Detroit’s Southern Smokehouse is a soul food hidden gem

Going Southern on Six Mile

Feb 23, 2023 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge At Detroit’s Southern Smokehouse, you get mouth-watering soul food to-go. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
At Detroit’s Southern Smokehouse, you get mouth-watering soul food to-go.

This is the second straight time I’ve been assigned to review a carry-out only restaurant. One wonders why. I’ve never given my editor cause to question my table manners, nor has he ever seen me eat. But I confess: After picking up and plowing through two impressive orders from Southern Smokehouse, I’m grinning ear to ear in barbecue sauce and gravy, still licking my fingers over the experience.

This grab-and-go spot opened a decade ago by brothers Kevin and Dwayne Hayes, the latter having trained under Chef Milos Cihelka at Southfield’s former Golden Mushroom restaurant. Having set up shop on a bustling stretch of West McNichols Road, Southern and its crew were catering to a considerable lunch crowd when I first popped in. Waiting my turn, I people-watched. A man in painter’s whites showed the patience of Job in line behind a woman putting staff through their paces with all kinds of questions, special requests, and separate orders. Another customer insistent on inspecting the day’s oxtails added her two cents to the atmosphere, and one of Detroit’s finest (PD) claimed some civic special privilege, double-parking her cruiser out front before joining the queue.

And the line moves fairly fast. Running what’s essentially a commissary kitchen, Southern keeps a virtual conveyor belt of down-home victuals rolling out into long, banquet-style steam tables staged up front. Behind bank-quality security glass, much of the menu fare’s kept hot off the fire for all to see. Fried chicken, fish, ribs, and such get called back to the cooks to order. Like Oxtail Lady, I appreciated the opportunity to look over what I was considering eating, visually noting things to try on my next visit, and watching dish-out staff generously filling containers. From a what-you-see-is-what-you-get perspective, Southern’s set-up serves its customers in fine fashion.

Fresh-fried okra certainly made a great first impression. One of two sides I picked with my lunch perch ($7.45), it reminded me of what this commonly frozen product’s real appeal is: crunchy-creamy from outside-in and frittered free of any greasiness whatsoever (via correct oil temperature and cook time). So, too, the perch filet. If borderline precious in portion, perfectly executed; its flesh steamed firm and moist in crisp, cornmeal crust. (For lack of lemon, I squeezed some Taco Bell sauce packets on top that I found in my fridge. Delicious.) As to my second side, coleslaw; it was what it was, chopped, creamy, serviceable.

Breaking into the next box, I found my favorite food, fried chicken ($8.45, breast with two sides). Winner, winner. Thinly crusted and tasting close to Cajun-spiced, this piece of white meat notorious for its narrow, proper doneness window couldn’t have pleased me more. Just minutes too long or little in the fryer can leave chicken breast an over- or underdone disappointment. Mine, piping hot and juicy, was plucked from the oil with perfect timing. Cinnamon-kissed candied yams that came with were brown sugar-sweet and buttery, and collard greens cooked down in stock still held their lighter color and leafy texture.

After a nap to recover an appetite for ribs ($17.95, half slab, two sides, lunch and dinner), I woke to seven or so St. Louis-cut bones, luxuriously lacquered with a sweet-side sauce and pork lusciously smoked through, low and slow. Passing their own muster, those bones pulled out of that meat like sticks from a melting popsicle.

Baked beans struck me as too sweet, period. I prefer more savory balance; say, added bacon and/or onion. And if Southern’s mac and cheese isn’t the perfectly creamy kind, on the bright side, it’s the same cheddar-y marshmallow texture my mom used to make; pillowy and pocketed with melted cheese throughout. Yes, please and always, that’s homemade to me.

Heading back for seconds, I dive into two dinner plates. Brisket is stellar ($15.45 with sides). Smoke-ringed and sliced thin, it’s piled high and encircled — but not covered up — by sauce. Sampling forkfuls with and without allowed me both the full-on, lip-smacking pleasure of Southern’s beefiest barbecue and the alternate opportunity to appreciate this hearty, whole muscle meat on its own merits. Notoriously tough to render succulent and tender, this was blue-ribbon brisket: plated with point (fat marbled) and flat cut (lean) portions still conjoined and their taste and textural differences on deft display. Bringing me back down to earth, whole pintos were a plain Jane bore, while lima beans only roused my tastebuds with seasoning I couldn’t discern or compliment. On both visits, bread options also proved a bit of a bust. There’s lots to love in Southern’s overall menu packaging, but dull, dry cornbread and dinner rolls are its Styrofoam peanuts, in my opinion.

Two hearty, smothered pork chops ($13.95 with sides) put me way over my calorie count for the day. Good gravy, these were the soul of Southern’s comfort foods, blanketed with what one definition describes as “the flour-thickened juices of meats or poultry which are produced during slow-cooking.” I felt thickened myself after finishing them both, along with smooth-as-silk mashed potatoes and a vinegar-puckered potato salad. Meat and potatoes with a side of potato. That’s me.

Professional duty demands I save room for dessert. Failing to do so, I force-fed on banana pudding ($4.25) scooped into a container large enough for two to share. Studded with banana chunks and softened vanilla wafers, it didn’t go unappreciated.

In hindsight, of all I packed away for the purposes of this review, maybe it was best that I ate everything Southern Smokehouse had to offer in the privacy of my own home. Oink oink.

Location Details

Southern Smokehouse

14340 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit

313-397-4050

thesouthernsmokehouse.com

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