The first thing that came to my mind about this year’s Super Bowl was last year’s Super Bowl — or, more precisely, the barbecue in last year’s host city of Dallas.
A number of the most fabled barbecue masters in Texas gathered in Big D to slow-smoke briskets, ribs and sausage. The event was dubbed the Super Bowl of Barbecue.
If you were a ’cue hound in Dallas that weekend and didn’t make it to the big barbecue event, you still had plenty of smoked meats to choose from in the city.
This year the host city is Indianapolis. What’s a ’cue fanatic to do?
One, forget barbecue and seek out one of the state’s staples, a sweet concoction known as Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie. Or buck up and go exploring for something that perhaps you didn’t realize existed there: actual barbecue.
I learned a little about Indiana’s surprising barbecue history when visiting my sister and her family a few years ago in Muncie. Driving idly down a winding road, I came across a ramshackle building on the outskirts of town. Red letters on a yellow sign read, “Q.L.’s.” Next to it was another yellow sign with its red letters spelling out “Bar-B-Q.”
It was a drive-thru. After barking into a broken-down squawk box and picking up my order at the small take-out window, I sat in my car in the gravel parking lot and experienced good and honest barbecue in a place that looked and felt, for all the world, like the rural South but was somewhere in Indiana. The toothsome quality of the lightly charred ribs was complemented by a tangy red sauce, and the pulled pork was so good I stared at it.
Nearly 40 years ago, the owner, a Kentucky native named Q.L. Stevens, hand-built the restaurant from cinder blocks, adding a few each weekend when he got his paycheck from the General Motors plant where he worked. Stevens died last summer at 83.
The good news is that Q.L.’s will continue to operate. The bad news is you can’t go there right now. The building is closed for — and I hate to have to type this word — renovations.
There is a deep charm in Q.L.’s decrepitude, its peeling facade set back from a river, less a barbecue place than the idealized image of a barbecue place. Hidden like a secret.
Damnation, thy name is renovation!
Ah, but, they’re right to do what they’re doing. I want to preserve it as my little found-art, but the fact is, it’s a grease fire away from catastrophe. I hope to go there once it’s up and running again.
Until then, I hear there is good barbecue in Indianapolis itself. I haven’t been, so I don’t know. But in his book, “ Reid Duffy’s Guide to Indiana’s Favorite Restaurants,” Duffy, an Indianapolis TV personality, clues visitors into several joints. There’s Bar-B-Que Heaven, a pair of carryouts that grill rib tips, pork shoulder, pig’s feet and even bologna over hickory and fruit woods. Then there’s the chain of four drive-thru joints called King Ribs, where the spare ribs, rib tips and chicken are charcoal- and wood-grilled. And Pa & Ma’s Barbecue, which dates back to 1940, cooks its meat over charcoal and serves it with what Duffy calls “uncompromisingly spicy hot barbecue sauce.”
Indianapolis might not be Dallas and the city may not host a Super Bowl of Barbecue, but it just might be good enough to sate a ’cue-hound’s appetite. Oh, and don’t forget the slice of Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie for dessert.
If you check out any barbecue in and around Indianapolis, I’d love to know what you think. Tell me your impressions in the comments section.
Hometown ’cue: Can’t be in Indy for the game? Call around to your favorite local barbecue restaurant. Many are running Super Bowl specials.
As always, send opinions, tips and news to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter @jimshahin.