Bad Brad's BBQ 35611 Green St., New Baltimore; 586-716-9977; badbradsbbq.net: A relatively recent entry into metro Detroit's barbecue category, Bad Brad's motto is "From our smoker to your plate," summing up their intention to give diners the best barbecue possible. They start every day at 5 a.m., cooking beef brisket and pork shoulder in fruit wood and hickory smoke as long as 14 hours. Get a taste of the meat in one of their many cleverly named sandwiches (all $8) or choose among sliced or chopped brisket, pulled pork or chicken, or pork sausage. You can also go "whole hog" with a half ($13.50) or a full ($23) slab of St. Louis-style ribs. Also, the clever wall illustrations by Detroit artist Jerome Ferretti don't hurt either.
Bert's Marketplace 2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030: On summer Saturdays, Eastern Market seems to be bursting at every seam. Stalls and sheds overflow with colorful produce as merchants set up shop along Russell Street. And Bert's is not only a great place to sit and do some Eastern Market people-watching, you can also enjoy some serious barbecue. (You also get a front seat to some of the most unusual karaoke performances ever!) In keeping with Bert's bare-bones, working-class atmosphere, their food is more down-home than much of the soul food you find in restaurants, which has often been upgraded from its humble origins. The menu runs from catfish to 'cue, and on warm market days when the grillmasters are in full view outside, you'll be able to see before you buy!
Blue Tractor 207 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor; 734-222-4095; bluetractor.net: Looking the part is important for any restaurant, and Blue Tractor does it well. Decorated in wood and rough metalwork, it exudes the feel of a big, rustic barn, ideally suited for serving up barbecue to 100 close friends. A long bar stretches across one wall, the establishment's house-brewed beers listed next to its respectable bourbon selection. Their Bumper Crop IPA isn't burdened with too much hoppiness and will wash down a plate of ribs pretty damn well. The menu is full of down-home fixings, and inventive specials year-round keep switching it up. And the barbecue? It's mostly slow-cooked proteins that get a douse of rub or sauce during final grilling, and includes baby-back ribs, Carolina pulled pork, barbecue "beer can" chicken, and even some more interesting-sounding choices, such as bacon-wrapped meatloaf, apricot-mustard turkey and smoked barbecue duck. The spare ribs stand out for being extraordinarily moist. On the side dish front, Blue Tractor's baked beans will take many diners back to childhood: Nicely spiced and a bit sweet, they taste just like the beans served at family picnics and dinners across southeast Michigan every summer. Newly expanded.
Bo's Smokehouse 51 N. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-338-6200: With three separate levels occupying almost 12,000 square feet, Bo's Brewery & Bistro offers patrons full bar service, billiards and more. As many as 40 people can sit at the bar and enjoy such Michigan craft beers as Bell's and King's, followed by special desserts every week. And over the last few years, they've upped their barbecue game, expanding their selections of smokehouse pork and beef. With six to eight microbrews made on the site at any given time, it's ideal to visit Bo's during happy hour.
Hoggers 2959 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-548-2400; eatathoggers.com: This little spot specializes mostly in carryout orders, but also has some space for folks to dine in. Enjoy an order of baby-back ribs, slow-roasted, grilled and basted in the joint's signature sauce, four pieces for $7.49, or as much as a full slab for $21.99. There's also barbecued chicken, shredded chicken, and a wide variety of meaty sandwiches. Or get the "feast" of four meats and two large sides for $23.99.
Lazybones Smokehouse 27475 Groesbeck Hwy., Roseville; 586-775-7427; and 43203 Garfield Rd., Clinton Twp.; 586-247-7427; lazybonessmokehouse.net: Our readers say this is the best barbecue joint in Macomb County. Why? Because this east side spot has sandwiches starting around $7 and $17.99 for a slab of ribs. On Wednesdays, for $7.99 you get to stuff a three-compartment polystyrene container with choices that can range from smoked chicken to chopped pork. Lazybones boasts Black Angus beef, Grade-A fresh pork, and Amish country chickens, done broasted, pit-smoked or grill-ready for pick-up. And for those who want to throw a home party without running the grill, Lazybones has party pans big enough to hold 100 ribs or the equivalent in pulled pork — with the Super Bowl coming up, this is a good one to keep in mind. But note well — if you expect Lazybones ribs to be the sauce-soaked, fall-off-the-bone sort that rules in Detroit and southeastern Michigan, you may be disappointed. But free your mind — these are the dry-rubbed, mopped and slow-smoked ribs that give ol' boys fits down yonder, and there's no good reason to restrict yourself to one style of barbecue.
Lockhart's BBQ 202 E. Third St., Royal Oak; 248-584-4227; lockhartsbbq.com: Lockhart's, named after a town reputed to be the barbecue capital of Texas, is a handsomely retrofitted space on the high-ceilinged first floor of an old bank building. The stainless-steel open kitchen turns out reasonably priced, hefty portions. The main courses, served authentically on paper in metal trays and with a white bread sopper, involve brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage, chicken and ham — and combinations thereof — all smoked ever so slowly over local white oak and hickory. One can sample most of the meats in the "special" combo of brisket, half-rack of ribs, sausage and pulled pork. Or if that mix is intimidating, a half-chicken and ribs or brisket and pulled pork are less daunting combos. The full bar has a selection of Michigan beers, perfect with the 'cue. Aside from the renditions of smoked meats, sandwich offerings also feature fried catfish, smoked salmon and smoked chicken salad.
Nunn's Barbecue Restaurant 19196 Conant St., Detroit; 313-893-7210: Another one of Detroit's old-line barbecue joints, Nunn's (or, Nunn's II as it's called; the first Nunn's burned down) churns out a steady diet of pit-style ribs cooked to perfection, all ready for your carry-out order. No sit-down here, but the ribs are supreme — one rib aficionado we know says they're the best ribs on the east side. We also recommend the Kenta Cake, a unique specialty at Nunn's.
Parks Old-Style Bar-B-Q 7444 Beaubien St., Detroit; 313-873-7444; parksoldstylebar-b-q.com: Tucked away from East Grand Boulevard on the edge of New Center and the old North End, Parks Old-Style stands between Custer and Horton streets, on the east side of Beaubien. It was built, from the ground up, in 1963-1964 and has stood the test of time. Unusual for many inner-city barbecue joints, it actually has seating for customers. Parks also stands out due to the vinegar-based sauce on its trimmed ribs ($19.90 a slab), though behind it are subtler flavors, including mustard and perhaps cayenne. Owner Roderick Parks admits it perhaps is an acquired taste, though he points out it has "delighted the multitudes since 1964," adding that Parks "also features a 'sweet' sauce for the sensitive palate and an extremely hot sauce for the more venturesome." You also get the Parks promise: "I'll put my ribs, chicken and sauce up against anyone, anytime."
R.U.B. BBQ 18 W. Adams St., Detroit; 313-964-0782; rubbbqdetroit.com: The stars are the meats, of course, and R.U.B. does better on those than on its sides. Fabulously tasty is an appetizer of "pig wings," though they come with the sauce cooked on instead of letting the diner choose. If the correct formula for rib tenderness has the meat splitting down the middle, rather than cleaving cleanly away from the bone (and there are so many rules in this world, aren't there?), R.U.B. has accomplished that goal with its baby backs, which leave some shreds for gnawing. They're a little tougher than some. Also pleasing are the pulled items, both mellow pork and smoky chicken moist as can be. Prominent in each booth is a six-pack of squeeze-bottle sauces. R.U.B. is proud of its home-state dedication, including a collection of more than 20 Michigan brews.
Real BBQ 3695 Dix-Toledo Rd., Lincoln Park; 313-769-5010; realbarbq.com: Opened just last year, they tout their high-quality smoked meats, which include choice Angus beef, Southern-style ribs, chicken, turkey, sausage and pulled pork sandwiches, as well as a host of sides, including baked beans and mac 'n' cheese. The sandwiches are affordably priced — all less than $7. Their "Smokehouse Combo Four" offers four meats atop hand-cut fries for $24.99.
Red Smoke Barbecue 573 Monroe St., Detroit; 313-962-2100; redsmokebarbeque.com: Red Smoke, located in Greektown, serves up barbecue that's somewhat upscale. The decor is clean and modern, with comfortably soft lighting. The brick walls are finished with a thin layer of translucent plaster, and the open kitchen sports shiny, rust-colored ceramic tiles and a wheeled cart full of split hickory logs. Order a plate of pulled pork to try out all the sauces. There is sweet and smoky Mississippi mud, tangy honey mustard, fruity cherry molasses, smoky roasted poblano, and the spiciest sauce of them all carries the house moniker. The beef brisket is also fork-tender, and the pork ribs are dry-rubbed and far tastier. The meat has just enough connective tissue left to keep it attached to the bone but it comes right off in the teeth.
Round House BBQ 2760 W. Jefferson Ave., Trenton; 734-671-6100; roundhousebbq.com: Architecturally unique, Round House BBQ is entered via a breezeway connecting a stainless steel diner to a round-shaped former ice-cream parlor. The stainless steel number is part-kitchen, part high-key dining area, whereas the round house has a moodier setup with a small bar. Either way, it's a family restaurant and a crowd-pleaser at that, thanks to the quality barbecue. Our pulled pork could have been a little crispier (we love the burnt ends), but the brisket was perfect — a hard feat to accomplish — the ribs were excellent, and the sides were pretty darn good too. Try the corn fritters, which come with a cinnamon dipping sauce, or the baked beans, freshened up with bits of bacon, rib and onion.
Slows Bar BQ 2138 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-962-9828; slowsbarbq.com: There's a reason the owners named the place Bar BQ — the ambiance is more bar than restaurant. Yet the food gets just as much attention as the beers and the informative, reasonably priced wine list. Slows' baby back ribs are appropriately tender and succulent. "Slows Spicy" sauce goes best on these; it's fruity and hot but doesn't go overboard. The correct cooking and saucing of pulled pork is an obsession in North Carolina, and on that you'd use "NC Sauce." St. Louis spare ribs are done blacker than the back ribs; many would like "Sweet Slows" sauce on these, with its woodsy tang. Beef-eaters can try hickory-smoked short ribs or a pound of thin-sliced brisket. All of this food keeps the place packed, and a steady crowd waits at the bar.
Slows to Go 4107 Cass Ave., Detroit; 877-569-7246; slowstogo.com: Anybody who has dropped in to Slows Bar-B-Q for one of their famous slow-cooked barbecue dishes knows it can be hard to find a table. Or a seat at the bar. Or even a place to stand, sometimes! Well, things changed with the opening last year of Slows to Go, where 'cue-hungry devotees of Slows can get their orders to go between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. With a smoker capacity seven times that of the sit-down restaurant and a menu nearly as extensive, Slows to Go is an affordable ($9.95 for a pound of rib tips), quick, and saucily delicious alternative to the Corktown location.
Smoke & Spice 7470 Tecumseh Rd. E., Windsor; 519-252-4999; smokenspice.com: The ribs appear unpromising: rather black and dry-looking, with a startlingly pink interior. But in the mouth they are multifaceted chunks of meat, a combination of smoke, tenderness and earthy animal goodness. You may not want to sully that flavor with the sauces: a slightly sweet, mostly tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce; a chipotle; and a runny mustard that's the most unusual and complex of the three. Wings are not an afterthought: Unlike tasteless industrial poultry, these birds are luscious and meaty, smokier than most wings, which tend to taste just of sauce. Pulled pork and beef brisket are the other two main meats, though there's also a mild and tender catfish with remoulade and spicy breading, and an apple wood-smoked half chicken worth checking out, if the wings are an indication. It's a marker of the staff's eager-to-please mind-set that when our reviewer told the server the ribs were better than Slows', she immediately ran to the kitchen to tell the cooks, reporting back gratefully that all were thrilled.
Smokin' BBQ 37310 Gratiot Ave., Clinton Twp.; 586-469-3000; smokinbarbq.com: At Smokin', all meals for dining-in are served on trays, in some cases quite literally. Expect a full, uncut slab of ribs on a plastic platter lined with checkered paper for $19.99 (or $22.99 with two sides). Combo platters, sandwiches and sides often get their own containers, a mix of sturdy reusable plastic trays and disposable take-out containers. The sandwiches are a little easier to handle: A burger, catfish or any of the smoked meats are available between bread, but consider one of their named specialties, each accompanied with slaw and a side for $8.99. Rapid service is among their chief aims. Food ordered at the counter takes fewer than five minutes to arrive. Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday.
Union Woodshop 18 S. Main St., Clarkston; 248-625-5660; unionwoodshop.com: Located on Main Street in downtown Clarkston, the upscale Union Woodshop has a look that is the antithesis of barbecue joints found on the dirt roads hidden from rural highways in the Carolinas and in Texas. The joint's food, however, shares the flavors that can usually only be derived from low-and-slow wood-smoking, which creates the pink smoke ring that is a sign of authentic country 'cue. From tender brisket and pulled pork to ribs and chicken, there are no disappointments here. The pizzas, cooked in a wood-burning oven, are as good as the barbecued meats. Do not miss the mac and cheese!
Uptown BBQ 15700 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-862-7427; uptownbbq.com: Wedged between the Lodge Expressway and the University of Detroit Mercy, Uptown is one of those small joints where your order can be placed through a hole in the Plexiglas that seals in the cooking area. The ribs are excellent, full of pit-cooked smoky flavor, with the short ends a bit crispy but not overdone, just like the perfect backyard barbecue. An order of ribs is a deal, as Uptown charges $15.67 for a trimmed slab drizzled with sauce. Owner Nathaniel Fanning's signature sauce works well with the meat, sweet and mild, not hot — and so good you'll likely end up sucking the bones clean. It's not just ribs: Shrimp is another specialty, and their soul food sides are a force to be reckoned with.
Vicki's Barbecue & Shrimp 3845 W. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-894-9906: At Vicki's, it's worth watching the cook cut the slabs artfully. With a knife, she cleaves each rib, leaving a fringe of meat to hold it all together. Using a pair of tongs, she folds it in half, dunks it in the sauce completely, then pops it into a polystyrene tray and seals it up airtight with plastic wrap. For the hot ribs, the only difference is the application of hot powder to the top and bottom of the ribs, as well as one more generous pour of hot sauce on top for good measure. A sign advises that you may tip the cooks for this graceful operation, and we recommend it. Vicki's is a bit expensive, costing $19.62 a slab, but with quality like this, who'd argue over pennies. What's more, slabs come with four pieces of white bread and a serving of the one side at Vicki's that's worth ordering: Little wax-paper bags of fresh-fried fries. There'll likely be so much sauce left over you'll be able to dunk your fries in it.
Special thanks to editorial intern Sharon Jacobs for her assistance compiling this column.
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