When a friend told me I must try the breaded tenderloin at Red Rok BBQ & Bourbon Saloon, I teased her, because if the tenderloin was the best thing, it didn’t say much about the barbecue.
But she was right, and I will tease no more.
The thick slab of pork at this relatively new spot along Columbia Street West downtown was fantastic. Coated in coarse Asian-style breadcrumbs with some Cajun seasoning and a heavy dose of parsley mixed in, it had a dotted appearance and unique flavor. Inside the breading, the meat was juicy and tender.
It was the best thing on the menu. But I was right that it didn’t say much for the barbecue.
Red Rok is one of the sharpest-looking new places to open in Fort Wayne. It has that perfect rustic roadhouse feel with just the right amount of flair to be interesting but not obtrusive. It looks like a chain – in a good way. The only hitch is that nearly all of the seats are barstools, which may be an issue for some.
The first smoked item I tried was the best smoked item there – the pulled pork, which I had as part of the BBQ Nachos appetizer. The stringy, juicy pork was joined by jalapenos, tomatoes, green onions, lettuce, jack cheese, sour cream atop tortilla chips, and I had my choice of Red Rok’s three house-made sauces to add to it.
I ordered them with sweet sauce, but there were bottles of each of the sauces – also a vinegar-based with a little spice and a yellow mustard-based – on the table to add if I wished. All were unique and enjoyable, especially the mustard one, which had a real kick that woke up the palate. I had fun using all three sauces on the nachos, which had a lot of that delicious pulled pork and just the right amount of the other ingredients.
During my second, visit, however, the sauces were different. I had two red bottles on the table and a sort of light orange one. I asked my server what happened to the mustard sauce and she pointed to the orange bottle. The orange sauce didn’t have the same mustard kick and was sweet. When I asked the server why it changed, she said the sauces probably got mixed up when they were refilled, which, she added, happens all of the time. She then said I could walk around and look for a more yellow bottle if I wanted.
I thought she should have found the sauce for me, but I fetched the most yellow bottle I could find and that sauce did have the right flavor. The sauce in the two red bottles on my table also tasted much different than the first visit, too. One tasted like ketchup.
Manager Chris Wilson stopped by my table and I asked him about the sauce issues. He echoed the server’s explanation that the sauces get mixed up all of the time. This should not happen at a barbecue place that prides itself on its sauces.
Even the unmixed sauces were not enough to get high marks for the other barbecued dishes, however.
The brisket, St. Louis ribs and rib tips looked the part and had the right texture with a nice bark on the outside. The ribs pulled from the bone nicely and the smoke flavor was there in all of the meat, but it all lacked something just as important as the smoke and sauce – seasoning.
I literally licked the bark and could not detect any salt or spices. No amount of sauce could hide their blandness. The tips and brisket were affected the most. They had a nice char on them, which I usually like, but without the proper seasoning they just tasted burnt. The ribs were least affected, and I would give them a go again.
I was eager to try the homemade sausage but never got the chance, because the restaurant was out of it each time I visited. I also could not get smoked chicken wings one night but was finally able to try them during my last visit.
The wait was worth it, because the wings were great. They were crisp outside, juicy inside and had the right amount of smoke flavor. I had half of mine with barbecue sauce and half with Buffalo and liked both, but I wondered how good they might have been with that mustard sauce on them.
As good as the tenderloin was, the other two nonsmoked items I tried did not impress. The Red Rok Porterhouse steak was a hefty chunk of angus beef, and it had plenty of seasoning – too much, actually, as it was very salty. It also looked kind of gray and drab. It was pretty mediocre and not nearly worth the $24 price.
The patty on the Bourbon Burger was OK, but it really got its only flavor from the sweet bourbon glaze, which worked well with the Swiss cheese, sautéed onions and bacon.
All of the sides at Red Rok were worth having again. The cream of the crop was the Fried Mac & Cheese. Macaroni and cheese kicked up with red pepper flakes was formed into balls, coated in Asian breadcrumbs and deep fried. They were crunchy nuggets with gooey, cheesy centers, and I would get them every time I went there.
To call the baked beans pork-laden would be an understatement. There was about two-thirds smoked pork to one third beans, which were gooey and sweet with a nice barbecue flavor. I can’t believe I am saying it, but there was probably too much pork in these beans, because it just became pork overload when paired with a barbecue entrée.
The potato salad was packed with herbs and rather savory, which was a nice break from the sweet barbecue. The Drunk ’In Apples were like dessert with bourbon-soaked cooked apples that were delectable, especially when smashed up like applesauce.
You might want to order those apples, too, because Red Rok was out of nearly all desserts during both of my visits.
The service did not match the stunning décor at Red Rok. The staff seemed pretty amateurish. When I asked one server what the house specialty was – expecting her to tell me brisket or one of the styles ribs – she gave me a puzzled look and responded, “Ummm, barbecue.”
I was also surprised the bourbons were never pushed on me or even presented by way of a menu. When I inquired what the best bourbons were or if any were being featured, I was again met by puzzling looks. Seems that a place calling itself a bourbon saloon would be able to do more.
Address: 123 W. Columbia St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Not really, nearly all tables all too tall for those using wheelchairs
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Nachos ($8), wings ($8 for 8; $14 for 16), burger ($10), tenderloin ($9), brisket ($12), ribs ($22 full slab; $14 half)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 0 (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).