Sunday, July 29, 2012

On the Barbecue Trail: Mid-Michigan

If there is one food group that I can be justly chastised for being snobby about, it is barbecue. I grew up thinking good barbecue was rubbery babyback ribs drowned in a thick, sweet sauce. I was never a fan. It was years before I was exposed to low and slow barbecue smoked over real hunks of hardwood. I was a huge fan.

Barbecue seems to be like healthcare - everyone has an opinion on how it should be done. Enjoy a layer of thick, sweet tomato and molasses Kansas City-style sauce with your pulled pork? Then you probably won't be a fan of South Carolina's mustard sauce. I try to stay away from declaring an allegiance to any particular barbecue region, but I'd be lying if I said I don't prefer the vinegar sauce of Eastern Carolina on my pulled pork and the dry-rubbed ribs of Memphis.

Although barbecue tends to be a Southern affair, there is a barbecue revolution happening and there is now plenty of good barbecue north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I'm determined to try them all, so let's get it started in my hometown of Lansing, MI.

Meat - Lansing, MI

Meat Southern BBQ and Carnivore cuisine is located in Lansing's rejuvenated Old Town neighborhood. As I walked in and looked at the blackboard behind the counter, I knew I was in good hands.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for pig butter

Meat uses lard in their fryer. I've been singing lard's praises for a while now and they were listed on the blackboard: no trans fats, lower in saturated fat than butter, plenty of monounsaturated fat ("good" fat) and more polyunsaturated (another "good" fat) than olive oil. If you've been thinking lard is disgusting and the most unhealthy thing in the world, you can thank Crisco's marketing department for that misconception. 

Let's get onto the good. I ordered the chopped brisket sandwich (hold the cheddar though - cheese doesn't belong on barbecue), while Mrs. T ordered the pulled pork sandwich. 
Look at that bark (the exterior of the meat that caramelizes to a crunchy, chewy crust as it smokes). Brisket is the toughest of all the barbecued meats as it has a tendency to dry out quickly, but this pile of beefy goodness was tender and incredibly juicy. No sauce necessary at all. The sandwich was served on a toasted light sourdough bread, not the typical doughy white bun. Although untraditional, I was a fan, it held up well to the meat and slaw. The lard fries were solid, nothing spectacular, but good. 

Mrs. T's pulled pork was almost as good as the brisket. Plenty of bits of bark and evidence of a solid smoke ring - the layer of meat just below the crust that turns slightly pink after a proper smoking. Slices of jalepeno added a little extra kick, another untraditional twist that I liked. The slaws on both sandwiches were of the tangy, vinegar variety - not the creamy, mayo variety.

I peaked around the kitchen a bit and didn't see an indoor smoker, so I asked the guy that seemed to be running things. He said they have a pellet smoker out back and use apple and cherry wood for fuel. Whatever they're doing, they're doing it right. I came away thoroughly impressed and can't wait to go back to try the smoked wings and hot links.

Sure Shot BBQ - Mount Pleasant, MI

I am always looking for pitstops along 127 for my trips Up North. I came across Sure Shot in an article about some of the top barbecue places in Michigan. I knew I was in the right spot when I saw the menu written on the blackboard - the only better indicator of good eats than a goofy cartoon logo is a goofy cartoon drawing written in chalk.

The pulled pork was decent, no real signs of bark or a smoke ring, but a hint of smoke still made its way into the meat. I drizzled a little bit of the thin, sweet sauce that had just a little bit of a kick to it.

The ribs were probably a slight step up from the pulled pork. They had a good texture - tender with just a bit of chew to them. There was a mild bark from what I assume was a shorter smoking time than what you'd typically see for spare ribs.

As I dove into the mac-n-cheese, it was a WTF moment. What is with those bright orange crumbs sprinkled on top? Surely this was going to be a disaster. After my first bite, I realized they were crumbled up Cheez-Its. I tried to resist, but I couldn't help myself - this was delicious. It was the crunchy texture you get from toasted breadcrumbs, with the added benefit of adding a salty, cheesy crunch.

Sure Shot isn't exactly a life-changing experience, but you could do a lot worse in this part of the state that can be somewhat barren when it comes to good eats. I'll definitely keep it in my rotation of pitstops on my way Up North.

Smokey Bones BBQ - Sears, MI (intersection of US-10 and US-66)

Home of the... spotted dog with hooves?
Smokey Bones sits at the corner of US-10 and US-66 in a part of the state where the trees start becoming just the right height and the landscape starts to transform from farmland into Northern Michigan woodlands. There is a gas station across the street with a simple billboard that sums up the area fairly well - "Beer, Booze, Bait, Bullets" - what else do you need?

Despite my best efforts to order sauce on the side, my sandwich was hit with a heavy dose of the housemade  barbecue sauce, which was a tad sweet for my taste. The meat was juicy and tender, almost too tender if that's possible - it wasn't quite meaty enough.

Not pictured, was the brisket sandwich that my mom ordered. As I mentioned before, brisket is very difficult to cook and serve properly if you're not turning over a lot of it, and I was skeptical Smokey Bones could pull it off. I was wrong, very wrong. The thick slices of brisket were unbelievably tender and perfectly smokey.

That's where the magic happens
Big R's Hogs & Dogs - Farwell, MI

Big R's is located on M-115 just west of downtown Farwell, home of the annual Lumberjack Festival and Figure 8 Demolition Derbies on Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day weekends. Big R does one thing and he does it well - pulled pork. I visited Big R's shortly after they opened earlier this year and they were still working the kinks out a bit, but the pulled pork was on point, possibly the best pulled pork of any listed here. They are planning on doing special items on the weekends (ribs, fish fries, etc), so I will keep my eye out for those.

Know of any places that I missed? With plenty of new barbecue spots popping up around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, a barbecue tour of Washtenaw County is in the pipeline. 

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