Slows Bar-B-Q, Detroit
Great barbecue places can exist anywhere in this country, even in places that aren’t at all known for how they smoke their meat. Of course one would expect to find great barbecue in Texas, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City and the Carolinas, but sometimes you can find some gems in places like Iowa and Virginia, which are definitely better known for other contributions.
However, one thing that all of those places do have in common is that if they’re not barbecue country, they’re at least somewhat close. After all, Des Moines is only a three-hour shot from Kansas City on Interstate 35, and Virginia shares a border with North Carolina. When you really think about it, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to find good, local barbecue places in those locations, even if they’re not generally known for it.
But a barbecue gem in Michigan, which isn’t anywhere near any of the locations that are known for barbecue? OK, that’s about as different as huckleberry barbecue, and it’s actually a story of far more than just the meats that come out of the smoker at Slows. As you’ve probably heard, Detroit has developed quite the reputation of being a place that you don’t want to be after dark. It probably hasn’t helped that Corktown, the neighborhood of Detroit which housed Tiger Stadium for the near-century that the Tigers played there is considered a disaster, or that parking lots are able to charge and get $30 a car for major events in downtown Detroit because people want their car in a secured facility. Basically, as far as many are concerned, the Motor City has earned its reputation as a lousy place to be.
Slows is an effort to change that. Phil Cooley, one of the owners of Slows, started the business in 2005 on the premise that barbecue was a perfect fit for blue-collar Detroit and opened his doors in Corktown, challenging the idea that people would not come into Detroit for anything but major events. After all, other than the Coney Island hot dog war, Detroit lacked anything resembling a destination restaurant inside the city for years before Slow’s, because nobody wanted to do business in the D.
But Slows succeeded, to the point where Cooley and his family had to open Slows To Go in the Midtown section of Detroit because their original location could no longer come close to meeting the demand of the barbecue-hungry Detroit crowd. Slows To Go features much faster service, a less-crowded building, a much larger kitchen and a safer parking area (although it does still have a shot of graffiti.) Plus, for those who do want to eat there, it even offers a couple bar stools to do so. Basically, it takes what made the original great and makes it even better.
Of course, to have a description like that, I’ve got to explain what made the original great, and that’s a pretty simple thing: sandwiches and sides. While Slows does offer the standard barbecue platters of ribs, brisket, pork and chicken, what really makes it outstanding is its creative barbecue sandwiches. Each one has a creative name, each is available on either Texas toast or a Kaiser roll and each features some combinations that make use of Slows’ barbecue sauces.
Sandwiches include the Reason, which features pulled pork with NC sauce (Carolina pork sauce), cole slaw and dill pickles, the Longhorn, a mixture of brisket, onion marmalade, spicy barbecue sauce and smoked Gouda, and JP’s Revenge, which replaces the brisket with ham and opts for mustard sauce instead of the spicy barbecue.
Following the theme of this blog, Amy and I went with none of those choices. In fact, we had decided on this one a long time ago. Amy opted for the Yardbird, which takes a smoked chicken breast, covers it in mustard sauce and adds cheddar, mushrooms and smoked bacon. Basically, that’s a mix of some of her absolute favorites, and mine. This sandwich didn’t come close to disappointing. The sauce is so good that you don’t even need to add any of Slows’ sauces to it, and the toppings work fantastically. Amy loved every bit of it, even though she was nowhere near finishing it and neither was I after she was done. Slows gives you a LOT of food.
The same was true of my sandwich, the Triple Threat Pork. I knew this one was going to be something I had to try when I saw the combination of ham, pulled pork and bacon, and although it wasn’t the Yardbird, it was still one heck of a sandwich. This time, you do need the sauce, and my sauce of choice was the apple barbecue sauce. Yes, they have one with the distinct apple flavor, which makes for a solid and different flavor that goes very well with pork. Definitely a good experience there.
But the real beauty of Slows comes in the form of their incredible sides. Holy cow, are these things excellent. Amy and I decided to order three sides, opting to try their macaroni and cheese, mashed sweet potatoes and waffle cheese fries. All three were incredible, and I’m going to start with the waffle cheese fries, because these simply stood out like nothing we’d had in a while. The fries are skin-on waffle-cut heaven, topped with real Vermont cheddar rather than the molten orange mess you find in most places. The result is an incredible taste that can’t be even close to healthy, but is six shades of deliciousness. Even the picture can make people jealous, and it doesn’t even do them justice.
The macaroni and cheese was outstanding, which was a surprise to Amy. She is not a mac and cheese fan by any definition, but Slows’ mac and cheese actually worked well in her opinion. That’s because it’s more like a casserole than being like Kraft, and the cheese was perfect with the pasta. I personally haven’t met a mac and cheese I didn’t like, so it was hardly a shock to me that I loved this.
My surprise was the mashed sweet potatoes. Having spend almost two years in Idaho, I’ve eaten a lot of potatoes in my day. But mashed sweet potatoes aren’t something I’ve got a lot of experience with, so this order was more out of intrigue than it was about expectation. But wow, was it excellent. The sweet potatoes have a smooth, creamy texture and a little bit of a kick to them, which makes for one heck of a combination.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other excellent part of eating at Slows, and that would in the small plastic cup you see in the corner. Upon arriving at Slows, I was delighted to see that one of their soda machine’s choices is Vernors, the original ginger ale and the drink of choice in Detroit. Vernors was invented in Detroit soon after the Civil War, and entered into production in the 1880′s. Soon after, it became known as Detroit’s Drink, whether by itself or used for another Detroit treat, the Boston Cooler (why it has that name, I have no idea), which is an ice cream float with vanilla ice cream in a glass of Vernors.
By itself, Vernors is wonderful. This isn’t your typical ginger ale, and the taste is nothing like Canada Dry. Vernors actually calls itself ginger soda, and it has a sweeter taste than ginger ale. Amy likened it to a mix between ginger ale and cream soda, and she might very well be right about that. We ended up buying a case of Vernors to take back with us to Iowa, where we had our own versions of the Boston Cooler, which were outstanding. Much like with Coca-Cola in the South, you have to have Vernors at Slows. It’s just a Motor City tradition, and a great one.
Barbecue might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Detroit, but Slows has given the D something to be proud to call its own. It says something when people willingly pack into a less-than-great neighborhood on a regular basis to try the food you’ve created. When something is this good, people will seek it out, and Slows is completely worth the journey.
Time to go: Anytime, and this is a really cool feature with Slows to Go. Want to skip the wait? All you have to do is go online to Slows’ website, and you can place your order and decide what time of day you want to pick it up. Then, when you get to Slows, your order will be hot and ready right around when you arrive. Much like Lou Malnati’s system of order while you wait, it’s a feature more restaurants should implement.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. Even ordering online doesn’t guarantee you won’t have a small wait if Slows gets busy. We only waited five minutes past our time, though. At the Corktown location, though, you want to budget a LOT of time.
Location: Slows’ original Corktown location is at 2138 Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Slows to Go, where Amy and I visited, is at 4107 Cass Avenue, in Detroit’s Midtown section.
Cost: Not bad at all. You’ll pay $8.50 for a sandwich, and each side will cost you $3. You can easily get a full meal on less than $15 here.
Parking: If you’re at Slows to Go, this isn’t bad at all, there’s a small lot that doesn’t get too packed. If you’re in Corktown, hope and pray. Slows actually advocates parking behind a nearby bar, which features a guarded lot and costs $3. That’s never a good sign about a neighborhood when the restaurant is advertising a paid lot with some proceeds going to pay the guards, but that is the Motor City for you.
Seating arrangement: You’re not in a good situation there at either location. Slows to Go is mainly intended to be to go, but there are about four stools there for people who do want to eat there. Luckily, nobody else wanted to join us in that. In Corktown, you might wait a while for a table.
Specialty items: Barbecue sandwiches, waffle cheese fries, Vernors