North by northwest
New restaurants in Pinckney and Hamburg
by Bix Engels
Autumn pushes us outdoors to tank up on the sun and sky before we hunker down for winter. This year, instead of one last run to Harbor Springs, we decided to stick closer to home-up north, but just barely: Pinckney and Hamburg, where it turns out there's quite a bustling new food scene.
I love the drive to Pinckney. Starting in Ann Arbor where Dexter Road branches off from Jackson, the old Indian trail rambles past Scio's semisuburbia, goes rural by Wing Farms, becomes Main Street in the village of Dexter, turns north through the historic stone railroad viaduct, and then twists along the many lakes that dot the region. If you leave early in the morning you may catch sight of the steam rising from the water's surface, crisscrossed above by herons, cranes, and geese.
We stopped for breakfast at Aunt Betty's in Pinckney. With its original stainless-steel soda-fountain setup and Formica counter lined with twirling vinyl-topped bar stools, Betty's certainly wins points on character. Sadly, the food falls far short-we were served wilted bacon, pallid fried potatoes, fake maple syrup, and wretched coffee.
We escaped and righted our senses with a decent brew at the nearby Mainly Chocolate and Coffee Cafe, which in February set up shop in the old McPherson State Bank. The coffee shop is next door to another newcomer, the Pinckney Bakery. Owners Kim and Saing Yam sold their "big city" locale-the Dexter Bakery-in April and opened the Pinckney Bakery in August. The main offerings are homemade doughnuts, coffee, and ice cream.
Across the old-timey Putnam Township Square and less than a block away on Howell Street, the new Pinckney Diner opened in July. A cheery spot with big booths, strategically placed closed-captioned televisions, and rowdy country-and-western on the speaker system, it appears to be a hit with the locals, several of whom directed us here as the best food bet in town. A classic in the Greek Coney model, it's owned by the Zavradinos
and Stamatopoulos families, who also operate restaurants in Saline, Dexter, Tecumseh, and Jackson. The breakfast menu ranges from fresh fruit and oatmeal to multimeat combos and pancake-wrapped sausage (you can also "smother your breakfast with gravy" for an extra $1). The bacon and eggs are affordable and reliable, with crisp rashers and rough country-style omelets, like the "farmers," a three-egg assemblage filled with spinach, goat cheese, and fresh tomatoes. The cooks got their crunch on with a deep golden brown crust on the hash browns. While the Greek entrees looked promising, the only lunch offering I tried, a buffalo burger from a Pinckney bison, reminded me that local does not always translate to more delicious. Service is fast and friendly.
We walked off breakfast with a lovely and reasonably challenging two-mile hike through the woods along pristine Pickerel Lake, ending up at Silver Lake's swimming beach. I'll bet writer Caroline Kirkland, whose husband founded Pinckney, would still recognize the landscape she described in 1842 of "deep but waveless little lakes, which abound in this land of looking-glasses."
Following a tip from reader Deborah Kanter, we hit culinary gold about ten minutes east of Pinckney on M-36. Chef Chris' Boogie Woogie Bar-B-Que is a spic-and-span storefront in the Hamburg Village Plaza strip mall, with terrific eats.
Chef Chris Sirvinskis won me as a fan when he was at the short-lived Northfield Roadhouse, a blues bar with a jazzy kitchen. Since then, the chef and harmonica master has catered private events and continued as the frontman for the Blue Plate Specials and later for the Rump Shakers. He opened his own place in March of this year, docking his seventeen-foot-long cast-iron smoker semipermanently in the back parking lot.
It's mostly carryout, though there are a handful of tables. The room is outfitted in a suitably down-home style with corrugated steel and plywood and music-themed art (if that's the right word for a black-velvet painting of John Travolta in full Saturday Night Fever regalia). Behind the counter is a large open kitchen, gleaming with stainless steel, where Chef Chris preps the meat before it goes into the smoker and cooks up the accompaniments. The sides are generally good; the only ones we found somewhat wanting were a crisp and chunky but too mayonnaisey coleslaw and a creamy but bland mac-and-cheese. Perhaps the best were the feisty red beans and rice cooked with ham hocks, a roasted vegetable-tomato-herb broth, and house-smoked pork sausage that was so full of flavor we almost could have stopped right there. An excellent bowl of collards with bacon, onion, and a dash of vinegar was similarly satisfying.
The headliner here is meat smoked over oak and cherrywood. On our first visit Chris's Texas brisket was not quite as tender as I might have wished, but it had a bang-up beefy flavor enhanced with a simple salt-and-pepper rub. On a second trip the brisket was phenomenal: tender, moist, and carrying the coveted rosy "smoke ring"-that pinkish circle around the edges that signifies a perfect eighteen-hour smoking. The pulled pork, a shoulder cut smoked for twelve hours, was equally praiseworthy and more exotically spiced, with a rub of brown sugar, paprika, onion and garlic powders, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves.
The meats are ripe for saucing with one of the five varieties Chris makes in house: classic Kansas City; a vinegary Memphis style (made with a dash of Dr Pepper); a subtle creamy Georgia mustard sauce; a Michigan blueberry sauce (he buys berries by the bushel on the west side of the state); and his pride and joy, a devilish Texas hot sauce made from three kinds of roasted peppers mixed with other roasted vegetables, added to a chicken stock, and reduced to an almost syruplike consistency.
Both the pulled pork and the brisket are fully satisfying for taste while also less greasy than these two dishes can sometimes be. Though the ribs were on the dry side, they proved to be the most heavily smoked-deep pink, like a Christmas ham. To my surprise, my favorite turned out to be the smoked chicken. With a shiny mahogany brown skin over unexpectedly succulent breast meat, it showed a real expert's hand.
Chef Chris also can slap some of that smoked meat on a dense house-baked bun brushed with herbs and olive oil for on-the-fly eating; sandwiches with a drink and a side salad range from $8 to $10. If you want to make a picnic of it, the shop is five minutes from the nearly-5,000-acre Brighton Recreation Area.
We ordered more than we could eat, but I was glad to have the leftovers to work with at home the next couple of days-smoked chicken salad, fried rice with that hammy rib meat, beef brisket sandwiches. Hamburg is about twenty minutes' drive from Ann Arbor, so it doesn't hurt to get extra. If your house is anything like mine, it won't go begging.
150 Howell Street,
Mon.-Thurs. 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 6 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Breakfast $1.99-$7.99; sandwiches, Coneys, & burgers $1.79-$9.29; soups, appetizers, & salads $1.99-$8.49; entrees $5.29-$14.99; desserts $1.99-$3.69
Fully disability friendly
Chef Chris' Boogie Woogie Bar-B-Que
5589 East M-36 (Hamburg
Village Plaza) (810) 231-3400
Tues.-Sun. noon-9 p.m. Closed Mon.
Soups & salads $3.49-$5.49; side dishes $1.99 a cup, $3.99 a pint; sandwiches $4.99-$6.49; smoked meats by the piece or pound $2.29-$18.99
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in October, 2008.]