Appetizer: Blue Ox BBQ in Lake Orion

Wood-smoked meats give Blue Ox BBQ in Lake Orion its distinctive flavor
Photographs by David Lewinski

A five-table barbecue joint in Lake Orion, with a smoker that takes up much of its tiny dimensions, has its roots in such disparate places as Oklahoma, Colorado, and England.

Oklahoma native Neal Ellis of the Blue Ox BBQ ended up in Michigan because his boyhood chum and lifelong friend, Dave Clark, married a Michigan woman and persuaded Ellis to sell his share of the Colorado Springs barbecue he was running at the time and move to Michigan to open one here.

On Feb. 14, 2009, the two unveiled the Blue Ox BBQ in a Lake Orion strip mall next door to a Subway sandwich shop.

By the following December, however, Clark was gone, leaving Ellis to run the business with the help of two employees. Since then, Ellis has been working 80-hour weeks to keep the place going and, judging from the rave reviews of his customers, doing a very good job of it. In fact, he’s trying to find a bigger location to replace what he calls “a hole in the wall, pretty bare bones.”

Selling authentic barbecue and traditional sides, including fried okra, was a challenge at first. People didn’t know how to pronounce okra. “They called it orka or oakree,” Ellis says. “We let everyone sample it. And once they tried it, they came back the next day for more.”

That was true, too, of the various cuts of meat smoked over wood, not just any kind of wood, but fruitwood for the chicken, pork, and turkey, and hickory and oak for the prime rib and brisket, without either dry rub or sauce. It’s the cooking technique that produces tender meat that falls off the bone.

The three house barbecue sauces, in mild, hot, and hotter versions, are served separately, and Ellis, 36, will tell you the meats don’t really need sauce. The wood smoking imparts both flavor and tenderness.

Blue Ox (a name chosen because the two founding friends spent some time in Oxford, England, and also for the character Paul Bunyan) has existed solely on word-of-mouth recommendations.

Ellis admits that “it’s kind of strange how it all happened,” but he says he likes Michigan, and enjoys introducing what he calls his “really simple concept” of barbecue to a fresh audience. He still has his two original employees, and help from his wife, Yan. But, otherwise, this well-traveled Oklahoma guy is on his own.

Blue Ox BBQ, 179 N. Park Blvd. (Lapeer Road), Lake Orion; 248-693-1508. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 12-8 p.m. Sun.