Last August, Gordon "Big Daddy" Biffle arrived in Las Vegas with no expectations, a man who a year prior was working in East Chicago carrying 50-pound pieces of sheetrock in steel-toed boots. Now, actor Michael Clarke Duncan and reality TV personality Omarosa were onstage at the Mandalay Bay Theatre, name-checking his business. This was the Hoodie Awards, Steve Harvey's annual ceremony recognizing black-owned businesses and organizations. The production-value-relative-to-awards ratio is impressively high, the glitziest presentation of best church choir or best fried chicken you've ever seen.
Barbecue is Biffle's trade, and the competition was formidable — Kansas City's legendary Gates Bar-B-Q had the prestige, Chicago's Robinson's No. 1 had Mike Royko's blessing. Big Daddy didn't even have a restaurant. He was cooking out of steel drums in a strip mall parking lot in Gary, between a church and a Family Dollar store.
Then, improbably, they announced the winner: "Big Daddy's BBQ!" Biffle threw two hands to the sky and took to the stage. In front of a TV audience of millions, he stood as owner of what had been voted the best barbecue restaurant in the country. (Granted, this was less critical adjudication than ballot-stuffing popularity contest. Still.)
Biffle proclaimed: "I'd like to thank Gary, Ind., and the Chicagoland!"
The award, the pageantry of it all, his late mother on his mind — Biffle strode off stage and broke down in tears. He fell into the first arms available to embrace.
"I looked up, and I was like, 'What?!' It was Judge Mathis."
What do you glean driving through a city of shuttered businesses, a place where fried shrimp houses and fast-food chains define its food scene? My lasting memory of Gary happened several years ago, when a Bennigan's opened at the U.S. Steel Yard baseball stadium, and city officials were ecstatic a national restaurant was entering their market. It has since closed.
Barbecue might not be a healthier option than a cheeseburger, but just finding a restaurant in Gary that prepares food from scratch is reason for praise.
Biffle is a son of Gary, 40 years old, with a likeness to actor Anthony Anderson and a frame that says: I know my food. In high school, he was a prep cook at a Chinese restaurant, peeling shrimp and assembling egg rolls. Out of curiosity one day, he combined barbecue sauce with neon sweet-and-sour sauce, then tasted his concoction. Smoky, sweet, a pineappley tang and vaguely exotic — he'd stumbled onto something good, and bigger still, sparked a culinary ambition that encouraged constant experimentation.
How Big Daddy's BBQ came to be is a familiar tale: An eager amateur cook makes food for friends and family, hears enough praise to stoke the entrepreneurial fires, says no thanks to his thankless job and opens a restaurant to fulfill a dream.
And so a week after returning from Las Vegas, Biffle moved the operation from the parking lot — where it was a flea market on weekends — to a sit-down restaurant. The bulletproof counter is a reminder of its location.
"People think everything that comes out of Gary is bad, but they don't hear the good things," Biffle said. "Like the 4,000-member church next door. We've got a lot of good people there. We've got a beautiful beach. We just need people to put some money into this city."
I applaud Biffle's ambition. Constant experimenting means specials pop up on the menu: barbecue lamb, gumbo, beef short ribs. He could have served instant-mix mashed potatoes, but he opted for collard greens, a rudimentary recipe but one that requires a pot and manual stirring (smoked turkey tails in the greens leave a rich coat on the palate). I still think Uncle John BBQ or Barbara Ann's are better bets, but Biffle is presenting food with an ingredient lacking from many surrounding restaurants: the passage of time. Patience isn't merely a virtue for pitmasters; it's a prerequisite.
An aquarium-style smoker, favored by finer South Side Chicago barbecue institutions, sits in the kitchen but serves mostly as a warming tank. The real action takes place behind the restaurant, where steel drums billow steady smoke and ribs are cooked two hours at a time.
Purists may take issue with the restaurant's usage of the term "barbecue" if defined by wood smoke infusing meat. Turkey legs, pork butt and brisket get a hickory and oak finish, but for pork ribs (the bulk of the business), only lump charcoal is used.
"They want that flavor as if they cooked it in the backyard themselves," Biffle said.
Unlike wood, charcoal offers less influence on its thick spare ribs, just a trace of the carbonized, DIY-grilled taste. Its exterior has a saliva-robbing amount of MSG, but with a masculine pork taste on first bite, slightly fatty, tender-with-a-tug and delicious. With rib tips, diners' experiences will vary depending on time of day. At its best, minutes off the grill, the tips bear two textures: the crusty bark where heat met meat and a moist, succulent pork interior. Big Daddy's house sauce — Biffle's East-meets-West sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce with chunks of pineapple — is ladled generously on top, a mild distraction for people like me who prefer sauce on the side.
This isn't groundbreaking cooking. But it's honest food, reflecting the taste of a community, from a man who refers to himself in the third person but is selfless enough to try, fail and try again. Chicago has far better barbecue within the city limits. But Gary can always use positive news, and Big Daddy's BBQ is worthy of a shoutout. There's an award displayed at the counter as validation.
Big Daddy's BBQ
4213 Cleveland St., Gary, Ind.; 219-888-9592Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun