(A gallery with photos of the food and restaurants is here.)
Decades ago, before Slow's Bar BQ kicked off Corktown's restaurant revival, small neighborhood barbecue joints of a much different vibe — like Nunn's, Vicki's, Lee's, and Park's — turned Detroit into a barbecue town. The old-schoolers are plexiglass divided restaurants that are fragrant, small-ish, and often carryout only. Your meals arrive with slices of limp, white bread used to sop up the excess tangy, sweet, or hot sauces, as is standard in the south. Each of the shops are owned and operated by people who come from a long line of barbecue masters with deep Southern roots, and each caters to the city's love of ribs and chicken. As Park's BBQ owner Roderick Parks put it several years ago when we asked about the new wave of hip barbecue restaurants: "Most of them are restaurants that sell barbecue, or bars that sell barbecue, like Slows, which is a bar that sells barbecue. It's not a barbecue joint."
Here are a few of our favorite neighborhood "barbecue joints":
Vicki's is one of Detroit's barbecue old-timers that's up at the top of the list in any conversation on our barbecue heavyweights. That partly owes to the St. Louis-style cut ribs that Vicki's cooks over an open pit (though you can also get them smoked). But the highlight in what's basically a highlight reel meal is the vinegar and tomato-based sauce. Though there's a heavy dose of acidic vinegar, this isn't Carolina-style, but perhaps a unique composition that mixes in the best of several barbecue worlds. Could you call it Detroit-style? Perhaps. Also worth noting is the packaging — the ribs come tightly wrapped in cellophane and sit in a nest of fries soaking up the pool of excess sauce that you won't want to leave behind.
3845 W. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-894-9906; vickisfoodsinc.com
Sterling's Old Style BBQ
Sterling's is just about the only neighborhood barbecue joint in Detroit where you'll encounter a plate of brisket. Why is that? As co-owner Will Worthy explains, it's a cultural thing. He traveled to the nation's barbecue capitals before opening Sterling's and found a direct correlation between how far out in the suburbs he traveled and how much brisket landed on a restaurant's plates. But Sterling's decided to buck that trend at its west side restaurant, and the brisket is certainly worth a look. Ditto for the large, sinewy ribs, which are some of the meatiest in town and stained red from hanging out for hours in one of Sterling's three puffing smokers. Each dish receives a generous application of the flavorful, garlicky barbecue sauce enlivened with spices that Worthy wouldn't reveal. The slightly charred black and yellow corn on the cob side is a nice touch, and all the other sides are solid. Worthy opened the restaurant with partner and chef Quentin Pearson.
18241 Plymouth Rd., Detroit; 313-493-9495; sosbbqdetroit.com
Parks Old Style Bar-B-Q
The sauce at Parks is a different animal than its Detroit counterparts. It's done in a thinner-but-lively and acidic vinegar-based sauce, not too unlike what you'll find in the Carolinas, though it's clearly Detroit born and bred. Choose from three varieties: the sweet pairs well with the ribs. However, you don't want to miss the hot option, but be forewarned: This isn't "Livonia hot" — this is "North End Detroit hot," and the cayenne powder-dusted chicken isn't for those who normally opt for the mild or medium spice levels. Edward Parks opened the restaurant in 1964, endured the neighborhood's ups and downs, and cooks up between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds of ribs weekly. It's a destination, as is evidenced by 90 percent of Parks' clientele traveling from outside the North End.
7444 Beaubien St., Detroit; 313-873-7444
Lee's Texas Style Barbecue
When you think of Texas, you think of big steers and giant slabs of spice-rubbed brisket, but the ribs and the chicken are the specialty at Lee's, along with seafood and all the made-from-scratch soul food sides like the rich five-cheese mac and cheese. Co-owner Felicia Poole tells us that the "Texas-style" is a reference to their process, which involves slow-cooking ribs and chicken over charcoal instead of roasting on a spit or via any other short cut. Poole says that's how her granddaddy did it, who opened five Lee's locations in the late 1970s. "He was from Texas, so he was the 'Texas Man,'" she says. The Lee's chain closed down, but Poole recently revived the Fenkell and Schafer location where she slathers Lee's ribs and chicken in the family's tangy sauce. And whatever you order for dinner, don't forget to cap off the meal with her homemade sweet potato pie.
14001 Fenkell Ave, Detroit; 313-452-4940
Joe Ann's is one of the longest-running barbecue operations in Detroit (if not the longest-running), first serving up its delicious 'cue 65 years ago. If you go to Joe Ann's bright yellow building that's decorated with a picture of a grillin' pig and a proclamation that the restaurant is the castle of Detroit's "BBQ Queen." The best place to start here is the chicken. The BBQ Queen knows her bird, which is moist and falls off the bone in a manner that isn't common in Detroit's barbecue joints.
3139 Jerome St, Detroit; 313-366-3775
Uptown, a barbecue and soul food legend, sits on Livernois between the Lodge and the University of Detroit. Even if you've never been there, you might have caught a whiff of its huge, black smoking cans parked out front of the shop. The puffs reach the Lodge when the wind blows south, offering hints of the meaty ribs left scarlet from the smoke treatment. Uptown's racks come coated in a thick glaze of deep red, slightly sweet sauce that's wrapped up neat in your carryout container. Mention Uptown in conversation and the sides will invariably come up. Don't miss the mac and cheese and black-eyed peas which are, as MT's resident barbecue aficionado Michael Jackman put it, "the unsung heroes of the meal."
15700 Livernois Ave., Detroit;313-862-7427
Nunn's Bar-B-Que II
Nunn's is another of the pit-style Detroit classics, and the meat from the ribs and chicken slide off the bone without much encouragement. Down the menu, the potato salad is a zesty side that's among Nunn's best, and the vinegary greens are a fan favorite. For dessert, check out the kenta cake, a mildly sweet frosted pound cake that seems to be a Nunn's original.
19196 Conant St., Detroit; 313-893-7210; nunnsbbq.com(A gallery with more photos is here.)