Sunday, July 15, 2012

[Up North] Barbecue, Blue Moon, and Blueberries in South Haven

Our Up North series highlights good eats to seek out on your weekend roadtrips as you head Up North – that ambiguous, nebulous region in Michigan where everyone has, or has a friend that has, a cottage on a lake somewhere.

(Editor's Note: If you're wondering why a place called South Haven located in west Michigan is considered Up North, I can't help you there, that's just the way it is.)

Another weekend of summer fun at Lake Michigan in the books. This time, we headed west to South Haven for an alliterative weekend of beach, barbecue, blueberries, and of course, Blue Moon.

While driving north along M-140 past Paw Paw Lake and the small town of Covert, we came across Ranch House Ribs - a small, nondescript, roadside bbq shack. I suddenly remembered that I had read about this place at Smokin' Chokin' and Chowin' with the King, an excellent source for good eats from Michigan through Chicago and into Wisconsin. We immediately pulled in to check it out. 
Score another one for the goofy cartoon logo postulate - check out that giddy little pig tending to the fire up top
You don't go to a roadside bbq shack for the decor and ambiance; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the crayon drawings of pigs that lined the walls inside Ranch House Ribs. The menu at RHR was fairly extensive - ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken, baked beans, mac-n-cheese, shrimp, fried okra, etc - but with more planned stops ahead, we went with a half slab. 

I had committed my #1 sin of ordering barbecue - I did not order sauce on the side. Too often, the sauce covers up the flavor of the smoked meat. However, one bite into these ribs, I knew tragedy had been averted. I liked the sauce at RHR - first, it was not the sweet, sticky, Kansas City-style that you find at a lot of barbecue places north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was a thin, spicy sauce that lightly covered the ribs. Second, the sauce did not cover up the smokiness of the meat - there was a slight bark on these guys and just the right amount of smoke. They disappeared rapidly.

After a couple of questions about the ribs, the female pitmaster offered to show me their smoker. It was a large unit built into the back wall of the kitchen that had a rotating rack inside. She said they smoke their spare ribs over apple wood until not quite fall-off-the bone tender - the way spare ribs should be cooked (barbecue purists would tell you they should have a slight bit of chew to them and definitely not fall off the bone). She even offered up a taste of the mac-n-cheese and pulled pork. 

After a couple hours at the beach, it was on to the Idler Riverboat for drinks located downtown in the harbor. 
High on summertime

There are worse ways to spend a blistering hot Saturday afternoon in mid-July. I can't comment on the food offered at the Idler as this was strictly a rehydration effort. The Idler has a solid list of Michigan craft beer - Bell's, New Holland, Arcadia and Short's are all on the menu. My first choice - New Holland's Mad Hatter IPA - was out, so I took a step down on the hops scale and went with Arcadia's Angler's Pale Ale. Mrs. T and a few others went with Oberon, which was appropriately served with an orange slice (it should be at least a misdemeanor in MI for an Oberon to be served with a lemon). After one round of beers, the crowd quickly switched to drinks served with umbrellas, the highlight being Mrs. T's  frozen Pompineapple Mojito. 

After the Idler, it was on to the Sherman Dairy Bar, which has been churning out great ice cream since 1916. Sherman's is served at a few places around town, but it's best to go to the creamery for the real deal. Conveniently located just off exit 20 off of 196, take Phoenix Street west until you see the big blue cow.

Blue Moo!
Don't be scared of the massive crowd spilling out of the doors - there's a reason there is a big line and it moves quickly. Plus, you'll need the time to study the menu.

For me, there really isn't much to debate, I'm going straight for the classic - Blue Moon. For Sherman newbies, it can be a daunting task. How can you choose between yellow cake batter or chocolate cake batter? Chocolate covered pretzel or chocolate peanut butter? Black raspberry supreme or red velvet delight? These are not the types of choices people should be forced to make on a hot summer's day. 
The good news is that you can't lose. Sherman's did throw me a curve ball this time though - a new menu item appeared. Hint: those aren't grains of sugar on that cone, those are crystals of salt. For the first time in my life, I ordered my ice cream in a pretzel cone - has this existed all this time and I never heard of it? In any event, it was a life-changing experience. The combination of the sweet ice cream with a little salt from the cone is a sweet/salty combo that can only be rivaled by the french fries dipped in chocolate shake move.

I can also say a little more definitively that the flavor of Blue Moon is something in the nut family. My friends and I were discussing it in line and the woman behind us strenuously claimed that the secret flavor of Blue Moon was, in fact, pistachio. I'm still going with almond. 

You can't come to southwest Michigan without loading up on blueberries. Heading south down M-140 out of town, we saw numerous roadside stands and u-pick berry farms and stopped to pick up a 5 lb box. Life is good along the Blue Star Highway.

Ranch House Ribs
23090 M-140
South Haven, MI

Sherman Dairy Bar
1601 Phoenix Rd.
South Haven, MI

Idler Riverboat
515 Williams St.
South Haven, MI


  1. Would love the ribs, beer and blueberries,however, this bluemoon ice cream would take some getting used to. I prefer butter pecan.


  2. Tony,

    Jess and I had been to SH before but we went back this weekend and hit all three of these spots. They were amazing. That pretzel cone is out of this world. And those ribs were excellent. I've actually already sent this page to 3 different people because of how much I was talking it up. Keep doing what you're doing.

    1. Joe, glad you guys liked these spots! That part of the state is full of awesome little places like these.