I get asked a lot for my opinion on who is serving the best BBQ in the area. When you get a pig tattooed on your arm you kind of open yourself up for these questions. Usually people assume it’s going to be a well known joint like Slow’s or Blue Tractor. I know this is a real “Hipster” thing to say but I’m not a big fan of either of those places. If you’ve ever read my ode to whole hog style BBQ, you know that I’m a firm believer that great BBQ does not come from a place with an extensive menu and a bunch of different sauces. Instead, I believe that great BBQ comes from small places that someone decided to open because they loved everything that goes into smoking meats. The mecca of greatness, Franklin BBQ, was opened up by a guy who became obsessed with smoking brisket in his back yard and now has a cult following that includes a four hour wait every morning. The passion and detail that goes into smoking meat at home and then figuring out how offer that same taste on a large scale is what makes BBQ great.
Now I could talk about why I love BBQ for hours but the purpose of this post is to tell a story about what I think is best BBQ joint within fifty miles of where I live. When you live in Westland, MI, which was voted least desirable city to open a restaurant in the Unite States the past two years, you have to travel these distances to find quality food. Luckily, Satchel’s BBQ has me covered with a short drive to Ann Arbor.
Satchel’s BBQ was opened in 2010 by a guy named Hugh who worked in Finance, had zero restaurant experience and loved BBQ. To steal a quote from the Ann Arbor News, he “likes to make BBQ and people like BBQ”. It’s just that simple. He opened up in a little 1500 sq. ft space that shares a building with a Verizon store to house his Southern style BBQ joint and named it after his dog. There is no visible sign out front, just two large smokers that run throughout the day and into the night. As you drive by on Washtenaw ave., you can smell the smokers from your car, which is probably better than any sign Hugh could have purchased. The first time I went to Satchel’s was early 2011 when I was returning from some sort of debauchary in Ann Arbor. The smell made me turn around in Whole Food’s parking lot and pay the place a visit. I was BBQ rookie back then and I was shocked at the absence of sauce on the meat. Up until this day, I had always craved different types of sauces poured all over my smoked meats. This was different, the meat actually stood on its own. It didn’t need some Sweet Baby Ray’s bullshit sauce to make it taste good. It has been my favorite BBQ in Michigan since that day.
There is absolutely nothing fancy about Satchel’s. The menu is written on the wall in chalk and offers the essentials in BBQ: Chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket and pork ribs. There are no BBQ enchiladas, no pulled pork nachos and definitely no vegan friendly options. You can get your meat in a sandwich and there are sides — collards, cole slaw, beans and mac and cheese. If you want desert with your meal there is one option: Bread pudding with whiskey sauce. All plates are served with two pieces of dense cornbread, which could be a side item of its own. The beauty of the simplicity of this menu is everything is done well. They have a small focus on a simple cooking process and have perfected it. There is no reason to do anything else. The meat and the wood do the talking.
So let’s talk get away from everything that makes this place great from the outside and just start talking about the food. It’s fucking fantastic. It’s smoked slowly over hardwood with what tastes like salt and pepper and that’s it. The meat is allowed to speak for itself, instead of being complicated by any additional spices. Still to this day the pork and brisket is served completely naked without any sweet ketchup sauces interfering with the marriage between the smoke and the meat. People that aren’t used to naked BBQ are given more than five different sauces on the table but they really don’t need it. Everything holds up and can stand on its own. The brisket is easily the best I have ever had. It is served with a dark bark, created by the smoke, on the outside and if you are lucky they will include part of the fatty deckle — the holy grail of beef brisket. It literally melts in your mouth. The pulled pork isn’t pulverized, rather served in large chunks that fall apart under your fork.
With the deliciousness of the meat, you would think that the sides becomes an afterthought and are overshadowed. Well, you would be wrong. The collards here are among the best I’ve had in the country. They absorb the saltiness of the pork and end with a little bit of heat. If you don’t like greens, I challenge you to give these a try and tell me you haven’t changed your mind. The beans are cooked in cast iron pots within the smoker and absorb all of the flavor trapped in the metal vessels. I have a hard time, no matter how hungry I am, not ordering an extra side to go with my meal.
My personal recommendation: Get the combo plate with pulled pork, brisket with collards and beans on the side. Add a sweet tea in there and you’ve got the best BBQ that Michigan has to offer.
In summary, Satchel’s has been my favorite BBQ joint in Michigan since 2011. If there’s one food item I feel confident to tell you that I know my shit about, it’s BBQ. You will love Satchel’s, and if you don’t then I’m afraid I don’t respect your opinions on food and/or life in general. Check this place out if you are looking for all of the things that makes BBQ great: Passion, simplicity, meat and of course wood.