Dining Out

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  • Chicken offerings, desserts make date
    When a co-worker hit me up to find a place to meet a date for dinner in Columbia City, I started rolling through my mind’s Rolodex and threw out a few names.
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    Being forced to close the doors for several weeks while also being forced to find a new location would be more than enough to doom many small restaurants.

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Blue Stack Smokehouse
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Brisket ’n’ ribs smokin’

Blue Stack Smokehouse owner David McLaughlin didn’t hesitate when I asked him what style of barbecue he serves.

“It’s making-it-in-my-garage-and-hanging-out-with-my-friends-and-drinking-beer style,” he said.

McLaughlin always thought that someday he would be doing something in the culinary field but never knew it would be barbecue. With a stockpile of home-cooking family recipes dating back generations and an old-school cast-iron skillet that has been handed down just as many generations, he has always dabbled.

But when the former diesel mechanic was laid off from Navistar, the time was right and necessary to open Blue Stack Smokehouse in a funky little building on North Clinton Street near the Coldwater Road split that, decades ago, was home to an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips.

“I have grilled for as long as I could stand I think, but I got a smoker eight years ago and that is how the hobby started,” McLaughlin said.

His hobby-turned-business features brisket, chicken, ribs, pulled pork and sausage smoked over cherry wood.

Although McLaughlin said his sausages are his proudest creation, the brisket and ribs were the stars at Blue Stack.

The brisket had a heavy smoke ring and the slightly sweet rub, which is used on all of the meats, caramelized beautifully for a tasty bark. The fat on this super moist beef literally melted in my mouth, making this brisket easily the best I have had in Fort Wayne. I needed very little sauce – Blue Stack offers two varieties, sweet and spicy, that are made in-house – with it or the ribs as both were great on their own.

The ribs also had a heavy smoke penetration and flavor, the tender meat pulled from the bone cleanly, but it still had a little chew to it. The full rack at just $17.50 is plenty for two, and the half rack is a steal at just $10. All of Blue Stack’s prices were more than competitive.

McLaughlin makes two sausages – sweet or spicy – by hand with freshly ground pork from Pio Market. The spicy was fabulous with just a hint of sweetness, but plenty of heat.

“I worked three months on that recipe and ate a lot – a lot – of sausage,” McLaughlin said.

Another interesting item incorporated sausages, but these were maple breakfast links. The Poppers were jalapeno peppers stuffed with cream cheese and pieces of the sausage. The pepper was wrapped in bacon and put on the smoker. They were a little greasy – par for the course with the bacon wrapping – but also sweet, spicy, cheesy, smoky and addictive.

The other side items were also favorable, with the baked beans being the best of the lot. These barbecued beans were chock full of bits of leftover brisket ends that packed a smoky, blackened punch of flavor. The macaroni salad and potato salad were simple with a sweet, creamy dressing, but still tasty. The macaroni and cheese, along with the green beans, were rather standard.

During my second visit, Blue Stack was out of ribs. As is standard practice in the world of smokers, McLaughlin makes what he can sell and no more. On a slow day, he will have everything all day, but on a busy one he may run out of popular items.

So I opted for pulled pork and chicken, and neither was as impressive as the ribs and brisket, but still enjoyable. The pork had a nice textural contrast with little crispy rub-coated exterior pieces mixed in with the rest of the moist, tender shredded meat. The skin on the chicken was also crispy and flavored well with the rub, but its meat and the pulled pork had little smoke flavor. As a result, I used more sauce than I normally would.

I would have liked to have had more variety of sauces, too. Although both of McLaughlin’s were tasty (especially when mixed), a vinegar-based or perhaps a fruit-infused sauce would have made the pork and chicken more interesting.

A new menu addition that will make Blue Stack more interesting is dessert. McLaughlin is now offering Audrey’s Pumpkin and Gourmet Cake Rolls. The rolls, a one-time staple at the Three Rivers Festival, can be found at festivals all over the state. I have had more than my share over the years, starting when I worked near Mansfield in Parke County where they originated. They were not on the menu when I visited, but it won’t be long before I carry a few out.

Blue Stack Smokehouse is mostly a carry-out place and is more function than form, but it does have a few tables for dining in. Drinks are offered in cans and bottles from a cooler, and the food is served on paper plates. Also, be careful if you dine in as some of the seats were too frail for me to dare try.

The service was fantastic. Everything came out fast, and McLaughlin was a strong presence who really seemed to enjoy talking to all of his customers. He clearly loves talking about his food, asked how everyone liked each dish and wanted to know whether they had any suggestions for improving the place.

He is also making an effort to serve those with food allergies. He stopped using wood from nut trees when he learned a small percentage of people with allergies might be affected and has investigated gluten sensitivity to ensure his meats are safe for those folks as well.

It is that kind of attention to detail that makes Blue Stack Smokehouse a place I would strongly suggest. But who am I kidding? Even if McLaughlin wasn’t so detailed, I would still suggest it simply because of those ribs and brisket.

Restaurant: Blue Stack Smokehouse

Address: 3620 N. Clinton St.

Phone: 755-6328

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Brisket ($5 meat only; $6.50 with one side; $7.50 with two sides), ribs (Full rack, $17.50, $19, $20; half, $10, $11.50, $12.50), pulled pork ($4.50, $6, $7), chicken ($5, $6.50, $7.50), sausage ($4, $5.50, $6.50), Poppers ($2 for three; $7 for 12)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.