Red Rock Barbecue
207 W Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti
Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Ypsilanti is oozing with genuine (occasionally gritty) charm, replete with endearing historical quirks and beautiful brick buildings. Situated in one of those structures is Red Rock Barbecue, a new addition to the burgeoning set of local businesses and eateries spreading throughout the downtown area.
With its patio and front windows facing Michigan Avenue, it's easy to spot, and (during the week, at least) parking is pretty easy to find. Once inside, it feels like it's been there for years, the minimal decor serving to accentuate the brick walls and short, rounded archways erected in ye olden times.
A bar sits in the middle of the restaurant, from which they pour a solid selection of microbrews, a good portion of which are made in Michigan. The servers who took our orders were clearly conversant in all the beers on draft, eager to discuss the newest products or their current favorites, a service trait that's all too rare.
Indeed, there's something wonderful about the culture in some of the better casual eateries in Ypsilanti: The service staff is generally outgoing, friendly, conversational and interested in the products they're selling.
And when they're not serving you beer, they're serving meat, and lots of it. Even the starters are heavy on the protein. Sliders — traditional, brisket or pulled pork — are available at $2.50 each. The burnt ends of the brisket are served in bite-sized chunks ($8). They're naturally quite dry given the preparation, but with a little sauce, they're delicious. And Red Rock also serves a basket of eight chicken wings ($8) with a great crispy exterior.
Four homemade sauces adorn the table, all straightforward but made very well: A vinegar-based sauce, a simple tomato-based sauce, a mustard sauce, and a sweet and spicy, the last of which is arguably the most interesting. I preferred it for all the meats save the chicken, where the mustard sauce is most ideally suited.
If weighty starters aren't your thing, you can also choose from several salads to begin your meal — though they're not exactly light either. Among them, a house salad with a typical assortment of veggies, cheddar and ranch ($5), a Caesar salad ($6), and a mix of greens with cherry, blue cheese and a raspberry vinaigrette ($6). Add smoked meats to either for $4, or just go all-out and get the Rock Cobb ($11), a bed of greens with veggies, egg, three cheeses, chicken, brisket, and bacon with a side of buttermilk ranch dressing.
The smoked meats are largely on par with other southeast Michigan barbecue establishments, which is to say that they're good (it's smoke and it's meat; ergo, it's tasty) but nothing revelatory.
There's a gentle sweetness to the dry rub on the St. Louis-style spare ribs, available in a half ($16) or full slab ($23), and when we ordered, they were cooked to that ideal point where they're still moist and not yet falling off the bone. For entrées, Red Rock also prepares a smoked half-chicken ($12), pulled pork ($13), thinly sliced brisket ($14), and a large portion of their mac 'n' cheese ($10), which arrives quite creamy underneath a perfect amount of crusty, singed cheese.
Each entrée is accompanied by a choice of two sides, from which there are plenty to choose. The cornbread muffins were well-liked by our party, just a touch sweet and unfailingly moist without the need of huge portions of butter. We also enjoyed the sweet potato mash, which had just a bit of spice added to it, and the sweet potato fries. The collards have a bit of sharpness to them, which balances the fat clearly used in the cooking process. And the aforementioned mac has great texture.
Less satisfying was their apple cherry slaw, which is a typically overdressed, creamy slaw with a bit of fruit that really gets lost. Ordered on their own, each side is $3.
One side accompanies each of the sandwiches, which are served on brioche, Texas toast or, for a dollar more, a pretzel roll. Each sandwich is built from the smoked meats used for the entrées, save a smoked Reuben ($9.50), which features a Michigan-made smoked corned beef. We were pleasantly surprised by a pulled chicken sandwich that retained a lot of moisture for slow-cooked breast meat. It's not that there's anything particularly exciting about smoked chicken — though our affable server did encourage the wise decision to opt for the pretzel roll — but well-prepared and fairly priced at $8, it does make a damn fine sandwich.
If you manage to save some room after an inevitably hearty meal, Red Rock makes a couple of desserts. On our visits, there was no printed selection, but our server offered a spice cake as well as an apple crisp topped with whipped cream.
Red Rock's friendly servers, healthy portions, and constantly rotating beer list have drawn quite a lot of attention in its first few months of business. And — as is often the case in Ypsi — the prices are more than fair. Should you find yourself in the area, the restaurant is well worth a visit.
Evan Hansen dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.