The most talked-about restaurant in Elkhart County the last several months is Sauk Trail on 17.
People asked when it was going to open.
People flocked when it did.
And now people are talking about how it's doing.
"Been very fortunate, very fortunate," said Marc Lancaster, who is the managing general partner. "The response has been tremendous."
Since opening Feb. 17, the parking lot, dining room and bar have been packed much of the time. The Southern Pride smoker is operating nearly 24-7 to churn out the barbecue, Lancaster said. A second smoker will be installed soon. And business doesn't seem to be slowing.
Sauk Trail Bar & Grille opened in 2006 and was a popular Union, Mich., roadhouse before an arson put it out of business last July. The insurance settlement still hasn't been resolved and no one has been charged. It had a following for its barbecue, which developed as its specialty in 2007.
Indigo on 17 started as fine dining and went through changes and various cycles before owners Ray and Lindsey Stults and Dan Valhala agreed to partner with Lancaster to merge the two places.
I didn't darken the door for the first month. It usually takes at least that long for a restaurant to work out wobbles. At first glance, the interior is far different than Sauk Trail was, but not that different from Indigo The lighted bar and fountains are still there, but the walls are brown instead of a deep blue.
A huge number of people showed up after the place opened. That prompted tales of not getting food and long waits. The place is still busy, but the wobbles are mostly gone.
"I'm not going to apologize for being popular," Lancaster said, noting that barbecue isn't something you can pull out of a freezer and heat up. It takes time. And when a lot of people came, it was challenging.
By the time I got there, the first visit was pleasant. The service was good and the food was very good. The smoked wings are as good as I remember from the Sauk Trail Bar & Grill location in Union. The dry rub is applied a bit more liberally here and one order from one of my visits was a bit oversmoked, but in general, they're pretty amazing.
The ribs were tender. The smoked shredded chicken and pulled pork are less moist than some versions but don't cross the line into being too dry. Pork used for shredded barbecue is smoked 11 1/2 hours over apple wood, Lancaster said.
The smoked salmon is brined for 3 1/2 hours and then smoked for about 4 1/2, Lancaster said. The result is a pale but flavorful smoked salmon. In the restaurant a wedge is served with onions, capers and a mustard sauce, but it's available for $19.95 a pound and the pulled pork or chicken are $8.95 a pound. Five sauces are put on the table with the meat. I'm a fan of the green chile, the chipotle and the apple.
The prices are comparable to a barbecue stand, but an order of just about anything except a mini me sandwich comes with a lot of meat. A smoker combo ($16) offers a choice of three meats and a side dish. The wings as an appetizer are five for $8 or 10 for $13, but they're massive wings.
Lancaster hopes to add more smoked foods to the mix, including seafood and brisket, but he may run them as specials rather than add them to the menu. He's playing with the smoker and one of the results is the smoked deviled eggs.They're good, but are three halves really worth $4?
Sauk Trail has a full bar, including some great microbrews that go well with the smoked food.
The kitchen crew isn't the same one as Indigo on 17 had before it merged with Sauk Trail, Lancaster said. The menu still has Indigo on 17 items, including soups and wasabi-crusted salmon that were there when Karen Kennedy and Kelly Graff opened the place in partnership with Valhala and the Stultses.
I wasn't sure how the new management group would merge the two menus, but the current one has a nice mix of options.
The first plate I got of roasted sea scallops wrapped in bacon and served with a maple butter sauce were scorched, but the restaurant replaced it with one properly cooked and took it off the bill.
It'll be interesting to see whether such a dish stays on the menu.
"When we first opened up, we wanted to make sure the Indigo customers would accept us," Lancaster said. But the place is already becoming more of a smokehouse than a steakhouse, he said. "We knew that was going to happen."
Sauk Trail on 17 is selling an "insane" amount of smoked meat, Lancaster said. He's adding tables. He said he's working 17-hour days.
People tell stories about Marc Lancaster. Right or wrong, true or not, lore follows him and how he runs his business.
He's a polarizing figure, but his goal is to make and sell good food. How he does that is up to him. He said he follows his father's advice to listen to customers, but not so much that he ends up sitting next to them instead of having your business. That means he's tough sometimes.
Whether you go is up to you, but Sauk Trail on 17 has fans because it makes good food. Most of the wobbles have evened out and that'll likely continue. I can't think of a restaurant that was as busy as fast or has had people talking as much.
You can talk if you want. Me? I'm busy chewing. Because this is grand barbecue.
* Gordy's Restaurant, which has also been known as Gordy's Sub Pub, will close after business Sunday. Remodeling will begin and two new operators moving from New York City plan to open Atami Japanese Steak House, which will also serve sushi, according to Carl Van Gilst, one of the owners of the building along S.R. 15 north of Goshen at 206 Johnston St. He hopes the new restaurant will open around July 1.
* Dana J's is offering banquets in the former Salvation Army store in Chicago-Pike Plaza, Goshen. The large room is across the parking lot from the deli and meat counter and can seat up to 500 people, according to Cheryl Gall, who helps run the business.
* Ben's Soft Pretzels is celebrating National Pretzel Day from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday and giving away two pretzel sticks to anyone who can name the eighth, 19th and 35th presidents of the United States. (By the way, the answers are Van Buren, Hayes and Kennedy.) Ben's will collect donations for troops and their families, according to a press release. The nearest location is on Concord Mall.
* Several churches are offering a Creole/Cajun Crawfish Boil Friday in South Bend. The $22 meal will have two seatings at First United Methodist Church, 333 N. Main St. Tickets are available by calling 574-232-4837.
Marshall V. King is news and multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805 or @hungrymarshall on Twitter.
IF YOU GO
What: Sauk Trail on 17
Where: 56039 Parkway Ave., Elkhart (near the intersection of C.R. 17 and C.R. 14)
Fare: Barbecue, steaks and seafood
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 4 to 11 Friday and Saturday for the kitchen, 4 p.m. to last call for the bar
Details: Catering and private parties available; handicapped accessible; full bar, but dining room is child friendly; no smoking; carry-out available.
THE DEAL WITH DYNGUS DAY
Happy Dyngus Day.
The Polish holiday isn't celebrated everywhere, but it is in South Bend and Elkhart. And at least one place in Goshen.
The Monday after Easter means Polish sausage, pierogi and cold beer. It's also a day on which politicking happens.
In Elkhart, two places are best-known for their Dyngus festivities.
Crimaldi's, 117 W. Jackson, will have its 25th annual celebration from 11 to 2 and 5 to 9:30. A sausage sandwich and chips is $5.95 at lunch and a dinner with pierogi and hardboiled egg is $8.95 at dinner.
The larger party happens at Knights of Columbus Council 1043, 112 E. Lexington, Elkhart. Max Yeakey will oversee a crew cooking 375 pounds of kielbasa, made this year by Kevin Crouch at Charlie's Butcher Block.
Kluski noodles, sweet and sour cabbage and pickled eggs will also be on the menu. A full dinner is $8. Beer and wine will be sold in dining room and liquor in the bar, according to Yeakey.
Food will be available from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. or so and city candidates will be out campaigning.
In Goshen, The Oasis, 702 E. Lincoln, serves Polish food, specifically kielbasa and boiled eggs. The eggs are a dime each or two for a quarter.