Thursday, February 11, 2016

Dining A La King: Bar food good at Sauk Trail

Posted on Aug. 6, 2007 at 1:00 a.m.

Marc Lancaster followed a winding trail to his bar and restaurant along a historic highway.

Lancaster grew up in two bars his late father, Charlie, owned in Fort Wayne.

He got degrees at Ball State and American University and became an investment banker.

He lived in Hilton Head for 11 years and moved back to southern Michigan for family reasons.

Then he got an idea.

He'd open a comfortable place with a reputation for good food and drinks.

"It's pretty hard to do," he said.

He bought a run-down place along U.S. 12, Union, which was first a trail the Sauk Indians used, then the Detroit-Chicago Turnpike and then a national highway.

After tearing out rotted floor joists, seven layers of linoleum and rehabbing the entire building, Lancaster opened Sauk Trail Bar & Grille on March 17, 2006.

He's tried a little bit of everything to bring in customers. Everything but premade food fresh off a restuarant supply truck.

That's a good thing.

He's willing to try new things, but isn't after the flavor of the month from a salesman.

So his menu includes shrimp tossed in sriracha sauce, hand-cut fries and his father's fried bologna sandwiches.

But finding a mix of food that's creative and interesting that the public also wants is tricky business for anyone.

The hog roast he did in January worked well, but seafood doesn't sell, though I want to get there on a Tuesday night to try the low-country seafood boil he puts on special.

Sauk Trail has good bar food. The list of appetizers is smarter than the average bar. Those shrimp with sriracha are good, but be ready for the tangy kick from the Thai hot sauce. This sauce has flavor and heat, sweetness and tang. It's the condiment bottle I reach for the most from my refrigerator, but I didn't think I'd ever see it on the menu of a local, nonethnic restaurant.

The steak fries are made from fresh potatoes, not dumped out of frozen bags. The pork rinds are fried -- popped, as the menu says -- there. For a former Atkins dieter, they're a blast from the past. For anyone else, they're fresh bits of porky goodness that pairs perfectly with a cold beverage.

I didn't try a salad, though the range of options is admirable. As I do too often, I admired the salads from afar.

The steaks are decent. The wings appear to have been cut off chickens that either pumped iron or ingested some form of steroids on corn. They're big and meaty.

Lancaster said the restaurant sells a lot of ribs, which he slow-cooks and then finishes on the grill.

The fried bologna sandwich served on a toasted bun with mustard and onion is interesting, but for $4.69, I want more than bologna and a dose of nostalgia.

Sauk Trail allows smoking throughout and has a bar atmosphere, but it backs that up with good drinks. The sangria, when it's available, comes in a $4 glass of fruity goodness. The beers include tasteless Miller Lite, but also Bell's, Stella Artois and Sauk Trail Ale, a beer that's like New Castle Brown Ale and is made by a mid-size Wisconsin brewery.

Catering business is increasing, but Lancaster wants to do more events. He's added bands after 9 p.m. on Saturdays and karaoke and a disc jockey on Fridays. He wants to have volleyball courts and outdoor seating and add banquet or meeting rooms in a historic house next door.

"Having a clean place, good drinks and good food isn't enough. People need to be occupied," he said.

Yes, but without the former, there's no point going somewhere for the latter.

I'd go to Sauk Trail for the food and pleasant service. I wouldn't drive that far for karaoke, but I wouldn't drive anywhere for karaoke.

Quick bites

* Construction on Indigo on 17 is moving quickly and the restaurant could open by the end of the month, according to general manager Karen Kennedy.

* Kenny and Rona Chang, owners of Elkhart's Jade Garden, are planning to remodel and open a Chinese restaurant in the former Szechwan Garden along Nappanee Street. Plans to remodel a place along Cassopolis Street are on hold and they said last week they want to keep Jade Garden at 920 Johnson St. open, but they also want to have a higher-end Chinese place on the west side of Elkhart.

* I don't know details, but a restaurant called Dakota is apparently going into the spot Vincenzo's had along East Jackson in Elkhart.

* Chick-Fil-A opened another location in St. Joseph County. The stand-alone location in South Bend opened Thursday at 4555 S. Michigan St. It has seating for 132, a drive-through and is open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Chick-Fil-A just won the top award in the chicken category of Consumer Choice Awards given by Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

* Maple City Market, 314 S. Main St., is having a back-to-school tasting from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

* Calabria Restaurant re-opened last week after a working vacation. Friends from Italy visited the Porpiglia family and they were trying new recipes that could become specials or menu items.

* LaSalle Grill has a summer wine dinner Tuesday at 7 p.m. Tom Johnson of Silver Oak Cellars will showcase wines to go with the five-course meal. Cost is $150. Information: 288-1155.