If you were on Jeopardy, “What are Detroiters?” would get you a knowing nod from the show’s resident Canadian, Alex Trebek.
Those are all words used to describe Detroiters, and the city itself. For this month’s blog, we’re headed into Detroit to discover the most famous sandwich you’ve never eaten.
But not just any sandwich—no, this is a quest for an extinct piece of Detroit’s past, the Boogaloo Sandwich.
Back in the 80s, or as my daughter Sammy describes it, when dinosaurs walked the earth–but to really cool music–downtown Detroit was home to a wonderful BBQ spot. Along Jefferson Avenue, almost directly across from the intimidating glass towers of the Ford-owned Renaissance Center, stood Brothers Bar-B-Q.
Brothers was known for two things: perfect BBQ ribs, and the Boogaloo Sandwich. If I was downtown, and I wasn’t at Lafayette, I was at Brothers. And it was always a struggle to decide which to order.
The ribs were smoky, sweet, and cooked till there was just enough pull left so that you had to bite them off the bone.
The Boogaloo Sandwich was an anachronism – a toasted sub bun filled with seasoned ground beef, topped with melted American cheese slices, dark caramelized onions, and Miss Jean’s Sauce of the Islands. Kind of a cross between a cheesesteak, and a Sloppy Joe, one that happened to look like a giant loose burger, with the cheese standing in for the usual mustard.
The Boogaloo was fantastic, the kind of thing you can only have once a month or so, lest your cardiologist become . . . persnickety. The sauce was like none you’ve ever tasted, a spicy sweet herbal ketchup that somehow elevated all of the elements of the sandwich. I’m pretty sure you could put this sauce on kelp, and even that would taste good.
Then Brothers closed. And I believe Miss Jean passed.
And like so many other things in Detroit, the Boogaloo faded away.
However, for every lost treasure, there’s a treasure hunter.
In the case of the Boogaloo, that’s Chef Greg Beard.
Chef Greg’s formal training was in the culinary arts program at the Henry Ford Community College. The National Restaurant Association named him one of the Top 100 Rising Chefs in America. He honed his craft at a number of locations, perhaps most notably in the Marriott kitchens.
He now runs the Soul in the Wall Cafe, a soul food (mostly) carryout joint in Detroit’s northwest corner. Soul in the Wall is in a residential neighborhood, so if you don’t live there, you have to really be looking for something special.
Chef Greg remembered the Boogaloo, and he remembered the taste.
He set out to recreate Miss Jean’s sauce, remembering her island origins. He ended up with a mixture of over 20 ingredients.
To my taste buds, he got it right. It tastes just like the Boogaloo I remember.
In this picture, you can see a smear of the Boogaloo sauce. If you click to enlarge it, you see some of the dried herbs present in the sauce:
When I eat the sandwich, the lead flavor in the sauce seems to be rosemary. If I try the sauce straight, then it’s more of a thyme and oregano. In both instances, there’s a warmth beneath, which I’m guessing is some combination of allspice, cumin, and maybe ginger?
Chef Greg just smiles at my guesses, allowing that some of my guesses MIGHT be right.
With the sauce in hand, Chef Greg decided to expand the Boogaloo. In addition to the original, you can get a Boogaloo with steak, with chicken, or even a vegetarian Boogaloo.
(I humbly submitted my idea, a Boogaloo topped with banana peppers, to be called The Electric Boogaloo. Of course, if you do that, you’d need one with jalapeños, The Electric Boogaloo 2. Because there HAS to be a sequel!)
And then Chef Greg hit the home run – Boogaloo fries!
While you can get a chili cheese fry at any coney island in Detroit, Soul in the Wall is the only place you can find Boogaloo fries: crispy crinkle cut french fries, topped with ground beef, melted American cheese, and a generous helping of Boogaloo sauce.
They’re simply amazing, and worth the drive all on their own.
However, let’s remember where we are.
We’re at a soul food cafe. The menu out front speaks of smothered pork chops, meat loaf, oxtails, short ribs, and other variants of delicious comfort food.
And then it hits me. With the amazing renaissance in Detroit’s food scene, what’s the one cuisine you can’t get downtown?
With apologies to Savannah Blue, and its upscale Southern cooking, Motown soul food is a different animal. Shouldn’t Detroit’s visitors, as well as downtown workers and residents, be able to sample delicious soul food somewhere downtown?
Plates like this delectable wing platter, with crispy chicken wings, with just enough seasoning so they still taste mainly of chicken? Or the candied yams alongside? Or the (vegetarian, if you can believe it!) succulent, perfectly-cooked collard greens filling out the plate?
Those who know Chef Greg knows he’d like nothing better than to open that restaurant. Here’s hoping the folks at Bedrock, or other developers, give him that opportunity.
That way, more people can sample his desserts, like this Triple Butter Crust Peach Cobbler, made from peaches marinated in vanilla and cinnamon, subtly flavoring them with just a hint of sweetness.
Or his custard pie, here shown as a graham cracker crusted miniature, draped in a lemon glaze that is suitably tart to cut the sweet of the custard.
It’s enough to make you want to Boogaloo.
Notes – Researching and interviewing for this article, I came across two things that don’t fit in the article, but I’ll share anyways.
The first is Chef Greg’s close friend (her picture adorns the mural outside the restaurant), Allee Willis, the most famous Detroiter you’ve never heard of. A 2018 inductee into the Songwriter Hall of Fame, Grammy and Tony award winner, Allee has over 900 songs to her credit. Those songs include classics like “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, “Neutron Dance” by the Pointer Sisters, “Stir it Up” by Patti LaBelle, even “I’ll Be There for You,” the theme song from the TV series “Friends.” She’s worth a Google.
The second is weird, and I have to check with Chef Greg on this one. I was looking for a photo of Brothers Barbecue. The closest I could find is the handbill shown in the article. I knew there were two locations, and there are two listed on the bill. However, the Jefferson location is not one listed. So that’s odd.
Soul in the Wall Cafe is located at 10009 Curtis in Detroit, between 7 Mile and McNichols (6 Mile). Closed on Mondays, Tuesday – Saturday hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5:30 p.m. You can also find them on Facebook.