Barbecue's resonance within the Detroit area isn't confusing at all, for a great number of reasons: Sure, there's the Great Migration, and the continuing stream of Southerners coming to our Northern manufacturing hubs that could be credited with its introduction or popularization. There's the pivotal place that barbecue holds in the revitalization of Corktown, and also the institution of the backyard/churchyard/driveway/sidewalk barbecue cookout (or business.) In the end barbecue's timeless allure is this: It is the most equalizing of cooking styles. Hugh Morgan, owner of Satchel's, writes that barbecue restaurants are "always very democratic: the bankers and lawyers eat alongside the construction crew ... informal, but there is always a sense of proper etiquette and civility."
Barbecue needs nothing but good wood smoke, good seasonings, inconvenient meat, and time. Transforming the multi-layered, sometimes tough pork shoulder, the nearly-meatless ribs, the too-often stringy beef brisket into succulent, tender, melting finished products is a cuisine that finds a comfortable place in rough circumstances. Elevating it is hard, doing it right traditionally is harder.
In the South, barbecue is that great institution still, and there's a formula that seems to be somewhat universal in its success and simplicity: good barbecued meats, a given, preferably three or four varieties on offer; sides, house-made, ready and waiting in a steam well; cornbread, because (as a wise man once said,) ain't nothin' wrong with that. A proper barbecue place is "always kind of a greasy spoon, more like a cafeteria than a restaurant," writes Morgan. There's a roll of paper towels on the table, along with all the house sauces. Nothing you don't need. When your plate's ready, pay, and go sit down, grabbing your drink on the way. If you need something, grab it yourself, or step up to the counter and ask — there's no servers to rush you, nobody but your fellow diners asking you about the food while you're messily devouring.
The best barbecue is often hidden. Such is the case with Satchel's. There's a cell phone store on Washtenaw next to the Whole Foods — maybe you've seen it. If you're paying attention, you'll see a couple large wood smokers in the front of the parking lot. Satchel's is around back, entrance on the side, occupying the back half of the one-story building. It's unassuming, it's simple, and the interior is hand-painted with a pastoral scene, decorated with rough-hewn fences along the wall. (Kitschy, maybe, but who cares when the food is this good?)
Advertising chicken, pork, brisket, and ribs, Satchel's doesn't tread far from their smokers. Kielbasa rounds out the offerings, and the main meats are served either as plates or sandwiches at your discretion. Everything is slow-cooked over hickory wood, giving it that classic barbecue smokiness: complex in flavor, but familiar and comforting.
Ribs at Satchel's come in two styles, equally delicious, and equally tender. The dry rubbed ribs, however, are truthfully a revelatory experience. The tough, not-particularly-meaty ribs are transformed through the alchemy of spice and smoke into what might as well be porcine gold. Sure, you've had good ribs before, but these are something different: that friend you brought with you who swears he's never eaten a rib he's liked? He'll probably try to steal most of your plate, so consider a full slab, or possibly a system of moats and fences. That's how good these ribs are. Tender but not overcooked, and full of smoky flavor, the dry ribs definitely beat the wet ribs here, but only by the slimmest of margins. If you prefer the saucy, sticky, messy endeavor that is wet ribs, you will not be disappointed, only lightly covered with barbecue sauce.
Satchel's pulled pork is sweet and tender, making for a killer sandwich; the sweetness in many people's pork is added, but here, it's the actual pork itself, seasoned masterfully and cooked just so, the art of barbecue concentrating and enhancing the meat's natural flavors. Sauce it with vinegar, for the Carolina experience, or with a mix of the sweet and spicy sauces, or indeed just line up all the sauces and try them one by one. Experimentation is key — even though the pork is so good, so juicy, that you can eat it un-sauced.
Pork is not, of course, the only meat affected by the magic of the smoker. Beef brisket, long a favorite of barbecuers in Texas, is treated equally well at Satchel's. Sure, it's a couple bucks more than the pork, but it's well worth the money: sliced medium-thin, the brisket is naturally a bit dryer than the fattier pork, but the flavors are no less intense or enjoyable. Your best bet might be to order a combo plate, trying a bit of the pork and a bit of the brisket or chicken (also very good) together.
The sides at Satchel's are made from scratch, in house, regularly. How regularly? A couple years back, the restaurant sold off their freezer, because freshness is of great importance. Baked beans, black-eyed peas, and beans and rice bring the great barbecue staple in three tasty presentations. There's pork in the beans and greens, and all the classic flavors of sunny summer afternoons, because Satchel's is intensely focused on doing things in a traditional and highly successful way. The greens are cooked perfectly, tender and flavorful with only a little bitterness left to remind you of the collard; the beans each capturing a particular style well and offering an opportunity to have vegetables on your plate with nothing green. Or, eschew healthier choices, and dive straight for the deep end: two helpings of mac and cheese, please.
That civility that the owner mentions in his favorite barbecue places from his childhood? It's present at Satchel's. The employees are friendly and polite, mostly young folks from the surrounding area; there's a chart on the counter with allergens listed for your convenience. Have a question? It's likely the owner is in the building, and he's more than happy to answer.
What to make of all this? It's a good thing the prices are reasonable, because coming back regularly seems the best way to appreciate the myriad combinations of barbecue and sides that Satchel's has to offer. Combo plate after combo plate, the appreciation for the art of barbecue increases and deepens. Truthfully, Satchel's is a good enough reason on its own to visit Ann Arbor, is a perfect spot for commuters, and a great meal to share with your college kids, your college friends, or your favorite person in the world. Make a point of visiting.