I caught a whiff of a wood-stoked fire walking into the back entrance of Shigs in Pit on Fairfield Avenue the other day. It was just enough to whet my appetite for what I would find inside.
I took along my friend Drew for lunch, because he knows a lot about barbecue. He likes to cook ribs, especially, and he likes to eat them, too.
I had high expectations for the restaurant with the screwy name. Shigs in Pit started out as a competitive barbecue team from Fort Wayne. The team — Todd Grantham, Jeff Neels and Stefan Kelley — competed in the 21st annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in 2008 and 2009 in Lynchburg, Tenn. They finished 15th in 2008 and 43rd in 2009.
Grantham and Neels own Mad Anthony Brewing Co., along with Blaine Stuckey. The three opened the Shigs in Pit restaurant in March.
I drive by the unassuming eatery on Fairfield almost every day. It's just south of where Fairfield intersects with Taylor Street. In fact, Shigs has off-street parking off Taylor Street. If you park back there you can see the stovepipes from the smoker, otherwise hidden by a privacy fence.
It's as unassuming on the inside as it is on the outside. You order at a counter and your name is called when your food is ready. You take it to a table covered in a red-and-white vinyl tablecloth with a roll of paper towels on it for napkins. Lively music plays over the speakers. You bus your own table. It's all very home style.
The day we were there, several women were sitting at a table playing cards.
Menu choices include traditional and “slightly” gourmet barbecue sandwiches, barbecue dinner plates and homemade side dishes. And ribs, of course.
We sampled three meats: chopped chicken, ribs and beef brisket. We also ordered a selection of sides: green chile mac and cheese; corn spoon bread; southern green beans; potato casserole; and tomato and cucumber salad.
I'm not a huge meat eater, so I went with the chopped chicken. It had a nice smoky flavor and had the texture, almost, of shredded chicken with a few larger chunks. It was moist and tender.
The southern green beans were flavored with bits of meat — brisket, I'm guessing. The corn spoon bread was a very sweet cornbread with corn kernels mixed in. And the green chile mac and cheese was rich and creamy. The addition of green chiles spiced it up, but it was not overly hot.
It never fails; whatever somebody else orders always seems to taste better than what I choose. Drew ordered a classic — tomato-cucumber salad, which also had a few onions thrown into the vinegary base. The coolness of that salad was a nice, light contrast to the smoky meats. The cheesy potato casserole also was a winner, topped with crunched up cornflakes.
The sides were like something you'd expect to eat at a family reunion.
Drew, who has been to Shigs before, said the only side dish he didn't like was the apple pie baked beans, which actually have pieces of apple pie mixed in. We didn't try it, so I'll have to take his word for it.
Moving on to Drew's meat choices: The dry-rub ribs passed his stringent requirements. He showed me the telltale smoke ring around the edge of the meat, indicating the flavor had been smoked in. The ribs also weren't falling off the bone, which he said is the way ribs are supposed to be. (He's taken culinary classes at Ivy Tech.)
The ribs are served dry at Shigs, but three kinds of barbecue sauce are at each table if you want to splash on more flavor: mild, tangy and hot.
Drew's ribs looked fatty to me, and yes, he confirmed they were, but said that only added to the flavor.
The brisket was sliced very thin, and like the chicken was moist and tender with lots of smoky flavor seared into the meat.
After driving by Shigs in Pit for months, I'm glad I finally gave the eatery a try. I plan to stop back, maybe for takeout. I'm so glad they have the ribs and beef my husband will like, and the chopped chicken for me.
And next time, I'll know which sides I want to get.
Every other Tuesday, Cindy Larson describes a one-time dining experience at an area restaurant. The News-Sentinel pays for meals. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel. You can reach her at 461-8284 or email@example.com. To read other columns, go to http://www.news-sentinel.com/section/LARSON.