By MARK NIXON
I’m an unabashed fan of the underdog — or in the case of Gump’s BBQ, the under-hog.
It’s as if the place were never meant to be. Yet there it sits, down a forlorn dead-end street, behind a car wash and flanked by buildings whose commerce is God-knows-what. Look for the flaming “BBQ” banner fluttering at the corner of River and Elm Streets, then gaze southward to the lowest of several low-slung concrete buildings, and you’ve found Gump’s BBQ.
The dead giveaway is a massive, black cylinder parked near the front door, looking like a one-man submarine on wheels. This would be Craig “Gump” Garmyn’s smoker, birthplace of tasty ribs and brisket.
Step inside, and the sweet smell of wood smoke hit your nose. But watch your step! The floor is uneven, and there’s a sign that tells you so.
The seating is sparse, the menu limited, the interior style what I might call garage-nouveau. It has the feel of an old, down-home rib joint, a feeling reinforced by photos and prints of old, down-home rib joints.
The folks are friendly. You’re greeted like a neighbor. On one visit, I was encouraged more than once to join the Super Bowl pool for $5 a square.
Let’s start with ribs. The king of the barbecue rib hill, in my mind, remains Saddleback BBQ in nearby REO Town. I award Gump’s baby back ribs ($12.99 for a half-rack) a red ribbon. The ribs were tender and crispy all at once, wreathed in a smoke ring that denotes authenticity. The sauce I chose for the ribs had strong vinegar notes, like the kind I’ve tasted in North Carolina. It was perfect. Note: Ribs are only sold on Wednesdays and Fridays. Fair enough. Smoking ribs properly takes time.
Judy chose the pulled pork wrap ($8.99). Again, the smoke shone through, enveloping every bite of the shredded pork. The wrap also came with a homemade slaw that had some zip.
The smoke-centric menu includes brisket and chicken wings. We tried a smoked brisket sandwich ($10.99). It had the requisite smokiness, and the beef brisket slices were juicy and tender. I give it a solid B.
The biggest disappointment, foodwise, were Gump’s Nachos ($8.99). They had the right ingredients — smoked pork, diced onions, cheese and homemade sauce — but the resulting concoction was a mess. Too many flavors conflicted with, not complemented, each other. Suggestion: Ditch the store-bought chips. Make your own by frying corn tortillas just before serving.
The sandwiches are well-priced, because they come with a choice of two generous side dishes. Diners can choose from cheesy potatoes, mac & cheese, smoked baked beans and coleslaw. We tried all four and thought the cheesy, oniony potatoes were excellent. The slaw is made with, among other things, kale. Instead of traditional mayo, the binding sauce is homemade, more like a spicy remoulade. Nice touch.
On the downside, the mac & cheese was barely warm, and the beans were stone cold. A word about baked beans: This is a regular side dish in barbecue joints around town, and frankly, they don’t do beans very well. Uninspired is the most tactful word that comes to mind.
Permit me an antidote to boring beans. Over the years, I’ve worked on a baked beans recipe passed down from my grandmother. People seem to like them, because at family reunions people ask if I brought my baked beans. You can check out my recipe at lansingcitypulse.com/marksbakedbeans.
Now, a few words about cleanliness. On our first visit, Gump’s floor was littered with bits of food and paper. It needed a good sweeping and mopping. Our server said they had been slammed with dozens of customers, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they just hadn’t had time to clean. But I did notice a little pile of dirt and some cobwebs on the front window pane. On a return visit more than a week later, the dirt and cobwebs remained.
Sanitation challenges aside, it’s obvious Gump’s has a steady fan base. During our visits we observed a steady stream of customers popping in for takeout lunches, some driving utility trucks and others driving police cars.
Greater Lansing seems overrun by restaurants and food trucks specializing in barbecued meat. I’m a betting man, and I will say flat-out that I would not bet money against Gump’s. There’s room for improvement, but Gump’s has the heart — and the hog — to be a winner.
Hefty sandwiches, killer sides
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
There is something special about living in the Lansing area. Our “rush hour” consists of a heady 15 minutes, you are never more than a few miles away from a delicious Quality Dairy doughnut and the cost of living can’t be beat. People think that we suffer from a lack of good restaurants, which may be true, depending on what you define as a good restaurant. If you like sushi or shawarma, you’ve come to the right place. And lately, if you like barbeque, Lansing’s got more than a few delicious options to satisfy you. Tucked away behind the good car wash on at Cedar and Elm streets is Gump’s BBQ, the latest rib-slinging joint to catch my attention.
The hours at Gump’s are weird. It’s only open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. A weekend option would be wonderful.
After our recent Honeymoon to Australia, where Mr. She Ate and I fed our faces with lots of muesli, fresh fruit and seafood, we needed to fatten ourselves up. We dove head-first into the small but sufficient menu at Gump’s, and the first lunch we had left us excited for a return trip.
My Cubano sandwich ($8.99) was served on a ciabatta roll, which is the bread used in every sandwich we tried. I like this bread. It isn’t so crusty that it rips the top of your mouth, and the bread is thick enough that it won’t disintegrate in your hand. The flavor is mild and doesn’t overpower the fillings. The Cubano was piled high with thick-cut pickles, juicy pulled pork, Swiss cheese and ham, and it was slathered with yellow mustard. The two inch-thick layer of ham was a bit much for me, but I can appreciate bang for my buck. This Cuban sandwich was a bit lighter than other Cuban sandwiches I’ve had, which I attribute to the bread not being so dense.
Mr. She Ate chose the pulled pork sandwich ($9.99), one of his go-to sandwiches. Recently he informed me that a pulled pork sandwich should always feature a coleslaw topping, and this one was no disappointment on that front. The pork was thickly shredded and a bit sweeter than we are used to, a flavor that was nicely balanced by the slaw but might have been overwhelming on its own.
Gump’s offers four sides, including the slaw, which features sliced Brussels sprouts (be still my vegetable-loving heart), kale and tangy red cabbage tossed in a light and piquant vinaigrette. On that first visit we greedily gobbled up the slaw and were eager for more. The baked beans were also a standout, with more than one variety of bean simmered in a flavor-bomb of a sauce. The cheesy potatoes were hot and cheesy and would have been a hit on the potluck table at my family Christmas party, where we always seem to have six dishes of cheesy potatoes.
But my heart belonged to the macaroni and cheese. Since I started making my own macaroni and cheese, starting from a roux and featuring five cheeses and crispy bread crumbs, I’ve been searching for a restaurant version that’s better than mine. Everything I’ve tried has fallen short. Gump’s came as close as I can find. The cheese sauce isn’t gloopy, and it has depth of flavor.
For our next lunch, I went for jumbo chicken wings ($8.99 for six wings), while Mr. She Ate eagerly tore into the slaw. The chicken wings were completely milquetoast and were positively swimming in the Thai chili sauce that I chose as my flavor option. The slaw was also having a case of the Mondays, and it tasted as if someone forgot to add the sauce completely. We ate it anyway, but he grumbled over the fact that I was making him eat vegetables when I promised an unhealthy lunch.
An unexpected opportunity arose for us to share a weekday breakfast, and we picked up an egg sandwich ($5.99) and a breakfast burrito ($6.99) to take home and enjoy with a French press full of Strange Matter coffee and a certain Weimaraner who wouldn’t stop with the puppy-dog eyes. The breakfast burrito was stuffed with cubed potatoes, cheddar cheese, bacon, scrambled eggs and “a magic sauce,” according to my burrito-loving husband. The sauce gave the burrito an unexpected and utterly delicious tanginess, and I promised myself five miles on the treadmill as I nibbled through my half burrito.
The egg sandwich, on the abovementioned ciabatta roll, was my favorite. A thick and slightly spicy sausage patty topped scrambled eggs and a thick layer of melted cheese. I couldn’t have improved upon the egg sandwich if I’d been paid to.
A final word about Gump’s: The prices are spot-on. Anywhere that I can shell out $20 or less for a casual lunch for the two of us is a place that I like. It is an appropriate price point for our area, and one that I’m sure will result in satisfied return eaters.
7 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; closed Saturday-Sunday
1105 River St., Lansing
(517) 708-0470, gumpsbbq.com