Smoking out the competition

Local restaurants discuss the keys to running a top-notch barbecue business


Whether you’re looking for ribs, brisket, pulled pork, wings or soul-food sides such as mac and cheese, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread, Greater Lansing offers plenty of restaurants to satiate your barbecue cravings.

But what makes the best restaurants stand out from the pack? Staff from four local barbecue joints discussed their ideas with City Pulse, touching on everything from employees and ambience to flavor and cook style.

Sean Johnson, owner of Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine in Old Town, said good barbecue food “is basically just a matter of patience, time and using good-quality ingredients.”

“There are certain things that are harder to do than others. I think briskets are probably the hardest thing you can do as far as getting the texture, temperature, flavor and presentation correct,” he said. “But you have to have really good-quality ingredients to start with, and you’ve just gotta have a lot of patience to be able to sit there and play around with recipes until you’ve got something you think people will enjoy.”

Brad Broughman, kitchen manager at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in Eastwood Towne Center, agreed that a restaurant’s brisket is typically a good indicator of its overall quality.

“Generally speaking, brisket is usually where I start. You can go pretty simple with brisket — salt and pepper is usually a good way to start. I’m looking for the quality of the smoke and then, obviously, the tenderness,” he said.

The quality of the smoke depends on the type of smoker the restaurant uses.

“I’ve had enough barbecue that I can kind of tell what kind of smoke they’re getting on their barbecue,” Broughman said. “The more airflow you get into it, the better fire you’ll get, and it’ll burn off all the impurities.”

The staff are also an important piece of the puzzle, according to Steve Fountain, a co-owner and chef at the Smoke N’ Pig BBQ near the Lansing Mall.

“You need good people who help. If you don’t have a good team, there’s no way it’s gonna work,” he said.

Courtesy of Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine
Briskets are one of the hardest barbecue dishes a restaurant can make, according to Sean Johnson, owner of Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine in Old Town. You have to get the texture, temperature, flavor and presentation just right.
Courtesy of Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine Briskets are one of the hardest barbecue dishes a restaurant can make, according to Sean …
Bryan Torok, another Smoke N’ Pig co-owner, agrees.

“I know the things that really help us as a barbecue restaurant are the food and the people that serve it. All our employees are longtime employees,” he said. “They don’t leave — we don’t have much turnover. It’s kind of like a family-owned business, and we’ve been doing it the same way since May 2016.”

That family-owned aspect shines through in the restaurant’s food — pitmaster Gabriel Jones, Torok’s son, utilizes a mix of family recipes and his own recipes to create the Smoke N’ Pig’s signature dishes.

“All the things Gabe makes — all his rubs, all the sauces, all the au jus, any of the things that go into that product to finish it — are all homemade. Every side we make is homemade,” Torok said.

The ability to create inventive, homemade food is key to the Smoke N’ Pig’s success, according to Fountain.

“I think just having the courage to get up and try something new and not be afraid to mess up is important,” he said. “You know, just perfecting your craft or whatever. It’s your craft. There are a million ways to do barbecue. If you believe in that way, then that’s your way, and you’ve got the love for it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

“We have a food truck, too, which is kind of nice as well,” Torok added. “We have an opportunity to take our food out to places that other restaurants can’t. We visit a lot of local festivals, and we do a lot of corporate events and private events for folks, too. It’s a good way to get people to try our products that maybe don’t make it to the restaurant.”

Matthew Gillett, co-owner of Saddleback BBQ, heaped praise on his competitors.

“We have a ton of great restaurants here in Lansing that set the bill for what I would look for in good barbecue, and if I was coming from out of town, or I was someone who hasn’t explored barbecue in the local area, I think we’re fortunate to have a bunch of nice places,” he said.

The first things he looks for in any restaurant are good food and good service.

“I think those are kind of the core ingredients to a good dining experience,” he said. “A secondary thing that’s always important is a nice ambience to kind of make you feel like you’re immersed in that world. Whatever the dining experience, that’s always an important factor.”

As for barbecue, he said there are certain factors that make the best options stand out.

“A little bit of smoke, some char, some bark — bigger and bolder flavors are always keys to things that I seek out when enjoying barbecue elsewhere.”



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