Have you ever been to a Texas barbecue? Picnic tables baking in the sun, a rust-colored smoker pouring forth a soaring, smoky announcement of the food to be had, plastic trays, and brown paper towels. Here in Michigan, winter — violent and full of polar vortices — makes a cozy indoor environment important. After all, we Northerners too love smoke and fire: thus Yardbird, in Keego Harbor, a new addition to metro Detroit's burgeoning barbecue scene.
The interior — full of pegboard, with cast iron, reclaimed barnwood, aluminum chairs, and exposed machinery for large garage doors that open to a summertime patio — captures the informality of the inspiration, while keeping the necessities of a family-friendly establishment. A spacious bar can probably seat a few more than there are spaces for, and if you sit in the right spot you can peer into the kitchen and read from an old-fashioned movable-letter menu mounted on the wall above the pass.
It's a place firmly on point and with the trends, well-executed without being ostentatious. Sure, cocktails come in Mason jars, but there are beer tulips and big 23-ounce glassware, and wine glasses if you're intent on having wine at a barbecue restaurant. You're here for the food, right?
Start with pig griddle cakes, but get the coleslaw on the side. A hefty helping on top of the cakes endangers their crispy exterior, and although it's a good accompaniment, it can be a bit overpowering. That's a shame, because the cakes — more aptly described, perhaps, as a croquette — are delightful. Pulled pork is seasoned and mixed, formed into small cakes, lightly breaded, and cooked golden brown. They're served with a bit of Yardbird's red sauce — sweet with apple, tomatoey, with a just a bit of tanginess — and that's where the really enjoyable flavor combination of the plate is to be found.
The chili is good and has a rustic twist: In addition to ground meat, chunks of pulled beef fill out a rich, hearty soup with tomato, peppers, onions, and beans. It's a tasty and filling item plain, and available dressed up with cheese, sour cream, salsa, and jalapenos.
It's always, at a barbecue restaurant, about the meat. Yardbird uses Michigan wood to fire its smoker, says the menu: apple, cherry, maple, and oak. There's a distinct sweetness and smokiness evident in every piece of meat served, from the chicken to the brisket to the pork, that tastes a little like the best campfire you ever sat around up North.
The chicken is so tender that utensils are only necessary for propriety's sake (see: brown paper towels), and rosy pink, a marker of the smoke's effects. Dry rubbed or sauced in red, it's incredible, and the yellow "Old Yeller" mustard sauce is a great complement as well. Pulled pork shoulder is redolent of smoke and fat, succulent and glistening on the tray. It simply drinks up whatever sauce you pour on it, and is a delight. Brisket runs on the dry side, Texas-style, and is also well-matched with the sauces to hand — and delightful they are.
The red and mustard sauces are joined by a spicy, vinegary, hot-sauce-like concoction (don't think North Carolina-style, though), and a medium-spicy chipotle-and-coffee sauce that can only be described as "Texas-style." They're tasty, and they match the meats well. The red sauce, especially, has a notable apple sweetness, echoed by the applewood flavors in the meat. It makes for a really good pairing, and this speaks to the skill of the chef in the kitchen.
All of the meats show up on sandwiches, and the pulled pork appears atop a hot dog and a hamburger (both among three or four other preparations). They're favorites as well, judging by a scan of the room on a Saturday night. Don't ignore the mac and cheese entrée either, as it's the best of the sides, creamy and comforting, topped with saltine crumbs.
The sides also include appealing stewed apples, covered in a sugary gloss. They're great with the pork and the chicken; cornbread, moist and slightly chewy with minced jalapeños, accompanies all the meats, and soaks up sauce well. The pit beans are a bit on the tough side, though they have good flavor and down-home appeal (that is to say, made with chopped hot dog, which is all right by us).
Drinking with this food is an important choice. There's a lot of beer to be had, most of it in bottles or cans, largely domestic, with a decent selection of craft brews. The strongest pick in the building, though, is the Shiner Bock, a beer brewed since 1913 in Texas. It's required drinking at this barbecue. Get it and understand why it's so good: The malt-heavy dark lager takes in the spices of the barbecue pit, melds with the smoke, and makes for an enjoyable drinking experience.
Yardbird should soon cement its place in the barbecue scene. With the well-made rustic feel, the down-home feel of food, and the friendly service, they've got the right stuff. If they keep it up, the cookout doesn't look like it'll end any time soon. Make the drive into the "Lakes District" — it's worth it.