BBQ, bourbon and more

Red Rok takes barbecue upscale

Red Rok's St. Louis-style barbecued ribs, photography by Neal Bruns

You get the smell before you even round the corner to The Landing. A smoky, sweet smell that lingers in the air beside the brick-lined buildings that once housed Fort Wayne’s bustling canal businesses. The smoke conjures backyard barbecues in summer, even in these wintry days.

It’s the smoke from Red Rok BBQ and Bourbon Saloon, Fort Wayne’s newest, and, arguably, most elegant ‘cue joint, just a door or two away from the venerable Columbia Street West bar. It’s a smoke that’s lured many new diners onto The Landing to sample Chris Wilson’s secret rub and sauces. The restaurant opened in July 2013.

Wilson, the managing partner and the brains behind Red Rok, has been in the restaurant business most of his life and, beginning in 1997, learned the barbecue business at Famous Dave’s, a chain of barbecue restaurants that stretches across the country (none, however, in Fort Wayne).

Famous Dave’s is “where I got the passion, drive and know-how” to do barbecue right, Wilson said. “I just built that passion and love from there on.”

Wilson did his time on the competitive barbecue circuit, winning some awards but, more crucially, developing the rubs and sauces that would appeal to the most people. He and a silent partner bought the building at 123 W. Columbia St. in 2009 and spent three years taking it down to the bricks.

After three years of work, what emerged is an upscale take on a barbecue joint, complete with the required hay bales and barbed wire. And of course, on each table is a roll of paper towels to clean up the mess a good rack of sauced ribs can make.

“We wanted to go with a theme that feels upscale but still feels country,” Wilson said.

What sets Red Rok apart, however, is its astounding collection of bourbon – 50 available at last count, with more being added as customers discover new tastes.

“We thought there was a market that hadn’t been touched yet,” that would appreciate tasting new bourbons while also enjoying the familiar tastes of barbecued brisket and St. Louis-style ribs, Wilson said.

“I’ve learned a lot of things over the years and always come back” to barbecue, Wilson said. “This is just the food we cook in the backyard. People can really tell that we put out a quality product.”

The restaurant offers a buffet of traditional barbecue items, and its macaroni and cheese balls are spiced with jalapeno bits, giving them a kick. Indeed, the sides are just as important to Wilson as the main courses. The apple slices are drunk, the potato salad is chunked with large bites of potato, and the coleslaw has a hint of horseradish. Daily specials vary from house-brined corned beef for authentic Reubens to smoked turkey cornbread potpie.

And then there are the bourbons. Wilson offers a variety to appeal to both men and women, who are increasingly drawn to harder liquors that have been brewed with spices and honey to appeal to them. For example, Angel Envy, which is finished in port wine barrels to impart sweetness, is popular. Wilson said the restaurant also sells a lot of Bulleit and W. H. Harrison Presidential, an Indiana-based bourbon. He said they are considering adding “flights” where diners can sample different bourbons for a fixed price.

Wilson said he’s “blessed” to be part of the downtown’s resurgence. The restaurant draws workers from the Rousseau Centre and across downtown, and the soon-to-open Randall Lofts apartments just around the corner will draw young professionals – lured, no doubt, by the delicious smell of Red Rok’s smoke wafting in their windows.


Red Rok’s Old Fashioned
Serves 1

1 slice orange
1 marachino cherry
1 sugar cube
Dash bitters
Soda water
Cubed ice

1. Muddle first four ingredients in a rocks cocktail glass.

2. Add cubed ice to fill glass. Add 2 ounces of your favorite bourbon and a splash of soda water.

3. Stir and enjoy responsibly.

First appeared in the January 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.


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