Growing up in the Midwest, I was never enamored with the local barbecue–typically baked or boiled ribs slathered with ketchup-like, overly sweet sauce, then quickly finished on an open grill. Later, on visits to the Texas Hill Country, I have eaten smoked sausage and brisket, spice-rubbed and cooked slowly over wood in a covered pit, and learned that what I had eaten in my youth was not barbecue. On another trip, a shack on the outskirts of Atlanta demonstrated what real barbecue could do to pork.
Now, though, serious barbecue places are proliferating in Michigan, all boasting of rubs, wood fuel, long cooking, and sauces served separately. I decided to try two new places nearby–the takeout Hotel Hickman in Dexter and the full-service restaurant Smokehouse 52 BBQ in Chelsea.
A family gathering in May gave me a chance to test Hotel Hickman with an expert: a cousin from Kansas City accompanied me to pick up the meal and pointed out the enclosed cooker out back. “That’s a good sign,” she declared as we walked toward the miniature barn across from Dexter’s central gazebo. Inside, two fellows sporting cowboy hats and exuberant facial hair had our order ready, delivered with banter that matched their buckaroo personas.
Dinners from Hotel Hickman come with two sides, a biscuit or wedge of cornbread, and dessert, so when we returned home, we unpacked a veritable chuck wagon. With so many relatives, we managed to tuck into all the options. A full rack of baby back ribs was nicely spiced and tasty without any sauce, the meat tearing easily from the bones. The Texas-style brisket, too, had great flavor, though I found it a little lean–not a problem for everyone in the group. The “Hotel Hickman” sausage–smoky and meaty, spicy with flavorings and chilis–was a crowd favorite.
I was dubious about the barbecued boneless pork loin, suspecting it was too lean to survive hours of cooking, and unfortunately my suspicions were confirmed. Sawdust dry, the slices fell into powdery shreds at the touch of a fork, and the sauces couldn’t repair the damage. The same held true for the freakishly large boneless, skinless chicken breast that stood in for an advertised half chicken. Pork shoulder and whole chickens would have fared better, so I’m not sure why the fellows at Hotel Hickman are using the more expensive, but less appropriate, cuts.
No one could complain about a lack of flavor or fat in Hotel Hickman’s sides. The cowboy beans are what one might imagine being served straight from a frontier chuck wagon–dark, robust, meaty. The “I-44 potatoes” are a rich invention, chunky smashed spuds laced with bacon and cheese, good hot or lukewarm, as takeout tends to become. The macaroni and cheese and coleslaw–the only options for a vegetarian interloper–are perfectly fine. Both the biscuits and cornbread–the former fluffy yet moist, the latter slightly sweet with crispy edges–are delicious. The desserts sound delightful–apple, cherry, or bourbon peach cobbler–but proved to be just doctored canned pie filling. Next time, I’ll request an extra cornbread slice or biscuit in lieu of a sweet.
I didn’t try Hotel Hickman’s breakfast, but it certainly sounds intriguing. Given that breakfast doesn’t usually travel well and their seats are restricted to four outside chairs, I may have to eat it from my lap in the car or at the park across the way. But fresh ground sausage, in patties or gravy, and on-site smoked bacon, along with eggs, fried potatoes, and those biscuits or cornbread, sound well worth the inconvenience.
Smokehouse 52 BBQ, right on Chelsea’s Main Street, has plenty of chairs–and tables, a bar, and full service. The interior, a pleasant hash of brick, wood, and metal, gives the sense of a dressy barbecue joint. The menu, though, ranges far from the pit, with appetizers, soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, and even fish listed alongside pork, brisket, and chicken.
For our first visit, my husband and I met another couple for dinner. Our waitress seemed clueless, but, after some confusion and annoyance, we ordered cocktails and two “pre-q’s”–fresh, dusted potato chips with a warm cream cheese-and-onion dip and, at my husband’s insistence, frickles–deep-fried, battered dill pickles. The chips, as warm, thick-sliced fried potatoes usually are, were addictive, with or without the dip. The frickles, eaten with the house Thousand Island-type dip, tasted like a Big Mac without the burger–a good thing or bad, depending on your predilections.
My friend ordered a smoked chicken quesadilla for dinner, which was fine. His spouse, a ribs lover, found her half rack of baby back ribs a little too chewy, though I thought them pleasant enough. To get a wide selection from the smoker, my husband ordered the Enthusiast, a plate that included pulled pork, beef brisket, and smoked chicken. An unappetizing jumble of shredded meat so cooked and reheated it was hard to tell visually which was which, it proved uniformly dry and unsatisfying; slathering on any or all of the four house barbecue sauces was no help. For reasons the waitress couldn’t explain, my order of Southern fried chicken, advertised as one thigh and one breast, came out as two boneless breasts. Their ample crispy crust, drizzled with honey, failed to compensate for the dry, flavorless flesh.
As at Hotel Hickman, a range of sides came with the entrees. The baked beans tasted like Campbell’s canned, but the mac and cheese was fine, the slaw crunchy and fresh, and the green beans with stewed tomatoes a pleasant change from the �xADusual–well cooked but not mushy. Sweet and rich, the corn cake pudding was tasty, potentially a great foil to a juicy deep-fried chicken thigh or meaty rib.
To give Smokehouse 52’s pit another chance, I ordered takeout for a ladies’ card party a couple of week later, this time ordering each meat as a separate entree. This time the pulled pork passed muster with a real aficionado, a friend who travels back from Arkansas with a meaty cache in her suitcase. She also liked the ribs, especially when drizzled with an entire array of barbecue sauces. Thick, succulent slices of beef brisket were a vast improvement over the previous dinner’s shredded bits. Like Hotel Hickman’s, Smokehouse 52’s smoked chicken is a boneless, skinless breast–how has that tasteless, juiceless piece of flesh become America’s favorite protein?–so I didn’t bother to try it again. A second try didn’t revise my opinion of the beans, but the long-cooked collards, slippery and camoflage green, were tasty, if a bit salty. The sweet potato fries were dandy, and the baked potato salad exactly as one might imagine.
None of us were too refined to enjoy pimento cheese smeared across thick slices of smoked sausage and saltines. For those who like the black, crispy rough edges of a roast or a charred steak straight off the grill, burnt ends–nuggets of brisket basted and smoked twice–are another good appetizer. Avoid the smoked wings, which look like boiled fowl and don’t taste much different.
After visiting these two venues, I thought back to what it was I had savored in Texas and Georgia. That meat was cooked for a very long time with spices and smoke and salt and just enough heat to glorify each element of the mix in a single celebration, and we journeyed to eat barbecue and nothing else. Pulled directly from the pit, the meat wasn’t smoked early and reheated later to serve us when we felt ready to order, nor were there options for light eaters, picky eaters, vegetarians, dieters, or folks who want the lean pieces. But most restaurants must please their regular customers, so for me the search for great local barbecue continues. In the meantime, there’s fun to be had at Hotel Hickman and Smokehouse 52.
8050 Main Street
Thurs.-Sun. 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mon.-Wed.
Breakfast items $2-$5, lunch items $5-$20, dinner items $12-$25
Smokehouse 52 BBQ
125 S. Main
Sun.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Appetizers & soups $4-$8, sandwiches and entree salads $8-$13, entrees $11-$26