill, for sure, but there is no such thing as Indianapolis barbecue. The words carry no meaning.
Of course, there can be no doubt that there are some great BBQ joints out there, many of which are little hole in the walls, and the relatively recent additions of Smokey Joe’s and Alexander’s in the nether reaches of the metro area are certainly most welcome. These are all one-off affairs, however, and produce food in eclectic and wide-ranging styles that have their origins elsewhere.
And so, to further perpetuate Indy’s sad isolation from the stars of Pro Barbecue, along comes a chain that seems to be expanding (to keep up the stellar analogy) at the rate of a supernova across this vast nation. Smokey Bones BBQ, if I read the bio material correctly, had its origins in Illinois in the ’70s, and owes much of its success to its use of the Southern Pride smoker, a machine that has pretty well become the industry standard over the past few years. With a reputation for consistency, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to turn out excellent quality ribs and other meats in a reliable fashion using Southern Pride technology.
With two locations in town, and more on the way, there can be little doubt that Smokey Bones will soon set the tone for barbecue for the majority of diners in the Indianapolis metro area. After all, who can compete with a presence like that? Resembling a large log cabin both inside and out, the mountain lodge motif is effective and rather well-done. Tiled floors and an open fire contribute to the effect. With a large island bar and plenty of seating, there’s room for the masses, but don’t let the space deceive you: There’s still a lengthy wait at weekends.
On our first visit to Smokey Bones, my friend Amy-Lynn and I failed to notice that the place advertises itself as a sports bar, so were a little taken aback when the server brought a little black box with buttons on it to our table. We were informed that this played the sound from over 10 channels of sports that were playing on TV screens around the room. For a few moments we twiddled the buttons in a confused manner, before realizing that we couldn’t see any televisions without standing on our seats. Deciding, anyway, that we had little interest in 10 channels of NFL action, we gave the box back to the server. On an encouraging note, however, if you do have either sports nuts or small children with limited attention spans in your party, this could be a great way to keep them occupied for the duration of your meal.
Smokey Bones offers two styles of ribs, which form the pivot around which most of the menu hinges: the “award-winning baby-backs” and “Smoked St. Louis Style.” These are available in all kinds of combinations with each other, with pulled pork, with BBQ chicken, with brisket, in “the ultimate combination” and in other ways too numerous to mention. The baby-backs, served with a slightly sweet house sauce, are juicy and tender, and were our favorites on two occasions. Generally, I prefer the meatier spare ribs that constitute the St. Louis style, but these were a little dried out, probably because they are less popular (but also $14.99 for a rack as opposed to $16.99 for the baby-backs).
Side dishes are really quite good: The BBQ beans are laced with a generous amount of pulled pork and the coleslaw is rich and creamy. With around 80 dishes on the menu, there’s certainly something for everyone.
All the meats we tried (including an excellent brisket platter for $8.99) were correctly cooked without being excessively smoky. In fact, anyone who is reluctant to eat here because of either the name or the promise of smoky food need not worry: Flavors are nicely controlled and carry only a slight hickory note.
Smokey Bones is also geared up to cater to parties of just about any size, with its “office pack” feeding 30 people for $225, or its “feast for 100” at a modest $625. If the meals I’ve eaten there are anything to go by, I’m sure the food will be of a consistent and reliable quality. In addition, the restaurant offers a reasonable selection of beers on tap and by the bottle. The wine list is average.
Although Smokey Bones might lack serious regional identity in its cooking (not a bad thing, when you consider it’s a chain), I have to concede that the quality is really quite decent. In the otherwise total absence of edible barbecue in Castleton, you should probably give it a try.
Hear Neil Charles each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.