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Sauk Trail on 17 has wound its way to this point in time.
In 2006, Marc Lancaster opened Sauk Trail Bar & Grille in Union, Mich, as a roadhouse that later became a barbecue joint.
In 2007, a group of people opened Indigo on 17 at 56039 Parkway Ave., Elkhart. It was a fine dining establishment with an elegant dining room and a chic bar.
Indigo on 17 changed as Karen Kennedy and Kelly Graff left to open Kelly Jae’s Cafe in Goshen.
In July 2010, Sauk Trail was lit on fire. The arson has never been solved, as far as I know.
So in late 2010, Lancaster and the Indigo owners agreed to merge and form Sauk Trail on 17. It’s opening was one of the most anticipated in recent history and the place got slammed when it opened.
Over time the food was less consistent. The crowds were smaller. The buzz was largely gone.
But Sauk Trail on 17 may be back. The crowds are back. The menu is smaller and more focused. The service is attentive without being overbearing. It feels like it’s grown up and settled in a bit.
Chad Coryn is back as the chef, a job he had before Indigo became Sauk Trail.
And Ray Stults never imagined he’d be the manager of his own restaurant, but he’s running the place now after being retired for about 15 years. Lancaster left this fall and moved out of state, Stults said.
Stults once oversaw companies with about 3,000 employees. Now he has about 20 at Sauk Trail and they seem to be doing good work. “We’re getting there,” he said. “I’m pretty happy.”
He’s been one of the owners since the beginning, but now is the primary person in charge. His son Lindsey Stults and Dan Valhala also have part ownership.
He’s been focused on bringing consistency, a strong draft beer list and getting people in the door. “We’re getting new people all the time,” he said.
Despite being open just 30 hours a week or so, Sauk Trail on 17 is having strong nights and the lines are back on weekends, he said. But he wants to expand the hours to include Monday nights and lunches.
A new bar menu is on its way, as is a kids’ menu and a menu for those in the bar after 9 p.m.
But the menu as it is now works better than the initial one that tried to mix Indigo and Sauk Trail. This one is focused on smoked meat and the sides that go with it.
I’ve been a fan of Sauk Trail’s smoked chicken wings since they hit the menu in Union. But for a time, they tended to be dry, as did the ribs. The consistently moist meat has returned to the plate. Stults has made sure the kitchen isn’t taking shortcuts and is planning ahead. He said it’s what you have to do when consistency rules and the brisket process is four days. The pulled pork takes 13 hours. “Chad follows it to the letter,” he said of the process.
He’s critical of other restaurants that serve pulled pork they buy. “We differentiated ourselves from people who sell pulled pork sandwiches and it’s the smoky stuff out of the can,” he said.
A non-smoked half chicken is on the menu, but now it’s mostly pork, beef, chicken or salmon that came out of the smoker. “We are what we are. We’re a smokehouse,” he said.
He doesn’t plan to make Sauk Trail on 17 a sports bar. He does plan on fixing the rotating front door when he can find someone who can do it. The bar is a comfortable place to eat food from this menu and it’s where I eat at Sauk Trail, though the dining room doesn’t have televisions and allows children.
The smoked sausage has snap. The ribs, wings and rib tips have enough smoke and bear any of the five sauces well.
The value at Sauk Trail is good, with large piles of meat coming on the plate for $12 to $18. The smoked salmon isn’t cheap, but it’s smoked inhouse and is worth a taste.
I like the rhythm Sauk Trail has found, but would like to see a couple things tweaked.
The drink menu has a bunch of sweet martinis, good craft beers and a revamped wine list. Conventional wisdom pairs sweet or fruity drinks with barbecue, but I also want something like a manhattan that has a little heft, not something that puts sweet liqueur in a martini glass. The sangria is excellent but the Sauk Trail Snake Bite had too little bite. Cortney James is a spirited, talented bartender and I’d love to see her expand the offerings.
The wasabi crusted salmon was initially Kelly Graff’s dish. It’s still on the menu, though the salmon has some smoke, But the night I ordered had it, the dish paled in comparison to Graff’s version, which is still on her menu at Kelly Jae’s. The Sauk Trail kitchen put sweet chili sauce over the top, making the coating gummy. At the very least, I’d put the sauce on the side, but Sauk Trail needs to make the dish its own if it’s going to keep it on the menu.
Stults said the restaurant will start serving lunch by offering carved meats and salads by the pound. You place an order, get your food immediately and pay as you leave. That’s a quick, flavorful lunch I’d go for if the price is right.
Sauk Trail didn’t need swagger. It has a menu that works and a staff that’s working to improve it.
“We’ll get there,” Stults said.
This restaurant has gotten better. And the crowds that are coming back seem to prove it.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805, on Twitter @hungrymarshall or via Facebook. His blog is at www.blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking/.
If You Go
What: Sauk Trail on 17
Where: 56039 Parkway Ave., Elkhart (at the corner of C.R. 17 and C.R. 14)
Fare: Smoked meat
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, though the bar may stay open later
Details: Credit cards accepted, catering orders accepted, reservations aren’t taken except for large groups, delivery will become available this spring for some orders, available for private events, handicapped accessible.
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