Where to eat, drink in Indianapolis

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Indianapolis soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for some spicy shrimp cocktail or deep fried biscuits (yep, you heard us correctly!), we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town.

Bakersfield

334 Massachusetts Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46204
This review of Bakersfield originally appeared Feb. 29, 2016

For the second consecutive week, I tried a new place and couldn’t help but notice the red flags. Last week, Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa in Orlando, Fla., overcame its unfortunate name by serving excellent barbecue.  This week, I walked into Bakersfield in Indianapolis with so many questions. Why Bakersfield? Had someone already claimed the right to name their restaurant after Palmdale, Chino or Temecula? 

Abundant thought went into the concept and the vibe of this upscale Mexican street food chain that, judging by its location list, is coming to a medium-to-large city near you. That’s great. But the waiter doesn’t need to explain the concept to me while I’m trying to order queso. Perhaps he was sticking to the script that night because he was training a newbie. But the script doesn’t need to exist at all. Don’t explain that you’re playing Johnny Cash songs to capture some sort of rebel spirit. Cash never stood on stage and said “You see, A Boy Named Sue is ironic because he’s a boy named Sue and he can beat up everyone.” Just play the songs. There’s a saying for this in the writing world: Show. Don’t tell. If a writer paints a vivid enough picture, he doesn’t need to explain his point. The reader simply gets it. And if a restaurant makes delicious enough food, the server shouldn’t have to explain the aesthetic. The diner will just get it.

Bakersfield doesn’t need to explain anything. The servers could utter a single sentence — Make sure you ask for chorizo in the queso — and the food will take care of the rest. That chorizo-loaded queso lays the foundation for the delights to come.

A torta comes stuffed with braised short rib, Chihuahua cheese and  tomatillo salsa. It’s big enough to be the meal in itself, but the size of it won’t stop a first-timer who over-ordered from plowing through a pork belly Pastor taco that marries salty pre-bacon and fresh pineapple. While the choice of city for the restaurant’s name might be curious, the choice of namesake for the Red Headed Stranger cocktail proved apt. Strafing bourbon and bitters with lemon juice, ginger liqueur and cayenne pepper creates the kind of fiery sweetness that drips off Willie Nelson’s voice when he sings Always On My Mind.*

*This is the second Red Headed Stranger cocktail I’ve consumed. The first was a take on a bloody Mary at Frank in Austin. That one was redder. This one was better.

Hopefully, the managers at the various Bakersfield locations will advise the staff that no speech is necessary from this point forward. A detailed explanation of your concept won’t bring diners back for a second visit. Those tortas and those tacos will.

St. Elmo Steakhouse ; Harry & Izzy's

127 S. Illinois St, Indianapolis, IN 46225; 153 S. Illinois St. Indianapolis, IN 46225
This review of St. Elmo and its sister restaurant Harry & Izzy's originally appeared Feb. 23, 2015. 

You've probably gotten the speech at some point from that neighbor who attended the big wastewater transport convention in Indianapolis. "If you ever go, you have to get the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo. It. Will. Change. Your. Life."

The life-changing capabilities of larger-than-average shrimp buried beneath a blazing sea of horseradish-infused cocktail sauce seem a bit dubious at first glance. This is especially true when thousands of conventioneers fork over $17.95 for the thing every week. If the Midwest's most famous appetizer truly had life-changing qualities, wouldn't every scout at the NFL Combine be evaluating bubbles on an entirely different mental plane?

But not all life-changing events are monumental. Sometimes, the tiny victories are enough. And that's why your poop-moving neighbor has a point.

I ate my first St. Elmo shrimp cocktail in 2006. I was in Indianapolis to cover the Final Four, and I couldn't breathe through my nose. A nasty virus had attached itself to me at some point during the earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament. When I wasn't at the RCA Dome for work, I burrowed beneath the covers in my hotel room as more than a decade's worth of One Shining Moment montages ran in a loop on a special closed circuit channel on my television. Even Luther Vandross couldn't soothe me.

The only relief on that trip came when some friends coaxed me out of my room to St. Elmo Steakhouse. ("The company is paying" remains one of the planet's most convincing pitches.) At that point, my tastebuds barely functioned. Crustaceans were not high on my list of priorities. Still, my co-workers insisted I get a shrimp cocktail for myself. "Watch out," they warned. "It's pretty hot."

Hot doesn't begin to describe the sauce in which these plump shrimp swim. My dad would say the sauce puts hair on the chest, but the truth is it would strip paint from the wall. Each drop brings more chunks of horseradish. What begins as a light sting on the tip of the tongue turns into a stab wound as the sauce slides down the throat. This probably sounds awful. It is in fact exhilarating.

On that night in 2006, the shrimp cocktail opened my nostrils, which in turn opened my mind. I could breathe. I could taste the glorious filet mignon that came after. I felt human again. My life had been drastically improved, if only for a few hours.

I've learned a few tricks since then. First, there is no need to secure a difficult reservation at St. Elmo. Sister restaurant Harry and Izzy's is next door and serves the same shrimp cocktail and steaks. That's where I consumed a cocktail and a bone-in filet (cooked perfectly rare) on my first night in Indy last week. The temperature outside hovered around zero, but that cocktail sauce warmed me to my core.

Squealer's Award Winning Barbecue

390 East High Street, Mooresville, Indiana (now with two locations in Indy as well
This review of Squealer's originally appeared Aug. 21, 2011. 

When I first came across the website for Squealers Award Winning Barbecue, I worried. The name of the place had piqued my curiosity. What awards had Squealers won? I clicked a link, and much to my dismay, the first seven awards listed were for sauce.

Here’s the thing about barbecue sauce. It can taste wonderful, but it can hide a lot. A D-battery dipped in the sauce from Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Ala., would taste better than anything on the menu at Applebee’s. Bragging on one’s sauce usually means one of three things.

1) Your rub sucks.

2) You can’t cook the meat properly.

3) Your rub sucks, and you can’t cook the meat properly.

So it was with much trepidation that I drove 30 minutes southwest from Indianapolis. It was a fascinating drive. Never have I so badly wanted to own a Firebird (the one with the screaming chicken painted on the hood) with T-Tops. Had I rolled down Kentucky Avenue in my Firebird blasting Warrant, I might have been elected mayor. Alas, I had to settle for a standard rental Impala. But this Impala had a moon roof. That fact changed my entire perspective on Squealers. From half a mile away, a glorious smell wafted through the open roof of my generic fleet vehicle. It was not by accident that Squealers also had brought home trophies for brisket and ribs. These guys didn’t need to hide anything under sauce.

I walked in excited, and that excitement morphed to sheer, drooling joy when I opened the menu. Aside from the usual smoked fare, Squealers offered a fried ribs appetizer.

Fried ribs and fried biscuits arrived at my Squealers table.
Andy Staples

The one lesson I want you to take away from this venture is this: There is nothing on earth that can’t be improved by adding a few slabs of bacon. Allow me to add a corollary. There are precious few things in this world that can’t be improved by deep frying. A certain side item at Squealers drove home this point, but it wasn’t the fried ribs. As great as they were – the rub underneath the batter was an exquisite mix of salty and sweet – they paled in comparison to the pair of fried biscuits that came with my three-meat sampler platter.

You read that correctly. Fried. Biscuits. Imagine a Cracker Barrel biscuit met a Krispy Kreme doughnut, dropped a few of his best lines and took her back to his Old Country Store to make doughy carbohydrate love on a Travel Checker Rug. The offspring of that union is what a fried biscuit tastes like.

After the fried ribs and the fried biscuits, Squealers could have served me a plate of smoked cockroaches and I still would have recommended it to my friends. Instead, I received a heaping mound of meat. Brisket sat atop half a slab of babybacks, which sat atop a mound of pulled pork. I couldn’t finish. Anyone who knows me understands that I don’t make that statement lightly.

Squealers nailed the brisket. It was moist but not fatty and rubbed so expertly that it didn’t require a drop of the excellent hot sauce. The pork passed muster as well. As for the babybacks, I should have known better. The bartender told me the babybacks were the best thing on the menu. That’s the only reason I ordered them over the usual spareribs. Someday, I’ll stop making that mistake. Any slappy can throw spareribs – which usually boast a thick layer of fat – on the smoker and allow the meat to baste itself to perfection. Babybacks, which have far less fat, are a high-degree-of-difficulty meat. A pitmaster needs precise temperature control and a watchful eye, or all is lost. The Squealers babybacks weren’t bad, but they weren’t good, either. They merely were.

Not that it mattered. I blacked out after the second fried biscuit. I spent the rest of the night in a Hoosier dream state. There, the T-Tops were always off, the power ballads played on a loop and the biscuits took the doughnuts to family court to fight for the right to visit their flaky little bundles of joy. 

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