Old School, After School, All's Cool at Pitts BBQ
When Edible Michiana asked me to write about the barbecue scene in South Bend, I set out to investigate. My wife and I drove around on a snowy afternoon and found ourselves at Pitts BBQ on the corner of Twyckenham and Mishwaka avenue.
We walked into the restaurant to find it empty. My wife took a seat, and I introduced myself to the owner, Robert Pitts. since I had never eaten at the place before, my wife suggested we order a sampler. The friendly girl behind the counter took our money through a square hole in the wall and within a matter of a few minutes she brought out a styrofoam box filled with copious amounts of food.
As I sat there and wondered where to start, Pitts walked out of his kitchen and peeped over my shoulder and said, “You need more,” and walked back in. Before I could say anything, he was back with corn bread in one hand and fried catfish in the other. This time he sat down right next to me and pointed at my food.
“This is pulled pork, and this is beef brisket. This is collard greens. I like to serve healthy food.”
I tried the pulled pork, and it tasted like it had just come out of a wood stove. The meat was tender and didn’t require much chewing, but my favorite part was the sauce.
Robert Pitts is from Mobile, Alabama. When I asked him what made him come to South Bend, Indiana, he replied, “a hurricane.” his family lost their home to hurricane Frederic 1979 and Pitts moved to Michiana to live with his father, who was already living in the area.
I asked him how he ended up opening a barbecue restaurant. he said, “I learned to cook at the age of 7. My grandma and dad taught me the old-fashioned way. I always loved cooking so I knew I had to do something with it. I cooked for a few restaurants around town, and then I opened my own restaurant.” Pitts is the former executive chef of Bistro on the race in South Bend. He has also cooked professionally at Yesterday’s, Carmela’s and elsewhere.
I dug in my fork into another chunk of meat and said, “How long have you been running this place?”
“One year.” I looked to my left and saw Mr. Pitts rushing into his kitchen, saying, “I gotta go now, kids are here.”
In the next minute about two dozen 15-year-olds filled the place. The John Adams high school across the street had just gotten off . The restaurant looked very different all of a sudden, with students standing around eating, talking, joking and laughing. The scene took me back to my own school days in India. I, too, used to run across the street with my friends to a roadside food joint to eat hot samosas after school.
I decided to ask one of the students—Mariah—why she liked to eat at Pitts. She said, “His food is cheap, yummy, and he is just great.”
The rush from the school lasted for about 30 minutes, and when the things quieted down, Pitts took me inside his kitchen. he showed me an old grill that had hickory wood and no knobs. He told me he cooks on it every day and that he found the equipment for his restaurant at a homeless shelter where he once worked.
Pitts treated me like I was in his home, and the school kids like his own. I noticed him giving food for a credit to some of the students. An excellent chef and a religious man, he also seemed to have a big heart.
When we started to leave, Pitts asked me, “So, what do you think of the food?” I licked the sauce off the fork one last time, and said, “I’m coming back.”
1526 Mishawaka ave., South Bend, IN
WHAT IS BARBECUE?
Aficionados disagree. Aome say smoke and indirect heat (the “low and slow” style typical of Central Texas) are essential. Others argue for the inclusion of direct heat methods (think pit cooking over coals). Meats, cuts and seasonings also vary from region to region and ’cue joint to ’cue joint.
One thing is certain though: Barbecue is delicious! Here are four finger-lickin’ styles you can sample across Michiana:
Slathered in a spicy tomato-based sauce with a hint of sweetness, Texas prefers beef brisket cooked over oak or mesquite wood. For local flavor: Pitts BBQ (1526 Mishawaka Ave., South Bend, Indiana). Owner Robert Pitts uses his grandma’s “zesty” recipe and smokes meat with a mix of hickory and mesquite.
Made with pork ribs and commonly smoked over hickory, Memphis BBQ is served wet (in sauce) or dry (smoked and seasoned); sauce has a tomato and vinegar base. For local flavor: Charlie’s Piggin’ N’ Grinnin’ (136 Territorial Rd., Benton Harbor, Michigan). Charlie’s Blends Memphis and Kansas City styles for a sweet barbecue.
Uses a combination of meats and woods based on regional influences and is known for its sweet sauce, often made with molasses. For local flavor: Frankie’s (1621 W. Washington St., South Bend, Indiana). Frankie’s serves up chicken, ribs and tips cooked in a signature sauce.
Pork (shoulder or a whole hog) is smoked with hickory or oak wood, chopped or pulled, then sauced with a mustard, vinegar or peppered tomato-based sauce, depending on the region. For local flavor: Culinary Mill Market and Deli (401 E. Market St., Nappanee, Indiana) cooks their Carolina-style barbecue “low and slow,” according to owner Brad Royer.
Variety Is The Spice Of New BBQ Joint
When the Prized Pig (Niles, Michigan) opened its doors this past January, owner Jeremy Vohwinkle had a problem—a good one. Despite heavy snowfall, the restaurant ran out of food its first, second and third days of business, as hundreds of customers poured through the door.
The restaurant, which offers a variety of styles of barbecue, allows customers to “pick, choose and experiment with their meats and sauces,” said Vohwinkle, who is a certified judge of Kansas City Barbecue Society. If they like, “they can try something new,” like the Texas-style brisket, Carolina-style pulled pork, ribs with Kansas City–style sauce, or any meat with Kentucky’s slathered spice.
All meat at the Prized Pig is smoked with apple and oak wood from the Michiana area for local flavor.
THE PRIZED PIG
33331 US 12, Niles, MI
269.262.4956 | prizedpigBBQ.com