Where there’s smoke, there’s flavor
By Mark Nixon
Restaurants are known for self-laudatory proclamations like “Home of the world-famous (fill in the blank).”
But then there’s Saddleback BBQ’s slogan, “Respect the pig.” At first, I thought it was a toss-off line. Then I thought it might be a Zen-like nod to all things pork. I finally settled on the ethos of our hunter-gatherer origins: If you’re going to kill something to eat it, show the deceased animal some gratitude for the sacrifice by making it taste good.
Saddleback’s owners may laugh at my conclusion, but the proof is in the pudding — or the pork, in this case. These folks show respect for the food through the painstaking methods and time necessary to deliver quality smoked meats to their customers.
On an interior brick wall of this diner is an oversized painting of a pig, specifically the porcine breed known as the saddleback. The black-and-white pig was spray-painted by a friend of the owners. Obviously, Saddleback’s owners have given a good deal of thought to the relationship between pork and people.
Dining here is akin to hanging out at a friend’s backyard barbecue. Picnic tables flank the outside entrance, which faces Washington Avenue in Lansing’s REO Town. There’s a smattering of small tables inside. Nothing fancy here: It’s all plastic dinnerware, paper napkins and foam cups. Order at the counter, grab a self-serve soft drink and park yourself at a table until the food arrives.
And when the food arrives ... OMG, as my granddaughter says on Facebook every 15 seconds.
On our first visit I ordered the full rack of pork ribs ($26). I ate my fill, and there were take-home leftovers for two more meals. The spiced, dry-rub exterior had a bit of char, and the telltale smoke ring inside proved this piece of meat had been properly slow-smoked.
The three house-made sauces on the table range from tangy & spicy to nuclear reactor meltdown — that’s my scale, not theirs. More on spice in a moment.
Of the entrees we tried, my hands-down favorite was the beef brisket sandwich ($9.50). Tender, subtly smoked with just a thin layer of fat hugging the edges, this was the finest beef brisket I’ve ever tasted. Our dining companion, Bruce, said it was “as close to perfection as you can get.”
Here’s a noteworthy warning for late eaters: Slow-smoked meats are not something that can be whipped up on the spot, and Saddleback sometimes runs out of meats by the end of the day. The eatery points that out on its website. On one visit, I wanted to try the smoked pulled chicken ($6), but there was none left. Our friend Jan had the chicken on a previous visit and found it bland and chewy.
The best side we tried was the fried pork rinds ($2.25). If you’ve only tasted those odious rinds sold in a bag at grocery stores and gas stations, you haven’t had a real fried pork rind. “Kick-ass pork rinds” is how Judy described Saddleback’s version. They are feathery light, all crisp-and-crunch porky goodness, dusted with sriracha seasoning. There’s the rub. Judy said next time she’ll ask for the seasoning on the side; the sriracha’s heat detracted from the flavor of the pork rinds.
That’s part of an unfortunate pattern at Saddleback. Granted, my internal works cannot handle spice as they once did. But I find some of the spicing here is plainly over the top. The baked beans ($3) is not your mother’s baked beans. Its your Aunt Zepha’s rip-out-your-tongue-and-send-it-straight-to-hell baked beans. Three bites were all I could stand.
The house-made dill pickle slices, while tasty, have an after burn that would do a NASA spacecraft proud. I would aim for more middle-of-the road heat, like that found in Saddleback’s brisket rib chili ($4).
Some side dishes deserve a makeover. The cole slaw ($3.50) lacks oomph, and I don’t mean conventional spicy heat. A dab of horseradish would help. The mac & cheese ($4) hits the mouth like an uninspired afterthought. It needs something, like tossing garlic-infused bread crumbs on top and browning it under a broiler.
Let’s dwell no longer on the downside of their sides. Saddleback is a welcoming, sincere place that is in earnest about respecting the tradition of smoking and barbecuing meats. We’ll be back — if they’ll have us. Oh, and here’s a little secret we discovered: Place your order, then head next door and grab a seat at the REO Town Pub. Order your favorite adult beverage, and Saddleback will deliver your meal to go with your brew. Perfect.
By Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence
Almost exactly a year ago, my love roommate and I had a housewarming party. We both come from enormous families, so we knew the crowd would be large — and hungry. I’d heard rumblings about Saddleback BBQ, which was preparing to open in REO Town, just a stone’s throw from our new house. We enlisted the eagerly anticipated restaurant’s owners to provide smoked chicken and beef for the party. The meat was a huge hit. We knew that if the restaurant could maintain that quality, it would be a winner.
On an overcast but pleasantly cool Friday night just a few weeks ago, that roommate and I gathered with 200 of our nearest and dearest at the MSU Alumni Chapel and promised to eat the rest of our meals together ‘til death do us part. He started appearing in this column as “the boyfriend,” and eventually “the fiancé.” He’s now officially Mr. She Ate. We sealed the deal with our favorite food trucks: Good Truckin’ Food, El Oasis and Detroit Frankie’s Wood Fired Brick Oven Pizza.
Let me get my few criticisms of Saddleback out of the way first. In recent months, the prices have increased. I used to get a smoked chicken taco combo with fries for $9.00. Now those same items must be ordered à la carte, bringing the bill to $11.00. Fountain pop prices have risen from $1.75 to $2.50, and refills of iced tea or lemonade cost you $0.50. In my inexpert opinion, the new prices are a little too high. This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you remember the demise of Fork in the Road, which also had good food that was slightly overpriced.
Since Saddleback opened, the Mr. and I have sampled everything on the menu. The menu is small, which I love, and it gives the expertly prepared meats a chance to shine. During a recent lunch on Saddleback’s Wu-Tang Wednesday, I loved the Killa Bee Wings ($8.00). They are an entire chicken drumette, larger than a traditional chicken wing, and they were slightly crispy before I doused them in the Saddleback’s delicious house-made red sauce. The fries ($3.00) that I ordered to complete my session of gluttony were medium-cut, hot and salty. I used them to sop up more sauce.
Every meat item at Saddleback comes with a few slices of house-made pickles, which are, simply put, perfect. A few scoops of corn cake — kind of a deconstructed corn bread — round out the meal. The whole thing is presented on an industrial metal tray. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the anti-corporate vibe of Saddleback, which features tattooed servers, a wall hanging of a pig and blaring gangster rap.
The Mr. usually orders the pulled pork sandwich ($8.50) or brisket sandwich ($9.50). Both feature heaps of perfectly smoked meat on a fluffy roll. He’s a bit of a sandwich fanatic and is unable to control himself when Saddleback concocts a special, limited-edition sandwich. He takes himself for a lunch date every time he hears about a new one. One such sandwich was a quarter rack of deboned smoked ribs that were fried, tossed with red sauce and topped with jalapenos and onion straws on a Hawaiian roll. Another was smoked pastrami on thick Jewish rye with house-made whole grain mustard. During Lent, it was a crab and langoustine salad on a Hawaiian roll. It’s no wonder we’ve become Saddleback fanatics — the inventions are unique and perfectly executed.
On a recent trip, while I dove into a pile of smoked brisket with baked beans and my beloved pickles, my husband went for a half rack of ribs ($15.00.) The meaty offering was covered in a dry spice rub. These aren't the drippy, saucy, sugary monstrosities served in chain restaurants. In his opinion, these were the best in town — even surpassing another popular barbecue restaurant on the north side of town.
The macaroni and cheese presents a missed opportunity to do something special. It’s a serviceable elbow macaroni in a creamy but not overpowering cheese sauce. But it could be better. I’d add a parmesan cheese or some other element to deepen the flavor, maybe garlic bread crumbs for added texture. If I’m paying $4.00 for a side of it, I want it to be better than what I can make at home.
While it doesn’t bother me, I’ve heard complaints that Saddleback runs out of food too early and too often. Yes, they run out. They’ll let you know via Twitter or Facebook, or you can call on the phone and check. I don’t know much, but I know that profit margins in restaurants are razor thin and that every cent counts. If that means that they only prepare what they think they can sell and run the risk of closing an hour early, that’s cool with me. In exchange, Saddleback, please consider adding me to your advisory board. I know you have one, and I’m heartbroken that I can’t add it to my resume.
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday 1147 S. Washington Ave., Lansing (517) 253-7556, saddlebackbbq.com