We’d driven all the way to downtown Ypsi, and the guys were getting restless. To case this new Red Rock Downtown BBQ joint on Michigan Ave., I’d collared some loyal amateur smokers–not so hardcore that they carry electronic pagers to monitor the temp inside the chimney, but gone enough to smoke the Thanksgiving turkey every freakin’ year.

After the guys had eaten their meat (and every crumb of the kernel-filled cornbread, and even a few bites of the sissy-sweet apple-cherry coleslaw, if you can believe it), they wanted to put their eyes on the joint’s actual cooker. It obviously isn’t out front like Satchel’s and old Mr. Rib’s, may he rest in peace. The guys are not happy when a polite request to our blond server comes back with, “Sorry, kitchen says we’re just too busy to show you our smoker now, but thanks for asking, blah-da blah.” What can we do but take matters into our own hands? Or feet and noses, as it were …

By the time we pay our bill it’s nearly dark. All casual-like we slip out the front door, past a couple of drunks, and catch the bewitching smoky meat scent in the air. We follow it down the street, past the Tap Room, around the corner, and into the alley out back. We’re real quiet, just planning to take a peek. There’s a big, square, shiny metal contraption that might be what we’re looking for, but it’s locked down, so we can’t be sure. We’re standing right beside it when a clean-cut fella comes out the back door and sees us on the prowl.

We’re busted.

Red Rock is the spiffy brick joint that took over what used to be TC’s Speakeasy. It’s barely a month old when we first hit it, but there’s a line out the door on Friday night. You gotta move fast in this business when there’s talk of a new player on the scene.

The wait’s not too long, and eventually someone leads us past all the big TV screens to a table in the back. It’s even darker there, and at first we don’t notice that the black wall next to us is padded most of the way up. Danny likes that–he’s the smart one who did his senior thesis on barbecue sauce and how it’s been around since caveman days.

The boys start hitting the four plastic bottles on the table, red for smoky-sweet sauce and house special, yellow for mustard, and almost clear for the vinegary kind. They’re squirting it on their fingers, licking it off, and getting loud with all the comparing. I’m thinking this is not the most sanitary thing, so I order sweet potato and waffle fries (both seasoned salty right, we’re pleased to see). We also ante up for the “Burnt Ends” appetizer. I can rarely resist crunchy cooked edges of most any kind of meat, but I’m disappointed by these hard little greasy cubes mixed with grayish jalapenos, which were not listed on the menu. Nor was their apparent detour through the deep fryer. The menu does tell us to “sauce them to your liking,” so we do. We scarf ’em all, despite some grumbling.

Then we dig into nearly a zoo’s worth of meat, including less-burnt-ended tender slabs of brisket, a generous palette for the rainbow bottles of sauce. We like the juicy smoked pork and the slightly drier but still tasty white meat chicken. We downright love the St. Louis-style ribs. Smeared thick with the spicy-sweet dry rub, they’re slow-smoked to a caramel crisp on the outside, but still tender on the inside. These Red Rock ribs don’t quite fall off the bone, but they bite off quick, easy, and clean.

Order your barbecue on a bun or Texas toast, and you’ll still get change from a ten-spot. (A pretzel roll costs a buck more, which buys you more doughiness but not enough more crispiness to make it irresistible.) Another couple bucks get you a platter with two sides of your choice, maybe those dense corn muffins or the mac and cheese, which is rich and gooey enough to power a soldier into battle.

So the guys wipe their plates clean and drain their beers (Meeechigan brews–more than a dozen on tap!), and we coulda quit while we were ahead. But we’ve got a taste for trouble, so we have to sneak around back to eye the smoker …

And the guy who busts us isn’t mad at all–just the opposite. “Take a look,” he says, giving us a big smile. He proudly unlocks the gate and shows us the massive woodpile, saying they favor green maple for the most sugary smokiness. Fella’s real nice, so we keep asking questions. We find out they cook a lot of the meat rotisserie style, and that cinnamon and pineapple juice are part of what make the sweet and smoky BBQ sauce so dang yummy. He says vegetarian shepherd’s pie and/or barbecue seitan are coming in the next few months to keep the non-omnivores happy.

We’d noticed there’s no fish at Red Rock, and darn near no veggie anything except salads (which come piled with bacon or barbecue if you want!). Even the collards get stewed and sauced with way too much meat and meatiness to provide the kind of fresh contrast that lightly cooked greens would. I know, I know, that’s the way they do it down South–but is it a crime to serve vegetables with color that’s more than a distant memory?

There’s not much in the way of desserts yet either (fella says he’s working on that, too), although a few of the sides could fill the bill, like sweet potato mash or spiced apples or maybe even that unusual apple-cherry slaw, which for my money puts an overload of mushiness up against the cabbage.

We didn’t get too worked up about that. The place is spanking new, and people are already comparing it to the famous Slows BBQ in Detroit. It’s a jewel in the crown of Ypsi’s comeback.

Red Rock Downtown Barbecue

207 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti



Kitchen open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight.Appetizers $2.50-$8, sandwiches $8-$9.50, entrees, $10-$23.

X Wheelchair accessible