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Shigs in Pit
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five
$$

Barbecue team opens a winner

It was the elephant in the room, or in this case maybe it would be better to call it the giant hog in the room, during my first visits to Shigs in Pit, Fort Wayne’s newest barbecue joint.

This place on Fairfield Avenue just south of Taylor Street was opened by the Shigs in Pit competition barbecue team from Mad Anthony Brewing Co. But there was nary a brew available. How the folks decided to open a restaurant and not have the proper license to offer beer is odd, for one, but was more disappointing. It would have been great to have some of those Mad Anthony brews to go with the tasty offerings I found there.

It’s a little hard to spot among the strip of stores on the west side of Fairfield, but you can probably find Shigs by following the intoxicating smells coming from it. It is snazzy inside with barbecue paraphernalia and competition T-shirts dotting the mustard and brick walls, and many trophies the team has won over the years spread throughout. Also be sure to check out the stuffed hog at the back entrance.

I stared forever at the chalkboard menu trying to make sure I didn’t forget anything, given that it’s a pay-as-you-order place. And even though you fetch your own food and fill your own drinks, I was checked on a few times by the folks working there, all of whom were friendly.

The best way to sample and share a bunch of smoked meat was through the Big “Shig” Platter, which included six ribs along with three other meats and garlic toast. The menu had combos to fit about any appetite, too, including one- and two-meat platters, a rib and meat plate and “Shiglets” offerings for children.

I chose the brisket, ribs and jalapeno-cheddar sausage.

The ribs were fantastic, with just the right amount of smoke and peppery rub, and they were just tender enough. And, as a bonus, I somehow received one extra rib in my sampler. The snappy sausage was huge and had plenty of pepper zip, and I liked it best with Shigs’ “tangy” vinegar-based sauce. The three sauces – including spicy and sweet mild – are in bottles on each table and not applied during cooking.

The brisket was sliced way too thin and way too early, as it dried out significantly in whatever holding unit it was kept in. It was too bad, too, because it had a nice smoke flavor and would have been great had it been moist. The burnt brisket ends, which were cut into large hunks and had a great layer of charred bark, were pretty much perfect – smoky, juicy and delicious.

The pit ham and turkey breast were also sliced way too thin for me. A thick chunk of either just seems better and doesn’t make me feel like I am eating lunch meat. The turkey was OK with a salty rub around the ends and nice dose of smoke, but the ham was so salty, I struggled to even eat it.

The best thing I had at Shigs was the Big “Shig” Pig sandwich. A thick slab of smoked bologna, a smear of pimento cheese and pile of pulled pork was topped with Shigs’ crunchy coleslaw. The bologna – one of my favorite smoked delicacies – melted in your mouth; the house-prepared cheese was a great touch, and the slaw, which was julienne-cut and not overly runny or sweet, brought it all home. I didn’t even need to add sauce.

I have a theory that one should ignore the sides at barbecue places because they are never as good as the meats, so why waste the space? But Shigs in Pit truly challenged this theory, because the sides were numerous and a few were must-haves.

The green chile macaroni and cheese was creamy, buttery, rich and just fantastic. The chiles added a punch of freshness and heat, but not too much to keep the 1-year-old who joined me one night from devouring it.

The corn spoon bread was a close second. I would best describe it as bread pudding – custardy and rich – made with cornbread and bits of fresh corn. The apple pie baked beans sounded too good not to try and they, too, were worth having again. These barbecued beans had bits of bacon, apple and, oddly, potato mixed in them.

I was disappointed that the only desserts offered during one visit were shrink-wrapped cookies and brownies next to the register, so I passed. During my second visit, there was banana pudding, which was pretty standard with vanilla wafer cookies, pudding and, of course, sliced bananas.

And in addition to my questions about the lack of beer, the other drink-related issue I had with Shigs in Pit was that there was no sweet tea – which many would consider a barbecue joint staple – and that the lemonade (see previous staple comment) was just boring from a mix. A big cooler of homemade ’ade with sliced lemons floating in it would have been nice.

The last elephant … er, hog in the room about Shigs in Pit had to do with that name. I get the joke, and I guess it would look kind of cool among all the other odd names on banners at barbecue competitions, but I don’t like it for a restaurant. For one, if it offends someone, that someone might not try the place. For another, I don’t really want to think about a particular part of the phrase this name was spoofed from when I go out to eat.

But I will still go back to Shigs in Pit. The overall quality of the food and the clean, comfortable setting override any pet peeves I may have.

I will still want a beer, though.

Restaurant: Shigs in Pit

Address: 2008 Fairfield Ave.

Phone: 387-5903

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Big “Shig” Platter ($19.99), Big “Shig” Pig ($8.99), ribs (4-bone dinner $9.95; half slab $11.95; full $21.95), one-meat platter ($8.59), two-meat platter ($10.59), sides ($1.49), banana pudding ($2.70)

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

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