In January, the space vacated by AJ's Music Cafe in Ferndale became the home of the newest entry in metro Detroit's still-burgeoning barbecue scene: Zeke's BBQ. They seem to be doing well, serving good barbecue and attracting a steady clientele.
Of course, it's Zeke's "Rock and Roll" BBQ. One member of our party kept kidding about the concept, scrunching up his face and giving that drummer's falsetto cry of "rock and roll!" a few times during the meal. At this point, the 60-year-old form of music is just another badge of all-Americanism, and Zeke's wears it well. Album covers and single sleeves adorn the walls, featuring lots of local acts, from the radio-friendly Romantics to hardcore trailblazers Negative Approach. The mix of music, dubbed by one co-diner as "the national sound of boomer radio," was pure classic rock. Once, we walked in to the tune of "Bad to the Bone," which got us chuckling; during another meal, we actually heard "Free Bird."
The "rock 'n' roll barbecue" attracts a broad swath of humanity, from tables of 50something dudes to stylish young ladies with sleeve tattoos. The younger crowd seems to gravitate toward the long bar that extends along the east wall; dining parties can choose the more sedate area opposite. There's a multitude of flatscreen televisions; we counted six screens from where we sat. (Are this many televisions necessary in an eatery anymore? We're pretty much all carrying little televisions as it is.)
It's de rigueur these days to give barbecue diners that six-pack of sauces, but Zeke's aren't the usual sweet, apple-tinged, or nuclear-fired choices you get at most places. Zeke's BBQ sauce is sweet and smoky, a sort of Memphis-style sauce that balances well with the proteins, not overwhelming their flavors. The pineapple-habanero isn't very hot, with just a whisper of fruity zing. The honey-mustard sauce is exactly what you'd expect it to be. For those who must have their spiciness, there's a small glass bottle of Cholula sauce. Best of all, there's a good Carolina vinegar sauce in there; too many barbecue joints skew sweet when it comes to sauces, and it's a pleasure to find a condiment as down-home as that. In fact, we found ourselves wishing they'd trade in the six-pack's ketchup for something more like an Alabama white sauce, that mixture of salt, pepper, vinegar, and mayo that goes so well with barbecued chicken. Still, we counted ourselves lucky.
For those dining the first time and trying to find what they like, Zeke's offers a "6 Pack," a large plate piled with brisket, chicken, pulled pork, "Zekewurst," ribs, and burnt ends, with a choice of three sides and four pieces of cornbread. It's $30, but it will easily feed three hungry diners, likely setting you up for another visit once you're acquainted with Zeke's barbecue. The brisket, the hardest cut to do right, was tender and moist. The pulled pork was a bit dry, but mostly on top; little bits rescued from underneath this meatpile were more succulent, and still smoky like jerky. A co-diner remarked that the barbecued chicken was right up there with the best he'd ever had, the skin moist but still tearing away chewy, the meat flavorful and not overdone. The ribs are excellent, but if you're used to that kind of sloppy, sugary, fall-right-off-the-bone rib, your mileage may vary. You see, these are the real thing: firm, with a leanness that comes from low and slow smoking, a bit on the salty side, with a perfectly pink interior, and meat that tears away from the bone with slight resistance, leaving little bits of protein fused onto the rib for the pleasure of gnawing. The burnt ends could have had more bark to them, and might have benefited from being cubed down more finely and sauced or smoked once more, but were just crisp enough to qualify. Happily, the "Zekewurst" consisted of cuts of excellent sausage, perfectly cooked. The cuts are dusted in spice, but it seemed unnecessary. Then again, the menu is all about richness and flavor, and it's understandable the kitchen will do all the lily-gilding it can. Even the cornbread was cake-like, not those crumbly afterthoughts you'll find elsewhere; they even had kernels of corn baked right into them.
Some of the sides were a hit with our party. The smoked beans have a citrus accent underneath their sweet smokiness, and rated high with our resident barbecue expert. He also enjoyed the potato salad, which comes topped with a generous teaspoon of paprika (it's possible for the spice-averse to eat around it). The sriracha slaw is a competent cabbage slaw accented with the hip hot sauce, and works as both a side and a topping on a sandwich. Our party found the pan-fried Brussels sprouts too sweet: A roasted sprout can stand on its own; this side just has too much going on. But the chili was delightful, with generous chunks of meat, soft and smoky beans, and a thickness like that of the "Hillbilly Chili" at the Telway, with a density that suggested a neutral thickening agent like cornstarch. It was so thick, in fact, that you won't want or need to use your oyster crackers; they didn't soak through after being dunked under for a few minutes.
One of the most decadent and excellent dishes at Zeke's is a starter, the "BBQ Poutine," a mound of fries covered with deep-fried cheese curds and pulled pork, then showered with gravy. Something magical happens to cheese curds in a deep-fryer: The normally sloppy curds firm up into delicacies packed with rich flavor that explodes in the mouth. The pulled pork, which we said can run a little dry, is exalted by the gravy. One petty qualm is the dusting of spice the fries get: Must everything be spice-dusted? A cut of potato properly fried is a wonderful thing. No worries: The thoughtful staff can serve the fries sans spices for any potato purists.
We veered away from the smoker to try Zeke's take on the Cubano sandwich; one diner joked that a Cubano is like a pig sandwich with extra pig meat. True to form, it comes loaded with smoked ham and pork, along with pickles, mustard, Zeke's sauce, and Swiss cheese, all smooshed down into a pressed and grilled bun. It might have been better with more cheese, but a heaping of the joint's sriracha slaw and a dollop of honey-mustard sauce improved it as well. The menu offers 15 other sandwiches (including the obligatory MC5 reference in the "Kick Out the Hams" sandwich) as well as two brisket-based burgers.
Service is swift and gracious, and the red washcloths that enfold your silverware are a nice touch. Feel free to take a few wet wipes from the hostess station on your way in, though. Barbecue is hearty finger food, and you may need them.
All in all, the news is good: Six months in and Zeke's seems to have its act down pat. And it's still expanding. When we went for our first meal, the patio was almost done. Now the outdoor seating is open in good weather, with wire mesh chairs and tables underneath red-and-white umbrellas, all with the smell of the smoker wafting over the dining crowd.