I believe it was Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate of Great Britain, who first said, “In Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of . . . brisket.”
OK, maybe that’s not EXACTLY what he said, but that’s probably only because he was used to eating black pudding. And porridge. And powdering his wig. And trying to avoid contracting The Black Death. Ol’ Tenny really never had a chance to taste really great brisket. Which is a shame. I mean, think of the odes he’d have penned!
But I have eaten great brisket; it’s one of my favorite meals.
Thus, on this fine April afternoon, I find myself standing behind Westside BBQ, in Ann Arbor, MI, talking with Matteo Melosi and Aaron Peggs, the brains behind Westside BBQ. I’m eating the best brisket I’ve had outside of Texas (I say “outside of Texas” to cut down on the death threats. Texans take their brisket really, really seriously. And they have guns. Lots and lots of guns.).
Matteo is the owner of Westside. He comes by his barbecue pedigree honestly, having been raised in Podere Terreno, a centuries-old farmhouse located in the Chianti region of Italy. His father, Roberto Melosi, was a bit of a Renaissance man. He owned ten acres of vineyards near Radda, and was a DOCG producer of the region’s namesake wine, Chianti Classico. He’s regarded as a pioneer in the slow food movement, and operated the farmhouse as an agriturismo,.
Naturally, with that upbringing, a BBQ shack in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is really the only possible life destination.
While I say that in jest, when I was researching this article, I found a quote from Matteo’s father in an article on SFGate.com, “When you cook you are pulling nature out of each ingredient. You dissect the nature, get inside it like an alchemist. You put it in the pot and the heat does the magic.”
Substitute “smoker” for “pot” in that quote, and isn’t that a pretty good explanation of barbecue?
That’s what Matteo and Aaron do.
Aided by cherry and applewood smoke, and long periods of time, they serve you the essence of each dish: the rich, beefy succulence of the brisket, the sweetly-flavored pulled pork, the caramelized chew of the baby back ribs. And the salmon! But more on the salmon later.
Let’s talk about the other half of this smoky duo, Aaron Peggs. Matteo refers to Aaron as his mentor, his former boss, and his friend. What’s Aaron’s background?
Inside Westside, the decor is best classified as eclectic. Apparently random maps are stapled to the ceiling. Patent drawings for rods and reels are framed. A black & white photo of a biplane.
However, rather than the fake artifacts scattered around a chain restaurant to give it an “authentic, homey” feel, these ephemera actually have meaning and value.
The maps are from Matteo’s yearlong jaunt around the world.
The biplane belonged to his father.
The patent drawings? Official recognition of the inventor in his family tree, his great-grandfather, William G. Balz, who, while working for Shakespeare, invented the fishing handle, and a fishing reel.
And on another wall, surrounding a railroad map of Michigan, are six shadowboxes. Each framed box holds a single piece of flatware, and a nameplate:
- an intricate silver fork, with a plaque, Emeril Lagasse, Tchoup Chop
- a silver spoon, marked Thomas Keller, French Laundry
- a marrow spoon, from Daniel Boulud, Daniel
- a soup spoon, Todd English, Blue-zoo
- a butter knife, Norman Van Aken, Tuyo
- a tablespoon from Cat Cora, Kouzzina.
That’s a list of the Who’s Who of American restaurants, including the best restaurants on the East and West Coasts. And famous chefs whose names most foodies know.
Why are these here?
They’re all souvenirs from chefs Aaron has worked with.
So, once you’ve worked with and for some of America’s greatest chefs, what else is there to do besides open a BBQ joint?
Now, as we all know, barbecue is that most democratic of cooking styles. It requires meat, seasoning, smoke, heat, and time. If you’ve got those, all that’s
left is technique. And if you’ve driven the back roads of the South, you know there’s some darn fine ‘cue to be had from people that have never had any formal training. Folks that learned how from their daddy, like he did from his daddy.
So while it’s nice to know Aaron knows his way around a country club kitchen, that still doesn’t mean that dog will hunt.
But hunt it does! I mean, look at this brisket:
I mean, really look closely at this brisket:
No, really, really close . . .
How perfect is that? The smoke ring, the char of the bark, the partially rendered unctuous fat, the obvious perfect pull of the meat? That’s some fine dining right there, folks!
And the other meats are just as good.
Let’s talk about the salmon. Matteo is a bit secretive about the salmon. About all he’ll tell you is that it’s a 20-hr. prep process, based on an old Scandinavian recipe, with a quick trip of less than a half hour in the smoker. I can tell you I watched him put the salmon in the smoker – beautiful whole sides of salmon, with nary a whiff of fishy smell,
seemingly as fresh as if they’d been pulled from the water the day before.
You might also notice there isn’t a great deal of seasoning present in the photo, no super secret rub whose recipe was passed down for generations, one whose ingredients are so rare and difficult to obtain that the mixture can only be created once per year, when the periwinkle blossoms allow the Hawaiian honeybees to feed on their nectar, which they turn into the raw honey consumed by the few remaining male Himalayan red bear cubs, who in turn fertilize the mountain passes whereupon grow the rare spices necessary for said rub.
But there’s none of that here.
More’s the pity–it would have been a great story.
Instead, we’re stuck with the results of the 20-hr. prep, and the quick application of cherrywood smoke: perfect smoked salmon.
Trust me when I tell you the picture doesn’t do it justice. As good as the brisket is, this salmon might be better. And here’s a quiet pro tip for insiders – Aaron occasionally decides to take some of this delectable salmon, and whip up a quick chowder. It’s simply beyond.
And we have to talk about the sandwiches.
Now, if you go to a certain deli in Ann Arbor, you’ve become inured to the idea of a $20 sandwich. Whether that’s a reasonable price is not the subject of this column. I simply note the A2 market price for a high-quality sandwich of reputable size, without sides. OK, maybe a pickle.
Westside takes a different tack.
Priced at $15, their sandwiches include a side, vinegar-based slaw, and house made pickles.
And they’re HUGE!
The brioche bun is stuffed past the point of ridiculousness with your protein of choice: pulled pork, or the aforementioned brisket. Really, it’s overstuffed enough for two to split.
Of course, just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you should.
The sides are all solid: the cheesy potatoes, the collards, the baked beans, the mac & cheese. They’re all made over the fire.
In case you can’t tell, I’m a fan of this spot.
The Detroit area is not exactly a hotbed of barbecue talent. Yes, there are a number of excellent spots in Detroit where one can get a great rack of ribs, but that’s only one type of barbecue.
Given the Southern and Soul roots that run so deeply through Metro Detroit, it’s really a shame good ‘cue is so scarce around these parts.
We deserve better. We deserve the BBQ joint that has smoke running through its veins, and excellence throughout its menu: ribs, pulled/chopped pork, brisket, chicken, wings, sausage.
Westside BBQ is that spot. Get there now, because when football season starts, (you can see the stadium from the parking lot) and that sweet smoke drifts toward 107,601 hungry football fans?
Well, it’s gonna be hard to find an empty picnic table.
Westside BBQ is located at 108 East Madison Street in Ann Arbor, right next to the railroad tracks. Posted hours are daily from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., but it’s a rare day they’re open that late. Once the meat is gone, they lock up. You can find them on the web at www.westsidebarbecue.com