Above: Painting of a Saddleback Pig, the breed for which the restaurant is named
When I read that Mental Floss had named Lansing’s Saddleback BBQ the “best barbecue joint” in Michigan, I planned a (brief) road trip to REO Town to see what the fuss was about. It’s not like there isn’t any barbecue in Michigan, and a lot of it is pretty good.
Although there isn’t a lot on the menu, I wanted to taste almost everything, so I made a two-trip plan. On the first Saddleback adventure, I was accompanied by my son Skeletor, who has eaten barbecue with me many times in the South, including when we shared the great pulled pork of Alabama.
We arrived at Saddleback on a hot afternoon to see that every table was full, including the picnic tables outside, and that there was a line out the door. The diners were a mix of parents with children, well-dressed professionals, young hipsters, and what appeared to be a construction crew on lunch break. Despite the heat and the crowd, the tiny, tattooed young woman taking orders was pleasant, helpful, and didn’t bat an eye when we ordered half the menu to share.
We settled on high stools in a nook in one of the front windows, which was a great vantage point for watching the motley crew of customers and passers-by. When our food arrived, we divvied it up between the metal trays covered with butcher paper that served as plates, and commenced eating, which involved a great deal of playing with the various types of sauce on the table.
What most of us accept as “barbecue” is meat smothered in a thick, ketchup- and vinegar-based sauce. For purists, barbecue made the way Saddleback makes it is real barbecue. The meat is smoked for hours in an on-site smoker and served un-sauced. The restaurant offers three sauces: Red Sauce, which is a traditional barbecue sauce, and the sweetest of them. The Yellow Sauce is also fairly mild and (according to the woman at the counter) has a mustard base with apple cider vinegar and a black pepper spice note. The Vinegar Sauce (our favorite, hands down) is made by reducing Vernor's ginger ale to a syrup and then adding Apple cider vinegar, ketchup, Sriracha, red pepper flake, and other spices. The Vinegar Sauce is the hottest of the three, but is classified only as “6/10” on the heat scale.
Corn cakes, ribs, brisket, chicken and pickles
On our plates, we had ribs, brisket, smoked chicken, Southern Slaw, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, and the Sweet Corn Caprese Salad. Our tray/plates also included a scoop of corn cake and a dollop of pickled vegetables.
Being serious foodies, we tasted the meats plain, first, and found all of it to be pretty lovely. The ribs (pork) were flavorful and not at all fatty, the brisket had just enough fat and a visible smoke line, and the chicken was smoky, tender, and my favorite. We liked the Vinegar Sauce best on everything but the chicken, which seemed to benefit from the lightness of the Yellow Sauce.
Macaroni and cheese, baked beans and Sweet Corn Caprese Salad
As for the sides, the baked beans were clearly made in-house and had a nice vinegar twang that went well with the meat and sauces. The macaroni and cheese was basic, rich, and popular with Skeletor, who ate all but my trial forkful. The slaw was a revelation for me, because I generally hate the sweet, thick, gloppy variety. Saddleback’s slaw is not sweet, but light and tart: a perfect foil for the thick sweetness of sauces, corn cakes, and other heavier fare. The most unusual item was the Sweet Corn Caprese, which consisted of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and sweet corn kernels in a light vinaigrette.
The corn cakes were too sweet for me, but that is not a criticism, because they were exactly what corn cakes should be. I’m just not a fan. Eating the pickled vegetables, however, was like discovering a secret trove of treasure at the edge of my tray. Fresh and crisp cucumber slices and onion slivers were, like the slaw, a refreshing contrast with the richness of the rest of our meal. If I could buy them in jars and eat them straight with a glass of iced tea, I’d be all over it.
Because we didn’t order everything (and only could eat about half of what we ordered), I returned for dinner later in the week with my steadfast dining companion, Captain Carnivore. I was hoping to try the Burnt Ends, which are offered only on Fridays, but learned that they were sold out by 12:30.
Brisket, baked beans and pork rinds
We ordered brisket again, and ribs, smoked turkey, French fries, and the pork rinds. Captain Carnivore, usually not a brisket fan, really liked Saddleback’s version, topped with a generous dollop of the Vinegar Sauce. The pork rinds bear no resemblance to what you can buy in a bag at your favorite gas station; they were fresh, warm, and had a richness that comes from eating…fried fat. The fries were rough cut with skin on, lightly salted and satisfyingly crisp.
I’ll be back, on a Wednesday when Wu Tang wings are served, and for an (early) Friday lunch for a pile of burnt ends. It takes a little planning to eat dinner at Saddleback because they close at 7:00, but it might be fun to follow an early dinner with drinks at the neighboring REO Town Pub and maybe a show at The Robin Theater down the street.
Saddleback is resolutely un-fancy, and fine for families with small children. They offer gluten-free menu choices, and a vegetarian could eat a pretty good meal of side dishes. Oh, and several of the meats are available in sandwich form, including pulled pork, brisket and pulled chicken (also available in tacos).
Saddleback Barbecue is located at 1147 South Washington, in Lansing.
Disclosure: Travis Stoliker, a member of ELi’s Board of Directors and a donor to ELi, is one of the owners of Saddleback Barbecue. (This column was planned before he became a Board member, and he did not suggest it.)