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Chicago Tribune

Owner of Lucy’s BBQ studied under Texas pitmaster greats — and it shows

By Nick Kindelsperger, Chicago Tribune,

The pulled pork at Lucy’s BBQ in Highland, Ind. on Thursday, March 2, 2023. Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Enter Brewfest, a pour-your-own-beer bar in Highland, Indiana, and a haze of smoke rushes out the door and wraps around your nose. It’s not the stale and acrid stench of cigarette smoke (remember when people used to smoke in bars?) but the sweet and enveloping aroma of barbecue.

That’s thanks to Nick Kleutsch, who operates Lucy’s BBQ inside the bar on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. While certainly not the only barbecue operation in northwest Indiana, Lucy’s undoubtedly serves the best Texas-style barbecue in the area. (And yes, this means that the suburban invasion of Texas-style barbecue shows no sign of stopping.)

Any order should include the voluptuous slices of black pepper-crusted brisket, which are so absurdly tender and juicy you can pull the meat apart with the gentlest stretch of your fingers. You’ll also find meaty spare ribs sporting bright pink smoke rings and luscious pulled pork. Instead of a spice rub with a dozen ingredients, the meat here only gets a sprinkling of salt and pepper before it hits the smoker, yet it still tastes remarkably complex.

Like nearly every Texas-style barbecue pitmaster I’ve talked to in Chicago’s suburbs, the northwest Indiana native had a barbecue awakening while in the Lone Star State. “When I first started visiting Texas, I thought, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Kleutsch said. “We have barbecue in northwest Indiana. Then I went to Terry Black’s BBQ. I took one bite of the brisket and thought, ‘I’ve never had anything like that.’ I was hooked from that point.”

But if Kleutsch hadn’t gotten stuck in Texas during the pandemic, he probably wouldn’t be smoking meat right now.

Having some success managing a musician in Austin, Texas, Kleutsch decided to lease an apartment. But when the pandemic upended the live music scene, he found himself out of work and unable to break the lease. Scrambling, he eventually got a job as a beverage salesperson, which required him to drive around to restaurants in Central Texas. “We had an eight-hour day, but I’d blow through my visits in three hours,” Kleutsch said. Instead of returning back to the office, he put that extra time to good use, visiting as many barbecue spots as he could.

Part of his route included Lockhart, the official barbecue capital of Texas, so he had plenty of time to try classic joints like Smitty’s Market. “I’d go on a Wednesday when there was no line,” Kleutsch said. “Then I’d get to talk to these guys and pick their brains.”

When he realized how open and friendly the pitmasters were, he asked them if he could watch them work on the weekends. “They will tell you everything,” Kleutsch said. “A huge one for me was when I went to JNL Barbecue in Austin. (Owner) Ben Lambert showed me more in two days than I had ever learned.” Another favorite of his was LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, another acclaimed spot in Austin.

The visits inspired Kleutsch to try his hand at making barbecue on the weekends, using the many tips that he learned. Knowing he was going to return to Indiana soon, he reached out to Evan Rowley, the owner of Brewfest, to see if they could collaborate. “That was my go-to bar,” Kleutsch said. “I knew he had a kitchen, but he never really used it. So I wrote him and said, ‘I know you need food. I have good food.’ He was immediately on board.”

That also meant Kleutsch had to deliver, and he credits Rowley with holding him accountable. “If it wasn’t for him, I’d always have an excuse not to do it, but he would call me every week,” Kleutsch said. “I had to do this because this guy was waiting. If I bail on him, I can’t go to my favorite bar.”

He tracked down a 500-gallon smoker that ran only on wood, which someone had built from scratch. Though the smoker turned out to be great, he admitted that he was quite nervous about the transaction. “I paid him on Venmo,” Kleutsch said. “I was thinking, ‘This is all the money I have, please don’t screw me.’”

Kleutsch is honest about being nearly out of money. “After the purchase, I only had $110 in my pockets,” Kleutsch said. “My mom had to loan me money to buy some wood.” Realizing he had to get started immediately, he bought a bunch of pork butts, pickles and bread and did a pop-up, where he only asked for donations. “It worked,” Kleutsch said. “The next week, I was able to do briskets, and I got a little more money. If people hadn’t shown up, I’d have had to give this up and get another job, because I was broke.”

Finally, he needed a name, which came from an unexpected source. While chatting with his girlfriend about his unnamed barbecue project, Kleutsch would often just substitute his dog’s name. “She was always by our side and often accompanied me to barbecue joints on the weekend,” Kleutsch said. “After saying Lucy’s BBQ so many times, it just sounded right.”

The menu is purposefully short, allowing Kleutsch to lavish time on each dish, from the plump housemade sausages to a stunning smoked cheeseburger, which he makes by grinding up brisket trimmings. “Everything but the buns and ketchup is made in-house,” Kleutsch said. “We make every sauce, all the pickles and the sides.”

About those sauces. You’ll find two: a solid, if traditional tomato-based sauce, and a remarkable mustard-based sauce that completely floored me. Instead of an overwhelming mustard profile, the hot mustard flavor is tamed by a slightly creamy texture and a mix of different spices. Kleutsch said the latter was inspired by the mustard sauce used at Leroy and Lewis, which, it turns out, was inspired by an older barbecue spot outside of Austin called The Salt Lick.

While still a threadbare operation — Kleutsch just recently got a sign up out front — he’s managed to attract a steady crowd through his hard work.

“I wanted to give people the Texas experience that I was able to have,” Kleutsch said. “People around here work hard and then work a double. I know that I’m not anywhere close to the top 50 joints in Texas. I know I’m not a Franklin Barbecue or a LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue. But this is pretty damn good.”

Lucy’s BBQ is located inside Brewfest at 8347 Kennedy Ave., Highland, Indiana. It is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., or until the meat sells out.

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