Despite the many grills filled with ribs, chicken wings, and other meats puffing throughout Detroit in mom-and-pop restaurants, backyards, and on street corners, the city isn't famous for its barbecue in the way that St. Louis or Texas is. Perhaps that's partly because Detroiters trade in a range of styles, and historically there hasn't been a cohesive local barbecue identity or an item that every spot in town does well.
But it seems that's slowly changing. Detroit's pitmasters continue to prove that their version of one dish is better than most — the humble rib tip. And one of the newest restaurants, BBQ Central, arguably does it best, solidifying Detroit's standing as a tip town in the process.
Rib tips are what they purport to be — tips of the rib. Butchers used to whack them off cooked slabs with cleavers and throw them away because they're often cartilage and gristle-riddled bone.
But there's also plenty of meat wrapped around the nubs, and many contend that this is some of the finest in the pig – rich, moist, and flavorful. While getting at that meat requires a little more effort, tearing at tips with your teeth is carnal, and there's a payoff when the dish is done right, as it is at BBQ Central. Owner Denita Ramsey perfects her tips by serving them in a pool of Central's excellent sweet and savory sauce.
But the tips, which are pork, are only partly how Central is making its name. It's also the only beef rib game in town. Generally speaking, beef ribs have more meat, and some will argue that they're more flavorful.
Ramsey says she put beef ribs on the menu so people who don't eat pork for religious or health reasons can enjoy the dish. The concept seems to be working out well. Her small carryout shop at Seven Mile and West Outer Drive is regularly packed with customers, and her most recent location at McNichols and Southfield also remains busy, but in a different way. It's right next to the freeway, and DoorDash and Uber Eats drivers take deliveries as far south as Dearborn and north to Southfield, which gets Central to people who she says otherwise might not come to Detroit. Ramsey, who worked in marketing at 102.7 FM before going into the barbecue business in late 2019, said that was by design.
Central's beef ribs are thick with tender meat, and spend up to three hours on the smoker and grill, leaving the bones full-bodied and smoky. I ordered a combo meal with the smoked chicken, which is supposed to come with a quarter of a bird that can be made with white or dark meat. Instead I received a small pile of chicken wings, which are hit with a dry rub and meaty and smoky. Unfortunately, I had also ordered wings separately, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
I had asked for the separate order of wings without sauce, and though they were good, the wings with the sauce that were part of the combo meal were even better. The lesson: When barbecue sauce is of this quality, consider dousing everything with it.
The fried turkey is composed of jumbo, lightly fried legs that are marinated in a Cajun-y lemon, pepper, and butter sauce that really shines through and can be ordered alone or as a meal. Ramsey says the dish is, as with the beef ribs, part of her effort to offer a healthy component that you won't find in most barbecue shops. The menu also includes salmon, shrimp kebabs, and other lighter fare.
The list of Central's sides is long. Its mac-and-cheese is rich and dense with plenty of cheese, and good texture. The greens are awesome, full of flavor and depth. Sometimes greens get too watery or thin — not these.
Both locations are carryout only, and a limited amount of their dishes are made daily. On two occasions the beef ribs had sold out by the time I arrived for dinner, which is the mark of a good dish, so get there early.