It's time for our annual Barbecue Issue, and it's amazing to think how normal that has become. Had we done this a decade ago, it would have turned heads. "A barbecue issue?" some might have inquired, "Like about the BoneYard?"
But barbecue has come a long way since then, as a generation of restaurants has opened, pairing the craft food with craft beers and full bars in quirky settings. It quickly made sense to the average person. And it dovetails neatly with so many other trends, the "new normal," casual dining, craft beer, the "buy local" movement, even the rise of Americana music.
But barbecue is also earthy, eaten with the hands, antithetical to that little fork on the end whose purpose you can never figure out. It conjures memories of summer, of vacation, of anything but a typical workday. It takes one of our historic foods and reinterprets it as a delicacy. It is, to put it simply, fun.
Of course, some people never forgot barbecue, and we're lucky in Detroit to have a number of old-style places serving up classic fare that's often top quality along with a fresh batch of folks pumping out tremendous 'cue too.
It's overwhelming to see evidence of the barbecue boom all over metro Detroit, from downtown to the 'burbs and beyond. It's a scene that's continually being added to by people making sauces, rubs, even monster smokers and grills. Every year, it gets a little crazier. When we started our Pig & Whiskey festival in 2011, it was just eight hours on one Saturday. Since, it has exploded into a three-day festival that's expected to draw not just thousands, but tens of thousands: like 50,000 people.
They can't all be wrong.
To kick things off, we wanted to take a tour de force of sorts. What if money and time were no object? What if we could send messengers all over the city, dispatched to go forth and retrieve our favorites? What if we could build the ultimate Detroit barbecue feast?
Now, we know everybody's would be different. But, given our years of barbecue research, this is how we'd break it down.
Rib tips and coleslaw from Parks Old Style Bar-B-Q
The rib tips come basted in Parks' signature vinegar-based Southern sauce. Nothing gets those salivary glands primed like Roderick Parks sauce, all of which is made on-site and never comes out of a bottle. The tips themselves are legit, little chunks cooked to the perfect doneness. The quality of product at Parks' is such that even Uptown owner Nathaniel Fanning's mother has been known to drop in occasionally.
At too many restaurants, the coleslaw is an afterthought. But instead of the customary paper cup of slaw doled out from a GFS tub, Parks' slaw shines: appealing to look at, speckled with celery seed, full of flavor, and with a slightly al dente consistency to the cabbage.
7444 Beaubien St., Detroit; 313-873-7444; m.mainstreethub.com/parksoldstylebar-b-q
Black-eyed peas and baked beans from Uptown BBQ
The sides at Uptown are modest-sized. You might want to double up on them or more, though, because they're worth it. The black-eyed peas are rich and gumbo-like, spicy and peppery, with bits of celery and shredded pork. Even the baked beans have something unusual to them, perhaps a bit of mustard powder to help them get attention.
15700 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-862-7427.
Collard greens from Nunn's Barbecue II
At Nunn's, the greens are cooked with enough vinegar to temper the leafy veggie's natural tang down a bit, but are not reduced to mush. They are properly cooked with chunks of ham, so, remember not to serve these to your vegan friends; half the reason they taste so good is because of how the fibers have been broken down by the pig fat.
19196 Conant St., Detroit; 313-893-7210; nunnsbbq.com.
Mac and cheese fromMs. E-Vee's
The ideal mac and cheese is both light and fluffy (with its flavors of cream and the perfectly prepared noodles), and intensely heavy (with serious amounts of cheese — ideally several kinds). We're not saying that Ms. E-Vee's, an old-school soul food joint with Plexiglas and blown-up images of the food, has the best mac and cheese in the region. Wars have been fought over less, of course. But if you eat their macaroni and cheese once and don't later find yourself craving it at odd hours, we'd be very surprised.
201 W. Eight Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-366-5626; mseveessoulfood.com.
Ribs from Vicki's Barbecue & Shrimp
These come in hot and mild, the hot variety getting a generous shake of spices and an extra dollop of hot sauce. Both are excellent. The meat is cooked perfectly, and the sauce imparts just enough sweetness to not overwhelm the smoky flavors the meat is impregnated with. All slabs come with a handful of slices of white bread (Avalon International Breads this isn't), but even snobs will find themselves sopping up Vicki's sauce with them when the meat is gone.
3845 W. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-894-9906.
Pulled Pork from Lazybones Smokehouse
What you want to look for in a solid pulled pork is moist and tenderness that really locks in the flavor, otherwise you're stuck with a stringy, tasteless heap that gets stuck between your teeth. Lazybones gets that and maintains a strong following that swears by their Carolina-style pulled pork. What's more, the smokehouse is not afraid to experiment, using the meat as the basis for a variety of combinations, including burritos, the Hillbilly Pulled Pork with ham and Cajun-fried corn and a heart burn-inducing sandwich in which the swine is smothered in chili, served on a hoagie bun.
27475 Groesbeck Hwy., Roseville; 586-775-7427; lazybonessmokehouse.net.
Chicken from Union Woodshop
This spot is known for its burnt ends, wood-fired pizzas and Memphis sauce, but it also turns out a juicy bird. Chicken at a BBQ joint can be tricky, as it's often viewed as the third-string meat and it can be rather easy to dry out very quickly on the grill's high heat. But the Woodshop makes it interesting, with its succulent, if not underrated poultry. Try the naked wings, waiting to be sauced, the hardwood-smoked half chicken platter or the pizza.
18 S. Main St., Village of Clarkston; 248-625-5660; unionwoodshop.com.
Sausage from Billy Sims BBQ
For best sausage, we go to Billy Sims BBQ, an Oklahoma-style BBQ chain, actually named after retired Detroit Lions running back Billy Sims, a native of Hooks, Texas, which lies deep in barbacue country. What you get here are nine types of smoked meats, including an impressive lineup of hot links and Polish sausage. Make sure to try "The Heisman," which incorporates a hot link, stacked with chopped brisket or pulled pork and a slice of bologna and a hot link. This chain has locations throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and here in Michigan.
Various locations; billysimsbbq.com.
Brisket from Detroit BBQ Company
OK, for brisket, you're going to have to be willing to search out the guys behind the Detroit BBQ Company, a food truck operation that is particularly known for the stuff. If you frequent the Royal Oak Farmers Market (or our Pig & Whiskey event), you may have spotted the mobile kitchen. The brisket here is tender, easily falling apart with the gentle help of a fork, flavorful enough that sauce is not required and has a well-balanced meat to fat ratio.
8350 St. Aubin St., Detroit; 586-855-9012; facebook.com/Detbbqco.
Kenta Cake from Nunn's Barbecue Restaurant
Nunn's is no slouch when it comes to barbecue, and may even have the best ribs on the east side. But they serve an unusual delicacy called Kenta Cake, and Nunn's is the only place we've ever heard of serving it. Not overly sweet, it's like a pound cake that's cheerfully decorated with three colors.
19196 Conant St., Detroit; 313-893-7210; nunnsbbq.com.