Beyond the gimmick, Famous Dave’s delivers unexpected barbecue delights
Anytime I step inside a chain restaurant, especially one with outlets in upwards of 37 states, I take two basic questions with me. First, does the place offer something not available at a local restaurant, either a variety of dishes you can’t get anywhere else or a quality superior to the independents? Second, does the corporate shtick — the décor, the soundtrack, the wait staff’s spiel — get in the way of enjoying a good meal?
Those two issues were on my mind when I dropped by the new Famous Dave’s Barbecue off Michigan Road last week. Given just how many Famous Dave’s there are — 21 in Minnesota alone and four planned for Puerto Rico — we’re actually pretty late getting one here in Indy. So much for our primacy among the great chain cities! But Famous Dave’s has had a fairly meteoric rise in the 13 years since Chicago-born founder Dave Anderson opened his first barbecue shack in Hayward, Minn., in 1994. The way the story goes, Anderson spent nearly 25 years searching out the best barbecue styles, sauces and techniques all around the country before he finally decided to open his own place.
As such, Famous Dave’s has a sort of blurred, pan-Southern feel to it that spans from Texas to the Carolinas. In terms of atmosphere, the gimmick is set to high tilt. Hardly an inch of wall space isn’t covered with another vintage sign or bit of rustic mid-century bric-a-brac bent on adding authenticity: filling station fixtures, paper towel rolls anchored by galvanized pipe. But is this place supposed to be San Antonio or Savannah? Strands of globe lanterns strung above the main dining room evoke a Low Country festival, but all the hard surfaces — wood-paneled walls, concrete floors — magnify the chatter to cacophony. Ducking into the bar, we found it surprisingly more amenable to dinner conversation.
In terms of food, the pastiche approach means diners can get the best of America’s barbecue traditions, and not too much seems watered down. The menu is definitely more varied than at most local joints. Among those things you won’t get elsewhere, an appetizer of smoked salmon spread ($5.99), flaked salmon in cream cheese served on grilled flatbread (Texas pita?), proved a tasty alternative to typical fried options.
Though only four days into the job, our amicable waiter did a good job of negotiating between the required script and extemporaneous suggestions. At one point, he brought over some fries and took us on a “tour” of sauces, pointing out nuances of the Devil’s Spit (smoky hot, but not too bracing), Sweet & Zesty (too sweet, but popular with kids) and Georgia Mustard (the tangiest, excellent on chicken). Otherwise, he let us form our own impressions.
Of course, when the words “famous” and “barbecue” get together, nothing really matters except the meat. And meat here matters. Ribs are especially tender but with a bit of chewy character and not too much of Famous Dave’s “Rich & Sassy” sauce. Country roasted chicken is wonderfully juicy, with crisp skin and meat that really does come clean off the bone. Nothing, however, was as interesting or succulent as the hot link, a generous, rough-cut sausage more like shredded smoked pork in link form. No mystery meat here!
Cut thicker than you’d expect, beef brisket was particularly lean and juicy, with saucing left up to the diner’s discretion. Most meat combos run around $12.99. Even without additional sauce, this food packed more aggressive flavors than any chain food we’d eaten in a long time. Unfortunately, they were out of the Georgia chopped pork. But when it takes nine hours to perfect a dish, well, sometimes you just hope it’s there the next time.
For sides, those fries, cut like home fries, were best hot and wore plenty of salt. They were great in the mustard sauce. Potato salad had a fresh quality to it, with big chunks of celery. Smoky “Wilbur” beans were also quite good, with bits of chopped pork. Coleslaw, however, swam in an overly sweet dressing the waiter said contained pineapple. Corn muffins were also one step from dessert.
Though we could hardly bare the thought, so stuffed we were, our waiter convinced us we needed the prize-winning bread pudding ($5.29). A pecan praline sauce on top was luscious, but the pudding itself was a mushy, baby-food soft concoction with little substance. It may have won a prize somewhere, but it didn’t win us over nearly as much as all of those slow-smoked, tender meats.
3645 Vincennes Road
Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
Service: 3.5 stars
Handicapped accessible and nonsmoking
Smoked salmon spread, ribs, brisket, hot links