One of the Region's most acclaimed barbecue restaurants soon will make its triumphant return after temporarily closing all locations in October because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar at 1420 Calumet Ave. in Dyer will reopen in April, followed by the Mokena, Illinois, and Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, locations. The authentic southern-style barbecue restaurant also plans to open a new spot in LaPorte by the end of the year and has hired Pat Niebling of 3 Floyds to serve as culinary director overseeing the food at all its locations.
The restaurant will continue to serve the slow-cooked brisket, ribs, pulled pork, smoked wings, turkey and other barbecue customers know and love, co-owner and chief BBQ officer Brent Brashier said. But Niebling will help expand the menu, such as by adding specials, new sandwiches and enhanced sides that will be more fresh and seasonal.
Doc's also will add a selection of largely bourbon-based cocktails, such as Old Fashioneds.
"We're looking forward to reopening," Brashier said. "We're excited to have the recipes people love — wings, ribs, brisket — and new things."
The restaurant was one of the first in Northwest Indiana to start providing meals to nurses and other medical workers on the fronts lines at local hospitals after the pandemic started last year. But it ended up shuttering all locations in October, citing "state-mandated closures and limits, vague and conflicting safety information from health departments and the CDC" that prevented it from the quality dining and hospitality experience it was known for.
"It was really painful to shut down," Brashier said. "It was heartbreaking since from day one I've put my entire life into this. We had to make a decision to shut down in the short term for the long-term health of the company. It was a weird year, but we always knew we would come back."
The restaurant will operate at about 75% capacity with tables spaced out and thoroughly sanitized between each party. Most of the employees will return. They're currently doing a deep cleaning in the kitchen and working on an extensive renovation that will include a fresh coat of paint and more television screens.
"We're fixing anything that's broken, like leaky faucets," Brashier said. "It's rare in the restaurant business that you would have enough downtime to do work like this."
Doc's will celebrate its fifth anniversary in Dyer this year. The restaurant has more than 60 craft beers on tap, more than 100 bourbons and whiskeys, and a digital pour screen with real-time information about every craft beer. It uses hickory to smoke meats that are locally sourced from Calumet City-based Meats by Linz, which supplies some of the finest steakhouses in Chicago, Indianapolis and other big cities with cattle from a farm near Crown Point.
"They're one of the premier meat suppliers in the country," Niebling said. "Their steaks are served all over the world."
New and tried and true
Brashier brought on Niebling after 3 Floyds closed its brewpub during the COVID-19 pandemic, having been a fan of his "food, talent and skill." Niebling served as executive chef at 3 Floyds for about a decade, a period in which it was repeatedly named a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Awards.
"Brett gave me a call to come on board," Niebling said. "I was a head chef, but this is a huge step up for me. It's a new role and responsibility."
Niebling started his culinary career washing dishes at Scarborough Faire Cafe in Schererville.
"I decided I didn't want to wash dishes anymore," he said. "So I started cooking and had a knack for it so I went to culinary school in Chicago after high school. I want to give diners the best experience possible."
He's also cooked at Off Square Brewing and Miller Bakery Cafe, a fine dining destination that drew people from across Northwest Indiana.
Niebling and Brashier agree that good barbecue starts with good meat.
"It's not a secret how to make good barbecue," Brashier said. "It's easy to learn but difficult to master. You always start out with the best meat and cook it a long time over hickory. Having the best meat around is what sets us apart from some of the other places."
Doc's does not sauce its meat, but has a selection of regional barbecue sauces from Texas, Memphis, North Carolina and Alabama at every table.
"It's being a barbecue purist," Brashier said. "The meat should speak for itself. If you want to use sauces, that should be a decision for you. But it shouldn't need sauce."
As it has grown across the Midwest, Doc's tries to ensure consistency in the quality of its food at every location. Its next restaurant will be a 5,000-square-foot eatery seating about 100 to 120 diners in downtown LaPorte.
"It will be in a brand new building," Brashier said. "The mayor, who's a super friendly guy who liked our food, and economic development people reached out to us about locating there, but it had been put on pause. Now that the snow's melting, they're hoping to resume work. It's a great, growing community and we'd have the ability to draw from Michigan City and South Bend."
Doc's also plans to roll out its trailers to roast whole hogs at festivals when they return, including at the Broad Street Blues and BBQ and Rock and Rail festivals in Griffith.
"With the vaccines circulating early and the case numbers going down, I think people are itching to get out," he said. "There's pent-up demand. It's been heartening that in the two weeks we've been doing work here people have stopped to ask if we're open. It makes my heart shine that people haven't forgotten us and are looking forward to seeing us come back."
Barbecue has been gaining in popularity in Northwest Indiana, with many new restaurants opening in recent years.
"It's always been popular in the South where I'm from, but I attribute it spreading around the country to the food media on TV, these barbecue shows on the Food Network," Brashier said. "I always say we'd have 90 barbecue restaurants in Lake County if we had the same number per capita as we do in my home state of Alabama."
Brashier is just glad to return to his passion after a protracted hiatus.
"Barbecue is more than just food," he said. "It's an event where you cook for friends and family. It's great fun you have in your backyard, which I did before I ever became a chef or started working in the restaurant business. That's how this started. That's where my passion for barbecue comes from."