After slinging brisket for more than three years in his original City Market stall, Michael Gomez recently expanded Gomez BBQ to a second location on the east side of Indianapolis. We talked with him about the definition of Indiana barbecue, the importance of fat, and (after an especially bruising year) the future of one of downtown’s most enduring landmarks.
How do you see your place in the Indianapolis barbecue scene?
Our slogan is Indy Craft Barbecue. I took what I consider to be the best things from every school of thought about what barbecue is—Carolina barbecue, Texas barbecue, Alabama barbecue, Kansas City barbecue, St. Louis barbecue—and made it my own. There’s not really an Indy barbecue or Indiana barbecue. There is a southern Indiana barbecue joint that does a smoked pork steak, and that’s the only true Indiana barbecue staple that I found in my research on the history of barbecue in Indiana. There’s a reason we’re the crossroads of the country; it’s because not everybody here is from Indiana. I’ve got Kansas City people that come every Friday. I’ve got people from South Carolina. I’ve got people from all over the place, and they all want something a little different. And I think we give them that.
And what is it that you give them?
We do a dry-rubbed, fully smoked style, with sauce on the side if you want it. I designed our rub after months of trying a bunch of different flavor combinations. We have garlic, paprika, peppers, and some other ingredients. It has a bite to it, but not too much. We keep it middle of the road because that’s the other thing about Indiana people—they’re particular. They want to add their own spice and raise the heat level themselves.
You also make your own barbecue sauce. There are two main schools of thought when it comes to sauce—vinegar-based and ketchup-based. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I wanted a combo, so we use Red Gold ketchup from Indiana and Heinz apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegars are kind of like wine—they all taste different. We stick with Heinz or the sauce doesn’t have the same flavor we like. And then we add some of our barbecue rub and molasses.
What’s your top seller?
It used to be pulled pork, but now our brisket is selling more and more. At the 10th Street location, rib night sells out really fast. Our breakfast quesadillas are really popular throughout the week there. At the Carmel Farmers Market, we sell a lot of brisket by the pound. And weirdly enough, the smoked barbecue tofu beats a lot of things out when it comes to online ordering.
What’s your favorite barbecue meal?
Oh, man. I think my favorite of all time is a smoked beef short rib. I can tell you the first time I had a real-deal barbecue beef short rib. It was when I was visiting my brother Carlos in Dallas. We went to a place in Deep Ellum, which is this cool part of town that feels like a mix of all our cool little nooks in Indy like Mass Ave and Fountain Square. This place was in a City Market–style location, and they had a line down the street. I thought if anybody could make that kind of stuff in Indy, they would kill. When I got back home, I started working on short ribs and brisket, which is the hardest thing to cook, by the way.
Brisket is the hardest thing to cook?
Yes. For some reason, it’s one of the toughest things to get right, but once you do, it’s like riding a bike. Muscle memory kicks in.
What advice do you have for people who want to make brisket at home?
People keep asking for a lean cut of brisket, and I just shake my head. You’re never going to find a lean cut of brisket. What’s the point? The fat is what gives the meat flavor when you cook it. The whole reason you can cook a brisket for so long is because that fat drips through your meat. Without that piece of the brisket with the fat, you’re just going to dry out the portion that’s leaner and flat. So, if you’re smoking a brisket, make sure you buy a whole brisket. You can cut off the fat before you eat it, but you’ll have the benefit of the flavor that only comes from cooking it whole, with the fat.
What kind of seasoning do you put on the brisket before you cook it?
Just salt and pepper. People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that. But I’ve tried everything. I’ve used soy sauce, mustards, coarse pepper, and tons of different things. Then I just made one with salt and pepper and it was the best.
You’ve had a stall at City Market since 2017, but you opened up a second location this year, a restaurant on 10th Street on Indy’s eastside. Why did you do that, especially during a pandemic?
Within our first year, I looked at our sales at City Market and thought, this is fine if I just want to pay my bills. But we need to expand if we’re going to make money. City Market does make money. I could go on a weekend trip, put a little money in my savings, and do normal life stuff, but it wasn’t making enough to give me the confidence to say this is what I could do for a living. So we looked at ways of expanding. We looked at numerous places, and I looked at the east side because I think the east side is kind of like the new Fountain Square or Fletcher Place. And it’s beginning to look more and more like that.
What are your plans for the City Market location? It’s been a tough year for businesses there, and many have left or are barely hanging on.
We have a lease with them through December. So we’re waiting to see what their plan is for the place.
What have those conversations with City Market been like?
They asked me flat-out what I expect from the City Market board and managers. I told them that to maintain this market and to make it profitable, they need to publicize it, update it, and maintain it. And they need to create events. They need to create a culture and positive marketing campaign so that people don’t think it’s too dangerous to go to the City Market because of everything that’s happened in the last year or that there’s no reason to come down here.
Do you feel like those things will happen?
I really don’t know. If you look at The AMP at 16 Tech or The Garage at Bottleworks, they have management groups. To be perfectly honest, City Market is understaffed. It has two people in management positions and they have a maintenance crew. So it’s a total of four people. At Findlay Market in Cincinnati, I believe they have something like 38 people on staff. So City Market is just underfunded and understaffed. It needs cosmetic and perceptual updates. I’ve offered to help, and we’ve waited for them to do something. We had a meeting recently, and they want us to be open in the evening, but it needs to be a two-way street. We can’t just be open without events like music, art, or other fun stuff to bring people in. I’m totally open to doing something, but I can’t do it by myself or with a couple of vendors like it’s been in the past. It needs to be everybody or nobody.
Can you imagine a scenario where it would be worth it for you to stay there?
Yeah, of course. If our numbers go up and we see an active role of the board and managers to improve things. And, look, I know it’s an uphill battle for City Market. I don’t want to hate on anyone there. It’s a tough job and there’s a lot of pain. There was COVID; the homelessness and drug issues; construction that won’t be over until the end of 2021. And then in November our main customer base is leaving when the Criminal Justice Center relocates from right across the street in the City-County Building to almost three miles away. So I really need to see a strategic plan of how this place is going to go. I hate to be negative, because we’ve always been really gung-ho and worked with them. We’re doing the best we can, but I also need to be realistic.