An ode to BBQ: One fan's sonnet to smoked meat

It's the dog days of summer, and there's nobody better than Rapid Growth's own John Rumery to write a love poem to local barbecue. Summer in Michigan is fleeting, so read on for an aficionado's affectionate look at the hottest spots in town -- and support your favorite pit master or BBQ joint before the season is over.
Love. Passion. BBQ.

Oh barbecue, why do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
I love thee smoke ring on pork loins, butts, ribs and briskets.
I love thee spicy bark, burnt ends and tips.
I love thee perfectly smoked, tender ribs, needing only a gentle tug from the bone.
I love thee sauced, rubbed, basted, mopped, sopped, glazed and brined.
I love thee the smell of smoke: fruitwoods, hardwoods, lump charcoal, briquettes.
I love thee sauces: red, mustard, thin, peppery, thick, sweet, tangy, spicy. Especially on the side.
I love thee chicken, pork, beef, salmon, mutton, sausage, turkey.
I love thee fresh, homemade sausage stuffed into a casing that snaps.
I love thee side dishes made from scratch: slaws, beans and cornbread.
I love thee Weber kettles, rotisseries, Texas pits, half barrels, smokers, Kamados and yes, Southern Prides.
I love thee pig roasts and neighborhood barbecue parties.
I love thee local butchers and family farms.
I love thee West Michigan pitmasters.
(Sincerest apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

In the past year, there’s been plenty to love about barbecue in West Michigan.

Let's count the ways.  

Matt and Sue Smith, owners of the BBQ juggernaut, The Pit Stop, regularly have lines of hungry, barbecue-craving customers snaking out their doors on the days when they are open for takeout. When they are not open for carryout, their calendar is jam-packed full of catering gigs. Their notoriety for great barbecue got a national mention when they were featured on the Cooking Channel’s Man Fire Food show. (Appropriately, the Pigging out on Pork episode.)

Two Scotts Barbecue converted an old root beer stand on the west side and now is a lunchtime destination featuring a robust selection of traditional barbecued meats and made-from-scratch sides. Oh, yeah: craft root beer on tap too.

The old Horseshoe Bar on Grandville Avenue has been reimagined into the Horseshoe Smokehouse and now serves brisket, pork butt, chicken wings and ribs plus traditional side dishes.

Keith Hall, pitmaster at The Grilling Company has a self-proclaimed goal of “making Michigan known for barbecue” and is making the move from a caterer to a full-service restaurant and catering operation located on West River Dr.

Most recently, Slow’s Bar-B-Q Grand Rapids made its long-awaited debut at the Downtown Market. It’s a hip place, bright, new and shiny. Most importantly, the barbecue is legit. Just try a slice of brisket, cut from the fatty side, and you will know what I’m talking about.

At Slow's, you order your smoked meats by the pound, cafeteria style. You then can belly up to the bar (great selection of beverages) or grab a spot at a picnic table made with reclaimed wood from bowling alley lanes. Don’t let the long lines dissuade you from checking it out. They are very efficient. Just make sure you grab enough napkins; eating ribs is not dainty.

The best news for West Michigan barbecue lovers, however, is that the new restaurants and accolades are only the tip of the iceberg. Truth be told, there are some seriously talented and hard-working pitmasters in Grand Rapids that have been in the trenches for years, smoking great meats.

Cory Davis of Big Daddy Pete's.Cory and Tara Davis are the owners of Daddy Pete’s BBQ. “I have been barbecuing most of my life," Cory Davis says. "I began as a young man, with my father, in our backyard. He was an avid griller, and was very well known for his barbecuing skills. That passion stayed with me, and grew from a hobby, where I cooked for friends and family, to a business where we served hundreds every week from our concession trailer.”

Davis says their businesses focuses on a “southern style barbecue." Their rubs and sauces are homemade. He uses local fruitwoods for smoke in his custom-made rotisserie smoker. It’s absolutely beautiful. Daddy Pete’s BBQ can be found in a variety of locations throughout the area, including Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids during the summer lunchtime series. They keep their website and Facebook page updated on their current whereabouts.

Ursula Sandifer of Sandmann's.Ursula Sandifer is the owner of Sandmann’s. Before the current barbecue boom, Sandmann’s was the bomb. The iconic barbecue joint on Wealthy and Fuller was a destination. Having closed up shop a few years ago, you can now find Ursula and her pit crew cooking on 28th Street between Madison and Eastern. Although she considers her style to be more “grilling” more than “barbecue," she still serves up delicious ribs, tips and chicken. Like all pitmasters, Sandifer holds recipes tight to the vest, willing only to share one secret to her great barbecue: “Cooking with love and passion.”  Give her a call at (616) 245-RIBS.

Mike Saladino is the affable and uber-talented pitmaster at Saladino Smoke. He caters events of all shapes and sizes. He is a DIY guy, beginning with his seasonings and ending with his custom pit. “I designed and built my pit to fit the needs and wants for one-stop barbecue events," he says. "It has an eight-foot smoke chamber with an offset firebox, a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ upright with a firebox under it and a three foot grill, three burner stove, two deep fryers and storage upfront.” It is sweet.

Saladino describes barbecue as an experience. “It’s the food, the smoke, the people, the event as a whole," he says. "Cooking over a wood fire, on the pit, in the great outdoors with friends all around and the smell of meat and smoke in the air.” 

For many smoked meat aficionados, beef brisket is the holy grail of barbecue and Texas is the holy land. Considering the attention that brisket is getting in national media, it’s not a stretch to think of Frank and Mary Weikert as West Michigan barbecue visionaries. The Weikerts started Dallas Deli over 20 years ago in Byron Center and brought Texas style beef brisket to West Michigan. Today, Kim and Sam Barnes are the owners and operators of Dallas Deli and are very committed to keeping the Weikert’s vision alive. 

Kim Barnes says the secret to their brisket is a… secret: “We have the handwritten recipe for Frank’s brisket, given to us by Mary and it’s an art form.”  The Barnes ply their trade with “two big smokers” using apple wood and a little oak and hickory “to give it a bite." Besides brisket, you'll find the usual barbecue fare, plus something a bit unusual: the chili hog. It’s red beans, rice, chili, sausage and brisket. You gotta love the chili hog.

Don Everette, Sr. is the pitmaster and owner of GrillMaster BBQ. Don has been in the barbecue trenches for many years. His business specializes in cooking at parties and backyard events. In other words, Everette brings the barbecue experience to you, including one of the most drop-dead gorgeous, custom-made barbecue pits in the city.

Everette prefers using apple wood and charcoal as his fuel and makes his own rub and sauces. “I use sixteen different ingredients in my rub,” he says, adding that the spice blend is designed to “trigger the sauce.” He also says that, taken together (meat, rub and sauce), the experience creates a small chain reaction. “When you taste my barbecue, there is a distinct bite at the end and then a sensation that makes you look forward to the next bite.”

Everette says he cooks with two different styles, depending on what the customer prefers: Chicago style (two layers of sauce) and Memphis style, where the sauce is secondary to the meat.

Oh barbecue, that is why I love thee.

Summer in Michigan is fleeting, so support your local pitmaster or BBQ joint, and get some goodness in your stomach before the season is over.
John Rumery is Rapid Growth's jobs and innovation editor. You can follow his musings about barbecue and grilling on his Grilladelic Facebook page here.
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