Nothing says summertime like juicy burgers, smoky BBQ and spicy chicken wings. City Pulse checked in with some of the top local spots, as voted by you in the 2021 Top of the Town Contest.
Note: The 2022 contest kicks off in City Pulse’s Sept. 14 issue. In the meantime, read on if you’re ready to drool.
When Sean Johnson was planning his own restaurant, he wanted to create a fun place where he’d want to hang out. Today, Meat Southern B.B.Q. & Carnivore Cuisine (1224 Turner St., Lansing), co-owned with his wife Lynnette, is just that place. It celebrated its 10th anniversary in June.
Johnson, a big music and sci-fi fan, described the atmosphere as “very ‘rock ‘n’ roll, a laid-back vibe, not really any pretension. It’s kind of got a dive-bar, shabby chic-ness to it. There’s a lot of kitsch and memorabilia from my life all over the walls. A lot of the artwork relates to that.”
Johnson said the fresh ingredients and classic recipes is what makes the BBQ popular.
“We try to keep true to the form of barbeque in the way it should be done with everything made daily,” he said. “There is no processing of a bunch of leftover stuff, reheating and reserving. We’re just trying to keep it as traditional as possible as far as that’s concerned. We try to keep it simple too, not overdo it or make it too fancy. We just stick to what BBQ is supposed to be, and that’s just simple comfort food that people enjoy.”
MEAT’s most popular menu items include the brisket and chicken wings. Up for a foodie challenge? Bust out the elastic waistband pants and try the Carnivore Challenge. If you can eat The Boss Log (18 layers of pork, brisket, two burgers, bacon, fries, gravy, cheeses, hot garlic sauce, jalapenos and egg) with one side and the made-to-order macaroni and cheese with two ingredients, you’ll get the meal, a t-shirt and beer on the house. Your picture will proudly hang on the wall among the other local legends.
Another local fan favorite is Saddleback BBQ, particularly its REO Town spot (1147 S. Washington Ave., Lansing), which opened seven years ago. It also has a location in Okemos. The REO Town location, known for bumping old-school hip-hop music, is a quick-service restaurant. Customers order their food at the counter and the staff delivers it to tables “It’s pretty relaxed, it has that cool kind of Southern BBQ, hole-in-the-wall feel to it, even though it’s a mile south of the Capitol,” co-owner Matthew Gillett said. “Brisket and ribs are the things Saddleback BBQ does really well. Gillett attributes the award-winning grub to quality ingredients, but also the staff. “Most of it probably comes back to our employees, and how much care, time and dedication they put into the product.”
Two of the most popular items, beef brisket, a primal cut of meat that is smoked for 10 to 12 hours, and the made-from-scratch mac and cheese, have been on the menu since day one, and the recipes have gone untouched. Both have “stood the test of time as far as Saddleback is concerned,” Gillett said.
With humble food truck beginnings in 2016, Smoke N’ Pig BBQ (908 Elmwood Road, Delta Township) grew into a brick-and-mortar restaurant as of 2019. Owners Bryan and Mary Torok, along with their son Gabe Jones and Steve Fountain, began as a food truck. “We started with two Weber smokers and a 10x10 tent on the corner of MLK and Jolly Road in Lansing,” Bryan Torok recalled.
After selling out of food daily, they ordered two more smokers and haven’t slowed down since. In 2016, another food truck was added, and another the following year, to keep up with festival demands. In 2019, the crew opened their restaurant on Elmwood Road, just east of the Lansing Mall.
Torok said the family-owned business uses only the best grade of meats for its pork butts, ribs, rib tips, beef brisket, and chicken entrees. “The seasonings that are used for our meats are all recipes Gabe created on his own. We smoke our pork butts and brisket for 12-to-16 hours.”
Smoke N’ Pig BBQ is a cut-above due to the attention of Jones to detail, Torok said. “Nothing comes off the smokers until it is done to his specifications. We have generous portions and our customer service is outstanding. We have a great group of dedicated employees. All of them have been with us since we opened in 2019.”
Popular menu items include ribs, brisket, loaded mac and cheese, nachos, tacos, loaded fries, and turkey ribs.
Meat Southern B.B.Q. & Carnivore Cuisine is no stranger to awards, just see above for starters. But it’s not often that BBQ places are voted the best in the chicken wings category, said co-owner Sean Johnson.
In seeking out a chicken option for the beef-centric menu, Johnson turned toward his favorite option, the chicken wing, rather than whole or quarter chickens. “We try to use a high-quality product, which is not always the easiest to get. We spend a little extra money on it and try to give people the best possible product we can.”
The wings, which have a simple brine solution, are smoked for one and a half to two hours and seasoned with the house BBQ seasoning. “You’re getting them to the point where the meat is cooked, and it has a little bit of a smoked flavor to it,” Johnson said. “The rest you have to do with the fryer, to help plump up the skin on the outside and help keep the juices in.”
MEAT has eight sauces they made daily from scratch, which most customers grab from tables and add to their “naked” wings, but you can also order them spun in the sauce as well.
You might have heard of Eastside Fish Fry & Grill (2417 E. Kalamazoo St., Lansing) on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” in 2017, but the business has been around for 10 years. Owner Henry Meyer said the exposure from the show helped to change the direction of the restaurant, enabling rapid growth.
“One of our big mission statements is to not forget where we come from,” Meyer said. “I couldn’t find a job at all when I got out of prison (on a marijuana conviction). That’s why I started something for myself. I was blessed to be able to do that, but a lot of guys and girls in my situation, coming out of prison, can’t do that. We employ as many felons or disadvantaged people who might not be able to find a job somewhere else. We want to help them have a better life in society. We’ve found big success with employing non-violent, drug offenders.”
Meyer said the small, local restaurant’s atmosphere is welcoming. “We’re kind of in a rough part of the neighborhood, so we’ve put a lot of money into the outside of the building,” he said. “We put in new asphalt, a new roof, and painted the building. We want to change the perception of the east side from a rougher neighborhood to somewhere you can get some really good food. We have a lot of really good competitors, Philly Steak & Cheese, Art’s Pub and Dagwoods. You’ve got a lot of good spots to eat around here.”
Meyer said what makes Eastside Fish Fry shine bright is the quality and value. “All of our food is prepared fresh, none of it is pre-cooked. You’re getting a fresh, hot chicken wing, never set under a warmer. We don’t have any warmers in the building. It’s all fresh ingredients, and you’re getting a whole chicken wing for the price of competitors selling wingdings.”
Typically, Eastside sells 3,000 to 3,500 chicken wings a day, making it the most popular menu item, followed by catfish nuggets. In-house seasonings include their famous lemon pepper blend, as well as Cajun and spicy seasoning dry-rub options. Customers can also get wings rolled in BBQ or hot sauce.
Art’s Pub (809 E. Kalamazoo St., Lansing), a Lansing staple since the 1940s, is owned by a group that includes brothers Nick and Greg Sinicropi, a prominent name in Lansing dining history. Kitchen manager Steven Johnson said their spot is unmatched because it’s open for 14 hours a day. Starting at 7 a.m., Art’s serves breakfast all day, and the kitchen doesn’t close until 9 p.m. Johnson sees everyone from third-shift factory workers to families dining at the longstanding establishment.
“We have a nice patio with a garage door we open up to brighten up the whole restaurant,” Johnson said. “You can bring your family here, a date, or sit at the bar, get a drink and just chat with our bartenders. It’s a light atmosphere.”
Art’s most popular item remains its pizza by the slice, but chicken wings are a close second, Johnson said. “From Jan. 1 to July 7, we have sold 67,432 wings individually,” he said. “I’m ordering right around 480 pounds of wings per week.”
Johnson said they’re ordering “jumbo fresh wings” that they “dry-rub immediately.” Dry-rub flavors include Bloody Mary, spicy dry rub, garlic and pesto, to name a few. Johnson’s favorite is the rooster rub, made with ranch seasoning, cracked pepper and citrus seasonings. Wings are available in boneless, smoked bone-in, or meatless versions.
“We smoke them the same day. Our smoker is a really big, commercial smoker,” he said. “It’s outside next to our patio. A major reason people like our wings is just the natural smoke that comes from that smoker. It fills up the parking lot and the street. The customers can see us loading the wings. They see the whole process essentially, so they know what they’re buying. It’s a transparent process.”
Rounding out the third spot for best burger, Crunchy’s (254 W. Grand River Road, East Lansing) isn’t your typical college bar. Although the casual atmosphere provides an ideal spot for everyone from sports fans and karaoke singers to outdoor patio enthusiasts, Mike Krueger, owner and general manager, said reliability is what keeps them going strong. Crunchy’s is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
“Consistency has a lot to do with it,” Krueger said. “We’ve been doing the same burger for as long as I have been here (since 2010). Having good quality ground beef is a big deal, too.”
The famous half-pound, chargrilled Crunchy burger guarantees 100% fresh certified angus beef, cooked to order. “That is semi-unique for the area,” Krueger said. “A lot of places just cook them medium well or well done without even asking. We cook them to temperature, serve them on a brioche bun, with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and American cheese.”
Another popular burger option is the bacon avocado burger, which comes with mozzarella cheese, bacon and avocado on a pretzel bun. Customized cheese options and toppings like the atomic topping — which includes chili and jalapeno jack cheese — round out the personalized build-your-own burger route.
Lansing is home to many great burgers: Olympic Broil, Piazzano’s and Harry’s all earning honorable mentions. My favorite is the Miami Burger at Weston’s Kewpee with its crumbled burger, olive sauce and cheese. Tasty two-handed bites that require napkins during and after. Best with a basket of onion rings.
Most folks gravitate to buffalo or smoked wings, and I’m a fan. However, my sleeper pick is the Cajun Greek Wings at Steakhouse Philly. Marinated for hours in Greek seasoning, then baked, tossed in Cajun dust and finally flash-fried to perfection. Ask for a side of Charlie’s Sauce.
There’s tough competition around town. Gump’s, Saddleback, 517 BBQ are top contenders. My favorite is Smoke N’ Pig in Delta Township — there’s a lot to choose from. Ribs, pork belly burnt ends, a variety of pulled pork sandwiches, mac, nachos and turkey ribs. The signature BBQ and Lansing-style mustard sauces are both wonderful.
— Bryan Beverly, She Ate / He Ate columnist
My unequivocal favorite burger in town is a classic: the Cheeseburger Deluxe from LeRoy’s. You cannot beat a juicy, well-seasoned patty on a toasty griddled bun. For a quick weekday lunch, Kewpee’s burgers are incredible and the sweet potato fries are (chef’s kiss). The best BBQ can be found at Saddleback. After trying everything else, and then trying it again, Saddleback reigns supreme.
— Gabrielle Lawrence, She Ate / He Ate columnist
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