by Mel Small
I wonder what Michelle Obama, our chief nutritional nudge, would make of the explosion of barbecue joints in our area. More particularly, what would she say about Lockhart's perfectly named "Quadruple Bypass" sandwich, composed of pulled pork, smoked bacon, smoked sausage and smoked cheddar?
Lockhart's, named after a town reputed to be the barbecue capital of Texas, opened late last month in Royal Oak opposite City Hall. Handsomely retrofitted on the high-ceilinged first floor of an old bank building, with distressed brick framing huge picture windows that look out at the street traffic at the corner of Third and Williams streets, it can handle as many as 150 at its bare wooden tables.
Owners Drew Ciora and Rick Ghersi also are owners of the Detroit Beer Company and Royal Oak Brewery, where executive chef Reuben Sanchez worked for them. Pit boss Steve Coddington, aka "Bubba," previously smoked meats at Bad Brad's BBQ in New Baltimore. When I asked Bubba what his "Detroit-style" barbecue meant, he explained it was an amalgam of the best of Texas for brisket, Memphis for pulled pork, and Kansas City for ribs. Above all, he is more interested in the slow-smoking process than in the rubs or the sauces, something you can tell from the aroma not just in the building but outside as well.
Diners are greeted with a complimentary mason jar full of spicy pickled vegetables, which is among the most incendiary preparations on the thin paper menu. Some of those menus have seen better days. It might be a good idea for Lockhart's to move to lamination because of the unavoidable occupational hazard of grease and barbecue sauce stains.
In his stainless-steel open kitchen, Bubba turns out reasonably priced, hefty portions, with appetizers averaging around $8, sandwiches with one side around $9 and barbecue plates with two sides around $13. Among those appetizers, it is difficult to resist burnt ends, little brisket cubes that have been double-rubbed and double-smoked. Unlike most of the barbecue, these charred, carcinogenic, juicy treats are also sauced. On the other hand, the egg "grenades," three rather dry deviled eggs, topped with a slice of jalapeno, are not distinctive.
Other choices for starters include smoked wings, sliders, fried green beans, smoked pork nachos and a moderately zesty "ugly" smoked gumbo, with chicken and sausage, which is so thick with rice that you can stand your spoon up in the alleged "soup." Like much of the fare, Lockhart's spice level is on the mild side. Indeed, three of the four barbecue sauces that come with most dishes are also rather mild for the genre, with the fourth, the North Carolina vinegary option, slightly zingy.
As for greenery, perhaps for vegetarians who mistakenly wandered in, there is a pleasant house salad that contains no meat. However, the chopped salad includes smoked chicken, and the Caesar flaunts smoked salmon.
The mains, 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. Bubba serves all of these sauceless, as he depends on the smoke and the rubs to bring out their essence.
The thin slices of brisket are well-trimmed and tender, as are the ribs. The chicken, despite the smoking process, is surprisingly moist. Some may find the small chunks, instead of the expected shreds, of pulled pork, to be a tad on the fatty side. And overall, although Bubba notes that most of his clientele prefer their meat without pre-saucing, others may find it dry and even bland, particularly the brisket.
The side of very vinegary cole slaw goes better with barbecue than the creamier variety, and the green beans are pleasantly crunchy, a genuflection perhaps to Northern tastes. On the other hand, on one occasion the otherwise decent sweet-potato fries were not crunchy enough and the jalapeno brown beans lacked the promised kick. You may also choose your two sides from among the arresting "collared" greens, hush puppies, mac-n-cheese, corn and fried okra.
Aside from the renditions of smoked meats, sandwich offerings also feature fried catfish, smoked salmon, and smoked chicken salad.
Barbecue is best washed down with beer. All 15 beers on tap ($6.50 a pint) are from Michigan. I don't know what wine goes best with smoked brisket or pulled pork, if any, but the beer-averse have a few choices of modest earthy wines, which is probably a good idea considering the heartiness of the dishes.
The smoke finally clears when you reach the dessert list. Hermann's Bakery up the block handles Lockhart's pecan pie, peach or berry cobbler, lemon cake and chocolate cake made with Dr Pepper! All can be topped off with local favorite Ray's Ice Cream.
Barbecue is an acquired taste. Its popularity rests in part on its cultural charm and reasonable price structure. Most likely, Lockhart's masculine calories-and-cholesterol-be-damned cuisine would never make it to Michelle's table, although her husband, who has little concern about smoke, has been known to chow down on a rib or two while on the campaign trail.
Mel Small has been dining for MT off and on for three decades. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.