After six full months of winter — that’s right, folks, we had snow on the ground from November through April — did you notice that familiar aroma in the air? That indistinguishable smoky/savory smell hitting your nose is the first sure sign that it’s barbecue season, and, like sex, there is no such thing as bad barbecue. The City Pulse Food Fight team — this time featuring intern Liz Reyna, writer Joe Torok, and City Council members Kathie Dunbar and Derrick Quinney — ranked five local barbecue establishments. The results are far from scientific but should provide a handy primer. All were ranked from 1 to 5 keeping in mind taste, atmosphere, service and cost.
Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill.
2.8 out of 5. This place lost points for being a chain (does every line of sight have to have a TV in it?), but the bonus points of serving alcohol — the only establishment to do so on our list —made that factor a wash. One cool service feature is that the two sauces arrive warm in syrup jars; alas, neither thrilled any of us. Most agreed that the Carolina mustard sauce tasted like corn dogs, and the original flavor, which had some subtle brown sugar and chili flavors, still was sort of “ketchuppy.” We went with a sampler platter ($11.99), which had four ribs, two mini-pulled pork sandwiches and four wings. The meat was utterly unimpressive — dry and chewy, and the pulled pork had some hard matter in it you had to spit out. Service was fine but corporate, the lodge-like atmosphere went well with the ribs, and the A/C was a welcome amenity. 2401 Lake Lansing Road, Lansing. (517) 316-9973. www.smokeybones.com
3 out of 5 For $5 you can get a barbecue beef sandwich here in, like, a minute. The use of shredded cheese and onion and its conveyance on pita bread gave the meat some points for novelty. The sauce was tart and tangy, but the meat was a little tough.
The patio theme spills inside, making for a fun, Parrothead-friendly atmosphere. Unfortunately, this is strictly a Mondaythrough-Friday lunch place servicing downtown Lansing students and workers, so there’s never any chance of sitting outside for dinner or on the weekend. The service is very fast, (if a bit impersonal), but they’re geared to turn ‘em and burn ‘em at lunch here.
303 S. Washington Square, Lansing. (517) 853-2777.
Ida’s Southside Carryout.
3.5 out of 5 Ida’s is your textbook, roadside barbecue stand. They have a drive-thru, or you can just sit outside on their elementary-school-cafeteria-style tables. Tons of hearty, spicy sauce drenches the ribs, which were more than a little chewy. After we split a half slab of ribs ($9.75) and smacked our respective lips, Quinney rubbed his belly and admitted that this place is his regular haunt. Then he let us in on a little secret: they actually serve Kool Aid here. There is just nothing like a tall, cool glass of grape Kool Aid after ribs. Ida’s seemed like a community gathering spot as well, somewhere you could walk to and hang out with your friends.
Ida’s Southside Carryout, 2227 Holmes Road, Lansing. (517) 272-2922.
Sawyer’s Gourmet Pancake House.
4.5 out of 5. A cloud of barbecue smoke greets visitors
to Sawyer’s every day of the year. Yep, they barbecue all year. The
ribs and quarter or half chicken they cook in their outdoor smoker is
only available on weekends (11 a.m. to close Friday through Sunday),
but the Carolina pulled chicken and pulled pork sandwiches (which we
tried) are always on the menu. It’s a little on the pricy side for a
sandwich ($7.95 for chicken, $8.95 for pork), but you get a lot between
the buns. Big portions, hearty sauce and the liberal use of coleslaw on
top of the meat are some of this sandwich’s distinguishing features.
The meat is tender, and the sauce is a little on the sweeter side. It’s
also good to know that almost everything on the menu is either organic
and/or made in-house. We sat outside at their homey picnic tables, and
the service was extremely friendly. However, it would be nice if those
chicken and ribs were available all week long.
Sawyer’s Gourmet Pancake House. 608 W. Saginaw St., Lansing. (517) 485- 9410. www.sawyersgourmetpancakehouse.com
4.8 out of 5. If
the meat would have been fall-apart tender, it would have been enough
for us. If the barbecue would have had some complex,
spicy-but-not-too-spicy flavors, it would have been enough for us. If
the service would have been personal, fast and fun, it would have been
enough for us. But the fact that the Turkeyman (AKA Craig Harris)
knocks all these out of the park and has a dining room that makes you
feel instantly at home (if your home had a framed, autographed Magic
Johnson jersey) Turkeyman was the clear winner. Notes of honey
along with chipotle/chili flavors gave this dynamic sauce some heft,
not that the meat needed it. Harris, the consummate showman, easily
wiggled the bone
out of a turkey drumstick with a couple simple wrist turns — yeah, it’s
that tender. As for cost, the pulled turkey ($6.25) and drumstick
($5.50) were slightly cheap for the portions that were given.
Turkeyman, 5021 W. Saginaw Highway, Lansing. (517) 327-8300. www.turkeymanmi.com
Curtis’ Famous Barbeque
tasting posse couldn’t hold together until Friday, one of two
afternoons (Saturday is the other) this roadside truck with tow-able
grill sets up shop in the parking lot of American Print and Copy, 1712
W. Saginaw St. So the City Pulse office generously offered to fill the
rating bill. Driving up, the smell of grilled ribs saturated the air,
as smoke streamed out of the oversized grill. The rib meat is as tender
as any place else (One taster commented you could almost bite into the
bone itself.), but the rib tips, served with one rib in a small
clamshell container for $5, were expectedly fatty and heavy with
gristle. The sauce, which was thinner than most and definitely tangier,
got generally rave reviews. A hint of vinegar mixed with a handful of
spices made it come alive, although one reviewer noted it didn’t make
that big of a statement. Another felt the ribs might benefit from
additional marinating, but based on the amount of finger licking after
the tasting, the sauce stood tall.
course, this is far from an exhaustive list of good barbecue in the
area. Two good places our tasters have been before, and have been
featured in the City Pulse Food Finder, are either custom-catered (Sam
and Dave’s Bone-A-Fide BBQ, available at Blues on the Square or by
e-mailing Bob- Sam@sbcglobal.net)
or keep non-Food Fight hours, such as Tom’s BBQ in front of Downtown
Subs & Salads/New York Burrito in downtown Lansing Fridays and
Saturdays from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Of course, the elusiveness only adds
to this style of cooking’s charm.
(Joe Torok contributed to this story.)