Friday, April 6, 2012

[EID Feature] Of Barns and Barbecue: Bad Brad's BBQ

Barbecue: the people's food. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

When writing about Detroit, or food, but more specifically food in Detroit, and also Detroit's rebirth, it's almost impossible to imagine the time Before Slows. Now it just feels like The Most Important Barbecue Restaurant in the Country has always been and forever will be; and every upscale BBQ joint to open in its wake is likely to suffer the accusation of "just trying to be Slows."

For the sake of discussion, let's get one thing straight: Slows Bar BQ did not invent BBQ. It didn't even invent upscale BBQ. And it certainly wasn't the first BBQ restaurant in Detroit; it was the first, however, to attract a predominantly suburban crowd. Detroit staples like Uptown BBQ, Nunn's Barbecue and Bert's Market Place all have a few decades on the place but the aesthetics and demographics of these old Detroit BBQ joints are markedly different.

Slows has been written up a million times in a million places and probably people in New York think it's the only restaurant in Detroit (incidentally, I'm told Phil Cooley - who has affectionately(??) been nicknamed "BBQ Jesus" - will be interviewed by Diane Sawyer next week). Now, we can make jokes (like the aforementioned "BBQ Jesus" bit), and we can snark (we LOVE to snark!), but there is simply no denying the impact that Slows has had on the immediate community that surrounds it and also on the image of the city of Detroit as a whole. To paraphrase from the best movie ever The Dark Knight, Phil Cooley might not be the hero Detroit wants but he's the hero Detroit needs. (Plus, Detroiters are never fucking happy. We've very much like New Yorkers in that way.)

Bad Brad's BBQ
It's no doubt that Slows has started a trend. In recent years metro Detroit has seen half a dozen new upscale BBQ restaurants that smoke all their own meats in-house etc. etc. open, all of them insisting that they're not the same as Slows. And you know what? They're not. Because to make that claim would be the same as to argue that all pizzerias are the same and every new pizzeria is just copying off of whichever one came before it. Or all sushi places are the same, or steakhouses, or what-the-hell ever - pick a food genre and accuse them all of copying each other; much like literary plot lines there are really only seven basic restaurant concepts that just get repeated ad infinitum so let's not act like this is some sort of new thing. Plus, each of these BBQ restaurants are as different as the different styles of BBQ across America.

But from all of this, something unexpected happened. For all of the accusations that metro Detroit - and thus, Michigan as a whole - has no "signature" cuisine, at least nothing that national media has previously cared to acknowledge, upscale barbecue has become something of a de facto specialty. Clarkston's Union Woodshop was recently featured in the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," Chef Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor received the prestigious James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Great Lakes" in 2011, and let's not forget the article that arguably started it all, Bon Appetit naming Slows one of the "Top 10 New Barbecue Restaurants" in 2009.

Detroit has always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of town, but lately it seems like it's more meat-and-mac 'n cheese.

So what's the appeal of upscale barbecue? And why all of a sudden now? Well, the short of it is in 2009 the world got pretty fucking awful, people started to really reevaluate their lifestyle spending habits and decided that high-end fine dining wasn't a necessity anymore but they still wanted to go out to eat once in awhile, chefs and restaurateurs had to scramble to identify and address the new demands of the consumer, then we got a fuckton of fancy BBQ joints. Is the short of it.

Really it came down to accessibility in food trends. Low-brow foods that were accessible to wider audiences (the key to that ultimately being affordability) were elevated to the level of gourmet: food trucks, street food, barbecue, classic American comfort food ... your average consumer probably couldn't identify why all of a sudden this was what they cared most about but the truth is these "pedestrian" foods was all anybody could afford. The foodie movement adapted; a major shift in America's culinary landscape occurred.

Brothers Mike and Marc Pollard, owners of Bad Brad's BBQ in New Baltimore and the second soon-to-open Shelby Twp. location, both have extensive culinary backgrounds in fine dining. Both attended culinary school and have worked under some of the best chefs in the country - Mike at Michael Mina in Las Vegas and Tribute in Farmington Hills; Marc under James Beard Award-winning chefs at AAA five-diamond restaurants in Las Vegas (including Julian Serrano's Picasso).

"When we came back here [to Detroit] we knew fine dining wasn't going to cut it here in Michigan," Mike says. They came up with their barbecue concept and readily admit to being inspired by Slows. They traveled throughout the country to research the different BBQ regions of America, then came back and opened rather quietly in a smallish space in New Baltimore in 2010. "We had time to hone everything in the dim lights of New Baltimore rather than the bright lights of Royal Oak," he says. "At this point we're ready and prepared!"

Much like Slows to the south and Union Woodshop to the north, Bad Brad's has a rabidly loyal following and sees hour-long wait times on weekends. And despite early support from both Sylvia Rector and Molly Abraham, there's still a good chance you haven't heard of them. (You people and your east side prejudices, I swear...) "That was the nice thing about the New Baltimore location," Mike says. "It was this quiet little joint. We always felt we opened strong but now we're extremely strong."

Mike says they have an extremely high level of food and take a fine dining approach to this casual cuisine without being "in your face" about it. "We source out the best possible product because it's better," he states. "We use all [USDA] Prime beef, six-year-aged Vermont cheddar, Maytag Bleu cheese ... because it's better. Everything is driven by just being better. But the menu doesn't say [all] that - we're not trying to 'wow' people with these descriptions. We use gastriques but we don't say that because barbecue isn't fancy."

To Mike, the best part about barbecue isn't just its accessibility as a cuisine, but how it appeals to all people. "Barbecue is one of those cuisines that can reach all levels - it crosses all demographics, all races. That's the great thing about barbecue: it's extremely approachable, and that's what makes sense around here. Barbecue, burgers, nachos, pizza - that's what we're serving but it's extremely high-end."

One of Mike's favorite stories to tell is the time he was at the restaurant and he noticed a guy drive up in a Bentley. He parked his car, came inside, sat by himself in a booth and had his lunch. Another guy came in at about the same time on a bike, also sat in a booth by himself and ordered lunch. These two guys, presumably with vastly different backgrounds, had ordered the exact same thing. For Mike, that is the essence of barbecue food in metro Detroit.

The new location exercises the same commitment to sustainability in design as the original, utilizing salvaged barn wood and reclaimed materials for what ends up being a country-meets-industrial motif that just works. As an astute person on Curbed Detroit noted (who, moi?):
The juxtaposition seems to suit the cuisine - barbecue is kind of a get-down-and-dirty food, and it also has a deep history with roots in the American South. Barbecue is cowboys, Everyman and guys named Bubba; if that feeling can be adequately translated into a building, Bad Brad's nails it. It's a little dirty, a little gritty - as the Osmonds might say, it's a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll - but also highly polished.
This location is also an evolution for Bad Brad's: in addition to their in-house smoker, they're also adding an in-house wood-burning stone oven for pizzas (the same one used at Cellar 849 in Plymouth, the home of Michigan's first "Certified Neapolitan" pizza) and a temperature- and humidity-controlled dough room. "The dough is the most important thing [for pizza]," Mike says. "If you're going to have some of the best barbecue you have to have good pizzas!" While some might argue that pizza and barbecue don't make natural menu mates, Mike thinks they are closer kindred than they're given credit. "It's all wood-fired," he explains of both how the pizzas and the meats are cooked. He adds, "There's so many things you can do with smoked meats [on a pizza]."

Mike hopes to have the new location opened by May 1 and continue exceeding expectations with their come-one, come-all cuisine. "As long as I can keep waking up every day and be excited about my job, that’s what it’s about."

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

Read more on the design of Bad Brad's new Shelby Twp. location on Curbed Detroit here.

Bad Brads BBQ on Urbanspoon