Fried okra, baked beans, corn bread, southern greens, sweet potato pie. What else could you want with food like this but a hot sun, a cold beer, and, of course, barbecue? The hot sun may still be a tall order right now, but you can get ready for summer with barbecue and all the fixins at Smokehouse Blues (4855 Washtenaw), currently Ann Arbor’s only source (I believe) of southern barbecue.
An independent restaurant owned by Chef Matt Parent, Smokehouse Blues has been open for three years serving Memphis style barbecue. Chef Parent uses a secret-recipe "dry rub" (a pile of mixed spices) to season ribs, chicken, beef brisket, and prime rib. Then he slow cooks the meat in a stainless-steel hickory wood smoker, located in the parking lot out back. Some cuts of meat are locked into the smoker at nine o’clock at night in order to be ready to serve at lunch the next day. Homemade barbecue may be added just before the meal comes to your table.
The chef and his staff know what they’re doing. This is succulent barbecue, tender and rich and infused with smoky flavor. And the portions are huge: ribs falling off the sides of the plate, or a mountain of pulled pork (strips of meat taken from hunks of pork shoulder). And everything comes with soft white rolls to sop up the sauce. The side dishes are down-home favorites, including creamy mild macaroni and cheese, soft but not mushy collard greens with bacon and onions, and sweet and spicy baked beans.
There’s nothing good for you on this menu. If you’re vegetarian, I think you could order the side salad. But if you’re willing to throw caution to the lazy breeze, you’ll get a whopping dose of southern hospitality with a little poor-man blues on the side.
I was glad to discover Smokehouse Blues, after Ann Arbor lost two long-time barbecue establishments in the last year or so: DeLong’s and Mr. Rib. DeLong’s was the take-out spot beside the Farmer’s Market where they cooked whole chickens and slabs of ribs in an old black grill and filled the neighborhood with the unmistakable aroma of smoked meat. Served in the classic style, with a puddle of sauce and a few slices of Wonder Bread, a DeLong’s dinner could even be delivered to your door late at night to curb the munchies with a finger-licking mess of ribs and chicken.
Mr. Rib’s last incarnation was near Packard and Platt in a former fast-food place. They were famous for their "Soul-on-a-Roll"—a mix of beef and pork, smothered in bbq sauce and topped with cole slaw, served on a hamburger bun. They also made a lemon pound cake with crunchy white icing that melted in your mouth. (Mr. Rib has disappeared before and then turned up elsewhere, so if you know of a new location, please share the news.) [Editor's Note: The new Mr. Rib has been spotted within the Airport Market, on Ellsworth just west of State St., 662-RIBS]
Neither of these joints was the kind of cushy sit-down restaurant that Chef Parent has designed (with the dim lights, roomy booths, and full bar). But the barbecue was just as good, if not better, and I sensed a greater authenticity in these restaurants by seeing the black families that ran them avoiding fancy flair in favor of serious cooking. After all, barbecue hails from southern backyards, where black men cook it and sell it by the side of the road. It was surely African Americans who brought barbecue north, following in the footsteps of the blues.
Not that Chef Parent—a white Michigan native who discovered southern barbecue as an adult and taught himself how to make it—is faking it. His barbecue is serious work. And he readily admits he’d prefer a stripped-down version of his own restaurant, serving bbq sandwiches and beer at a stand-up counter. But he knew what Ann Arbor eaters tended to want in a dine-out experience, and he and his investors gave it to them. I’m glad for his success, and I’ll eat there again.
Even so, it saddens me that the men responsible for blanketing Kerrytown in hickory smoke or gracing your plate with the sloppy Soul-on-a-Roll eventually lost their footing in the restaurant market in this town, leaving us two fewer black-owned businesses and a more limited access to southern cuisine.
When I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, we used to drive north out of town, just two miles across the Georgia state line, to JB’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant. A double-wide trailer sat in the middle of nowhere on Route 319, surrounded by a sandy yard and scrubby pine trees, with several giant oil-drum barbecue grills set up outside. As soon as you opened the car door, you were assaulted by the smell of heat and smoke, meat and spices, making your eyes sting and your mouth water.
Inside, JB made regular rounds of the simple tables, shaking hands and talking up the food. He had very dark skin, gold teeth, graying hair, and a warmth that rivaled the smokers. He always seemed to be busting with pride about his cooking, his business, and his family (who all worked there), just as his well-fed stomach busted through the buttons of his shirt. His walls were lined with color photographs of B. B. King, Jimmy Carter, and other prominent customers, arm-in-arm with JB. Rumor had it someone built a helicopter pad out back to fly in the current Georgia governor whenever he had a hankering for JB’s pulled-pork sandwich.
While I was born in the south and raised on pinto beans and cornbread, I never felt more southern than when I ate at JB’s. I believe he’s still there, and if you go, you too might start talking with a drawl. But until you can make the trip, you’ll have to soothe your barbecue cravings at Smokehouse Blues. They may be carrying on a tradition that wasn’t originally theirs, but your mouth will never know it.R
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