Detroit "Dining Duo"


Barbeque Banter:
2 States.
4 Restaurants.
Two Hungry Diners

 


Follow the continuing exploits of the dining duo (thedetroiter.com contributors Stacy Muszynski and Vince Cavasin) as they explore Detroit's finest eateries (and perhaps a few not so fine ones). This time out it's four (count 'em four!) BBQ restaurants from Texas to Detroit. Watch this space for the next installment of fun and fine dining with Stacy and VInce.

 

Stacy: It was a dark and stormy night... no really, it probably was a steamy summer Detroit afternoon the first time Vince suggested we compare rib joints. I don't recall the day exactly but the look was unmistakable (un-mis-steak-able). "Ooooh, baby!" he exclaimed with pinwheel eyes. "Since we're going to Austin for the Austin City Limits (ACL) festival [highly recommended if you can you get time off in September] and Texas has the best barbeque on the planet…." He's speaking here specifically about a place called Kreuz Market-a picnic table-filled space that seats about four million people-and, to quote Vince's claim, Kreuz has "the best Texas barbeque not only on the planet, but in the entire-" he swears to <insert deity here> "-UNIVERSE."

Then, with thinking cap on and pinky finger at the corner of his mouth, he quickly calculated a way to cram enough barbeque into his body to get him into the Guinness book of World Records. Here's what he came up with:

"You know, baby.... (here his mouth begins to water, he's thinking about day-long hot-coal cooked carcass) there's no comparison, really, but we may as well try to compare Texas barbeque to the best Detroit has to offer."

Then he scoffed. Loudly. His great big superhero-sized head thrown back like he was his own maligned evil alter ego twin. I was scared-but only for a second. Then my wonder twin power reactivated, ready to pit the best Motown rib shacks against his bravado. Detroit BBQ powers activate!

We shook hands (or smooched or yelled taunts at each other for a while longer), then scheduled our visits:

September 17, 2004: In order to store up energy for a long day of concert festivities at ACL (Bob Schneider, Blind Boys of Alabama, Patty Griffin, Solomon Burke, Ryan Adams, Los Lonely Boys and more) we'd mosey over to Ben's Longbranch BBQ in Austin proper (31 years in Austin, owner: Ben Wash).

September 20, 2004: We'd say our goodbyes to friends new and old and drive like bats out of hell the 30 miles from Austin to Lockhart for a pit stop at Vince's version of heaven on earth: Kreuz Market-where you don't get silverware or plates or much else besides meat, meat, and more meat. Then we'd drive like bats back to hell, back to Austin to catch our flight to Detroit. (As I implied in our review of Coach Insignia in September, Vince would marry the cook at Kreuz if I weren't in the picture.)

October 9, 2004: Finish digesting Kreuz and head over to Bert's Market Place for a little pre-presidential debate, red-hot jazz and down home barbeque. And let the sauce fall where it may.

October 16, 2004: After taking a ton of tips from locals in the know, we'd head to Green's Deep South Bar B Q-"open all nite" and see what Detroit means by "Deep South."

What follows is a "conversation" about what we discovered.

Vince: By some bizarre twist of bar-b-karma, I happened to catch a food channel show on Texas BBQ that mentioned (and highly rated) Ben's just days before Stac and I left for ACL. Being in downtown Austin-and pretty much on the way to the concert-it would provide the perfect appetizer to a long weekend of Texas sunshine, music and more barbeque.

Not that I was expecting Ben's BBQ to approach the sublimity of the stuff served at Kreuz Market. However, it had been a good six months since my last visit to any barbeque joint south of Michigan Ave, so I was feeling kind of generous.

And Ben's turned out to be above average as far as Texas barbeque goes, which is saying quite a bit.

Let me digress for a minute to discuss the finer points of Texas Barbeque versus The Crap They Serve Everywhere Else.

In these Yankee parts, when we think of barbeque, we tend to think of pork ribs slathered in store-bought sauce and cooked on a gas or charcoal barbeque for all of maybe 45 minutes. Industrious-and zealously efficient-Yankees have even been known to commit the blasphemy of first par-boiling the ribs before putting them on the grill, in order to reduce the cooking time.

Friends, this is all wrong and frankly, it makes me lose my faith in mankind.

While sauce may be used in some locales south of the Mason-Dixon, even those fellers in Kansas City (whose family trees don't branch) know that "barbeque" the cooking process has nothing to do with barbeque sauce.

In the South, barbequemen know that barbequing means cooking inexpensive cuts of meat over a smokey wood fire for long, long periods of time-sometimes as long as 24 hours.

If you're an inbred non-Texan-or a communist-you might then top the meat with some sauce. But God never intended any cut of meat on a real barbeque grill to be wearing anything but a salty dry-rub and the crust that rub produces when exposed to low heat and smoke.

So this is the fundamental difference between Texas (and most Southern) barbeque and the stuff sold as "barbeque" in Detroit. Here, the meat is basically stewed in some sugar-tomato concoction. On a grill fired by ch...ch...oh lord, give me strength...charcoal-or worse, gas, for maybe, if you're lucky, an hour or two. If there's a hint of smoke flavor-here's perhaps the ultimate blasphemy-it might actually have come from a bottle.

So back to Ben's.

Stacy: Finally.

Vince: As with most good Texas barbeques Ben's is cafeteria style, with available meats and sides written on a board on the wall. First stop is the meat guy, to whom you tell what you want-for Stac and me it was pork ribs, brisket and mutton. Yes, mutton, as in old lamb. It's an unusual item to find even in Texas.

Next stop was sides, where we ordered the standard coleslaw and potato salad, and the obligatory beverage-beer.

Stacy: Minor interruption. Beer's only obligatory if your taste buds are stuck, like your brain, at full-tilt "know-it-all." I had water so I could actually taste and adjudge the meat. Beer came later, where it belonged-after 11am-at the 100+ degree music festival. Stacy out.

Vince: Wimp.

Once we paid for the stuff, we headed out to eat on Ben's patio in the not-yet-scorching Texas late morning (we had a concert to get to by 1 pm, remember).

Ben's is one of those places that has sold out to the poor tastes of Yankee immigrants and offers sauce on the side. In Texas, this is a sign of insecurity, an admission that you don't quite have the dry rub/smoking process down yet, that your meat might be dry.

This was true of Ben's brisket, which is admittedly the most difficult cut to dry-barbeque while keeping moist. But the sauce-as far as sauces go-did its job well. It had a good flavor and, unlike most of the grocery store stuff you get even at better restaurants up North-was not artificially thick.

Ben's brisket and ribs were what I would term as "average" Austin barbeque; they were better than you'd get just about anywhere else in Texas, orders of magnitude better than any of the sauce-boiled crap you'd find in Michigan, but didn't approach the Holy Grail of Kreuz.

The mutton, on the other hand, was another story.

I'd never had mutton before; the stereotype is that it's greasy, sinewy and strong-tasting. While Ben's mutton was a little greasy, it had a unique flavor and was the moistest barbeque meat (sauce-less of course) I'd ever had. Also, the way the fat and the meat were connected was strange-it was hard to tell where meat ended and fat began, but then the fat tasted as good as the meat, so it wasn't much of a problem.

If that doesn't sound so appealing, well, no one said barbeque had to be pretty.

Stacy: Oh look, Vince finally yields the floor! For the moment, suffice it to say Kreuz is indeed a tough hide to beat in terms of taste. But in terms of personality, it's like McMurphy-after the lobotomy. I mean, Ben's totally pulled ahead the lumbering giant with little extras in ambiance, homemade treats, and personality.

Ben Wash, original owner, looms large on the mural on the patio wall and his voice booms friendly cannon hellos all over the place. One wave from Ben Wash puts Kreuz clean-and-tidy warehouse atmosphere to shame. And besides, Ben's coleslaw had a zippy little vinegar twang. And its barbeque, while not exactly inspired by angels, is like your favorite earth-bound mortals (think "mom")-always reassuring and completely dependable. Then again, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Ben can sing like one of the cherubim. And the mutton-as Vin indicated-absolutely succulent. Fatty and delicious, and just gamey enough. And while Kreuz seems to disdain any kind of personal touch, Ben's revels in it. Even the handwritten note on the counter thanks you "for you coop." Now that's cool.

And speaking of cool…

No sooner did our plane touch down in Detroit than we were planning our trek to the real heart of the city-Eastern Market for a little BBQ ala Bert. Now Bert's doesn't have no mural, no shaded patio, no mutton on the menu. What there is is Detroit-style live live music and long jazz nights.

Vince: Hang on tiger, I have to say a few (more) words about heaven, er, uh…I mean Kreuz Market.

Kreuz (http://www.kreuzmarket.com/ - and yes, they do mail order) is the holy grail of dry-rubbed, smoked meat. In the Universe.

It's hard to figure out how to describe the sublime; like experiencing an alien abduction or listening to a Terminal Cheesecake record, it's hard even to fathom what it was exactly you were going through when you did it. The ribs are crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. We took our good friend Ric with us; this photo captures the initial reaction to the sublimity of Kreuz pretty well.

The other highlight of this particular meal was the prime rib-something we had never ordered before. I'm not sure if it got the usual 18-hour wood smoking that the rest of the meat gets-judging by the perfect degree of rareness in the middle, I doubt it. But whatever they did to that rib, god bless 'em.

Stacy: Okay, since we haaaaaaave to discuss Kreuz Market, let me say the following: If one must eat at Kreuz, one should try to do it without having Bugle Boy Vince heralding the trip with fanfare of the most this, the best that, all the blahblah superlatives. Because, well, you'll find out all by yourself without his I told you so's that »sigh« yes, it is all that. The ribs tear and fall off the bone. Don't ask me about the science of it. When you take a bite of the brisket, it pulls apart and sort of melts in your mouth. You'll catch yourself wondering how you ever loved that slop your dad grilled out back.

My favorite part of Kreuz, however (we won't talk about the absurd mall-sized parking lot), is the roll of paper towel stationed at every table. And since Vince needs more cleanup equipment than a five-year-old running through new cement, I wasn't worried about the lack of plate, fork, knife, et al. (The posted warning signs indicate RULE NUMBER ONE: NO SILVERWARE.) And need I mention the toilets are powerful enough to suck you body and soul into a swirling vortex of "come again soon, we're waiting to take your order, y'all."

Now, where was I so long ago...?-oh yeah-our plane touched down in Detroit, definitely signaling cooler temperatures-and a way cooler barbeque-eatin' environment. Onto Bert's!

Vince: We went to Bert's on the day of the second presidential debate. It was fairly crowded but there were plenty of empty tables in the back; I was a little annoyed at the initial slowness of the service, but once we made contact our waitperson was great.

We ordered a slab of ribs and a carton of tips, as well as collard greens, macaroni, and fries.

The collard greens were above average (with big hunks of bacon or some kind of pork strewn throughout), the macaroni average in an interesting way, and the fries strictly average. But after all, we're here to talk about barbeque, so let's go.

Stacy: Wait, wait, wait! The collard greens! Let me admit that while I was growing up, the Muszynski clan didn't eat many collard greens. City chicken, pierogi, kraut - yes. But collard greens - no. And Bert's greens are the greeniest. Almost snappy, they fold up and give in. Finally a fun alternative to broccoli. Thank you, Bert's!

Vince: Bert's is the place that comes to mind when one wants to describe the "boiled in sauce" northern-barbeque abomination I mentioned earlier. Don't get me wrong, as far as Michigan barbeque goes, anyway, it's very good; probably in the top three I've had north of the Mason-Dixon. The tips somehow managed to be a little crispy (probably a function of the ratio of surface area to mass), so they were better.

Bert's greatest asset, however, isn't its food; it's really the atmosphere.

Stacy: (Remember the collard greens.)

Vince: On Debate Night, the head of the jazz combo that was playing had the giant TV moved into the adjacent room for people who wanted to watch the debates. The band then proceeded to rock.

Stacy: Even though jazz combos don't exactly "rock" so much as "sizzle," baby, we understand. The band, by the way, was SBH Trio.

Vince: Whatev. Bert's also gets points for the diverse and eclectic crowd. The night we were there, a regular customer was having his 70th, or something crazy like that, birthday, and the whole place sang to him.

You don't see that sort of thing in Kreuz Market, although I bet you could get them to put a candle on a hunk of brisket for your birthday.

Stacy: Oh bruther. As a matter of fact, we've never seen more than one other ten-gallon-hat-wearin' couple in Kreuz while we were there. It's like the ranchers went home for the holidays and we were the only ones to come running in for the lunch bell.

So, yeah, Bert's is definitely waaaay more fun than Kreuz. Even if Vince showed up gunning for a fight. His first complaint was that his water glass was plastic and that it wasn't big enough. Guess how much he had drunk by the time we left? You got it: zilch. And while I did snag a few of Vinny's ribs, which I slurped up happily despite their being shhhhhh…northern style, I dug the texture. The sauce was decent. Not exactly bottled, not exactly worth murdering for. My pork chops were a bit tender, a bit chewy, and I could only eat one of the pair. The other one came home with me. And don't let him fool you, for all his bluster about Kreuz, Kreuz, Kreuz, Vince gobbled it down the next day before I could get near the thing.

Vince: Meat is meat. Ya snooze ya lose, lovey.

Stacy: ; \ Hmph. Before we leave Bert's you have to know: they have perfectly-sized cornbread: two-bites. Moist and crumby and a little sweet, so I didn't save room for desserts that sound like they need to come with spankings: "lemon ecstacy," "kiss me caramel cake," "sugar pie." You get the picture. So there I was sitting with mah shweetheart, getting seduced by the dessert menu and SBH doing "Along Came Betty" in the background. Not bad t'all for a Thursday night.

Vince: Our next stop was Greens "Deep South" Barbeque on Mack.

We went for lunch, so we could only assume what the atmosphere must be like on a typical night, but we assume it must be as interesting as the place.

Green's "dining room" is dominated by a huge bar, which is kind of interesting in itself for a barbeque place, but the really interesting part was the take out area in the entryway, which was outfitted-like all good downtown Detroit takeout places-in bullet proof glass. They even had the little bullet proof turntables for getting the orders from the security of the kitchen to their presumably well-armed orderers on the outside.

This sort of site does not inspire confidence in the average restaurant reviewer.

Stacy: Maybe somebody needs to go back to Texas. Green's has been around 51 years. And if Lisa, another Green's first-timer and longtime Southfield resident whom I made friends with at the bar, could make the ~25-minute trek because her husband, who grew up in Green's neighborhood, said it was "the best," it's good enough for me. Bulletproof glass shmulletproof glass.

Vince: Note that in Texas, they don't need bulletproof glass, because the barbeque-ers are more heavily armed than the would-be robbers, and they are better shots. God bless 'em.

Anyway, the service at Green's left much to be desired. We must have waited 30 minutes for our order, while people came in, ordered, waited, got their stuff, and left. Now you can't cook barbeque-even Northern Barbeque-to order, certainly not in 30 minutes, and none of the sides we ordered took more than a few minutes to make (and more likely would be sitting around pre-made, which would explain their taste), and it's not like the place was remotely hopping (our barkeep/waitress spent most of the time we were there watching TV and folding napkins), so I ask you-what gives?

Stacy: Maybe it was the battle between the available entertainment-Sci-Fi channel in one corner versus keno bar, black velvet wall hangings and college football in the other. I was having a fine time in BBQ purgatory (and I recall Vince even switching and adjusting his chair to get a better seat for Sci-Fi viewing).

Vince: Ya got lemons, ya make lemonade baby. Next strike was our barkeep giving me a Miller Light when I asked for a Bud Light. Not that I'm particularly fond of either, but when faced with choosing from the axis of Bud/Miller evil (to which you are limited at Green's), there is a fair difference.

Third strike was our order being delivered as a take-out. We assumed that since we were sitting there getting comfortable and drinking, it was obvious that we were eating in. This wouldn't be such a big deal if it wasn't for the way Green's packages take-out: everything sort of piled willy-nilly into a big cardboard box.

Stacy: He said "willy-nilly."

Vince: Indeed.

The barbeque was mildly redeeming. Unlike Bert's, Green's seems to actually smoke the meat first, then add sauce, so you don't get the stew-iness you get with Bert's. The ribs were the best I've had in Michigan.

The sides left much to be desired. The Macaroni and Cheese was a gelatinous mess. The fries came in what can only be described as a greasy clot. The collard greens were passable.

Stacy: It's true, the Mac and Cheese had me yearning for Bert's. But the quart of tips I got (literally, a Chinese takeout quart container of rib tips) was substantial and finger-licking good enough that I want to go back for the "all-nite" experience. How can we not, when they advertise a "shot of cognac - $5" and the fact that the ribs stood up so well to the jaws of Mr. Rawhide that he never once tried to snake the hot sauce, pepper or salt-and he can't even say that about Kreuz.

The Verdict

Vince: Do I really have to say it? Kreuz retains its place at the center of the barbeque universe, with Ben's circling enviously in a distant orbit.

Stacy: As for Kreuz' meat, definitely. As for Ben's zippy slaw and mutton and atmosphere, definitely, definitely.

Vince: Bert's and Green's are commendable given their location, but aren't really even in the same galaxy based on food quality. As far as atmosphere goes, Bert's is the clear winner based on our experience; I've no doubt Green's would be fun on a Saturday night, but given the lengths the staff has gone to protect themselves from the less amiable among their clientele, I'm not sure I want to find out.

Stacy: As painful as it may be to admit it, I have to agree with Vin. And Kreuz will just have to forgive me-although it's the sun in our BBQ universe, it won't stop me from dreaming of Bert's snazzy jazzy nights piled high with collard greens and a seductive desert or two. Then again, maybe we'll take another look when Bert's opens up the outdoor grill in the summer. Hm…. Heeeeey, Vince.… I got a proposition for ya….

 

Ratings:


Kreuz: (soulmate)
Ben's: (committed relationship)

 

 

Bert's: (booty call)
Green's: (booty call)

 

Rating Scale

Our rating scale incorporates quality of service, food, and atmosphere. We have chosen a rating theme that we believe will be intuitive to our readers. (S&V)

(beer goggles): looks interesting from a distance, but you don't wanna go there.
(one night stand): seemed like a good idea at the time, and you may even tell your friends about it, but you won't be going back.
(booty call): nice, likeable, comforting. You don't want to eat there every night, but once in a while it's nice.
(committed relationship): you'll keep this place around, at least for a while.
(soulmate): till death do you part.


Briefest Briefs about our 4 contenders

Ben's Longbranch BBQ
900 E 11TH St
Austin, TX 78702-1905
Phone: (512) 477-2516
Hours: Mon-Thu, 10:30am-7pm; Fri-Sat, 10:30am-8pm

Kreuz Market
619 N Colorado St
Lockhart, TX 78644-2110
Phone: (512) 398-2361
http://www.kreuzmarket.com/
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm; Sat, 9am-6:30pm

Bert's Marketplace
2727 Russell St
Detroit, MI 48207
Phone: (313) 567-2030
Hours: Mon through Fri, 11am-2am; Thurs night open mic starting at 8pm; Fri features extended sets from the house band. Call for details.

Green's Deep South BBQ
6818 Mack Ave
Detroit, MI 48207
Phone: (313) 925-7313
Hours: Call for details.


Stacy Muszynski
talks, writes -- and eats -- a lot. She likes to explore new faces and new places. Often, she argues with Vince. You'll be hearing more about their exploits in the epages of thedetroiter.com.

Vince Cavasin is a management consultant, amateur chef, wine enthusiast, wannabe poet, and armchair philosopher, not necessarily in that order. By day he counsels clients on matters of leadership and business strategy; by night he spends his time alternately doting on, thanking god for, and arguing with Stacy.


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