Dark Horse by a nose

Texas Style BBQ in Miamisburg

By Paula Johnson

Photo: The Combo Platter at Dark Horse Tavern

In politics, a “dark horse” is a come-from-behind candidate whose success would be considered surprising. My visit to Dark Horse Tavern on Byers Road in Miamisburg led me to consider the restaurant’s similarities to the political definition. Dark Horse boasts generous portions of hearty cowboy country cooking with an emphasis on smoked BBQ. With me on this outing to see how their claims held up was PIP (Palate In Progress) and Pit Master Jinx and his charming missus.

Since Dark Horse’s menu is BBQ-centric, I pressed the Master into service. His princess-and-the-pea-like ability to parse out subtleties in technique and ingredients speaks to years of service to his craft.

Located near the entrance to Interstate 75 near the Dayton Mall, finding the restaurant is easy and there is ample parking in the lot. Upon arrival, we were offered our choice of seating. While there were tables in the bustling bar area and on the adjacent covered patio, we elected to try a small dining area adjoining the bar, thinking it might be a bit quieter. We found ourselves having to talk more loudly than in normal voice to be heard, as would happen in many bar-type restaurants. If you’re looking to have more intimate conversation, the patio might be the best bet. The restaurant’s vibe is typically tavern-like as its name suggests – dark, informal and lively, with loud music and live bands playing nightly. Luckily, we met at 6:30 p.m. to dine and just finished as the night’s band was beginning, which would have precluded any dinner conversation.

After settling into a booth, we ordered drinks and appetizers. Dark Horse offers six beers on tap and a range of bottled options, but has a very limited selection of wines. There are BBQ appetizers on the menu, but we decided to save that for the main course, opting instead for a basket of fried onion straws and Texas nachos. Wings, queso dip and chips, fried pickles, pretzels with cheese dip and potato skins are also featured as appetizers. The fried onions ($4.95) were good – thin, hand-battered and salty, served with a chipotle ranch dipping sauce. We enjoyed the hefty platter of nachos, served with lots of cheese, chili, chunks of chicken and salsa. Mrs. J found her red pepper soup topped with onion straws satisfying. Not so satisfying were the salads. The dressing on the Underwood salad, described as parmesan, was so cloyingly sweet as to be nearly inedible.

Platter perfect?

Our entrée order got a bit muddled, due perhaps to the menu not being clear. PIP selected the Combo Platter. At $29.99 the platter features a half rack of ribs, sausage links, pulled pork, brisket and cow chips. The menu states it is plenty for four people, a claim which certainly wasn’t true for us. I ordered my own entrée and we easily finished the platter. Maybe that was the case since, despite questioning the server, we were told nothing came with it – no salad or sides (apart from the potato chips). The menu states all entrées are served with two sides and a biscuit, but it appears that is limited to the single BBQ entrées solely, not the platter. It just seemed an excessive amount of meat with no salad or other side choice, and definitely not enough for four.

The Pit Master and his wife ordered pulled pork ($11.00) and brisket ($14.50), and I was eager to get down to business and talk sauce and smoke as we sampled Dark Horse’s offerings. The pulled pork turned out to be the table favorite, but we all found the brisket a bit dry. The Master’s assessment: “The brisket’s flavor is good. However, it was most likely slightly under-marinated and then held on the smoker too long. That would account for the dryness.”

With sauce, not so much a problem, and Dark Horse offers three choices to sauce up: Sweet Chipotle, Cactus Drippin’s and Better Than Sex. The Cactus Dripppin’s was a combo of mango and habanero with molasses notes, and the Better Than Sex features peach and bourbon flavors. The dark Sweet Chipotle was the Master’s favorite, and mine as well.

On to the ribs: A bit overly charred on the surface, the meat was moist, almost to the point of falling off the bone. I asked Master Jinx for his thoughts as we sucked on the bones. “While many people prefer ribs that fall off the bone, a truly competition-worthy rib should have a slight tug and resistance when you pull on it with your teeth. These ribs are good and tender, maybe not competition-ready.” Ready or not, they were consumed and enjoyed.

True grits

I gladly veered away from the BBQ route for my entrée choice, a Southern favorite sadly not on many menus – Shrimp and Grits ($14.50). It’s a dish I love and will order anytime I find it. It arrived, unfortunately, not as promised and was promptly returned to the kitchen by an apologetic server. Things can happen in any restaurant, and it is how missteps are handled that is most important. Dark Horse did what they were supposed to do in such a case, owned the mistake, apologized and made it right. When the dish reappeared, it was worth the wait. Cheesy grits were topped with slightly spicy grilled shrimp and a tangy sauce. Chunks of salty bacon and fresh chopped scallions made for a perfect counterpoint to the creaminess of the grits and the sweetness of the shrimp. All in all, a steaming bowl of savory stick-to-your-ribs goodness I would certainly order again.

Finish line

Unfortunately, there was only one dessert available, a chocolate chip cookie sundae with chocolate sauce ($3.99). I am not really a cookie fan, but my tablemates found it a tasty end to their meal, so I will take their word for it. Dinner for two of us came to approximately $60, plus tip, for two entrées, an appetizer and one drink.

There are times when a dark horse can come from behind to surprise and delight. Other times, a dark horse should just stay in the dark. In the case of Dark Horse Tavern, both of these possibilities could turn out to be true, depending upon your dining selections.

Dark Horse Tavern is located at 209 Byers Road in Miamisburg. For more information, please call 937.866.6960 or visit dhtmiamisburg.com.

Reach DCP freelance writerPaula Johnson at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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