More than any other food, barbecue elicits passionate debate about what it is, what it should be, and where to find the best and the truest.
We may love croissants, pizza, paella, tacos, and pho, but they come from somewhere else, while barbecue is deeply set in the American soul, right up there with hot dogs, mother, apple pie, and the rest.
In certain areas of the country, barbecue is close to a rite of passage. In Kansas City, it has a mitzvah-like status. Kids pass into adulthood having to choose their barbecue — either Arthur Bryant’s or Gates & Sons, both household names that have dominated the restaurant scene for decades. Choosing your ’cue in Kansas City rises to about the same level of spirituality as Detroiters’ declaration of love for their favorite car brand, or New Yorkers choosing between the Mets and Yankees.
In 1974, humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, pronounced that Arthur Bryant’s was the best restaurant in the world, thereby focusing an intense spotlight on the food that, until then, had been regarded as one step up from backyard grilling.
Such beatification from the nation’s most respected magazine on culture, literature, and politics was monumental in the barbecue world, and probably did more than anything else to give it a national iconic status.
In Michigan, we love good barbecue, too. However, it’s neither as impassioning to our culture, nor does it rise to quite the same level as in Kansas City.
If there’s a place here that could engender such an intense reaction, it might well be the Union Woodshop in Clarkston, where the menu has some of the best barbecue and side dishes you’ll find in the area.
Union Woodshop made its appearance two years ago, as a remake of a white-linen, French-American restaurant called the Clarkston Café.
“We were hit by the bad economy in 2008. People weren’t coming,” says Chef Aaron Cozadd. “So, we shut down for six months.”
One evening, owners Curt Catallo and Ann Stevenson, business partner Erich Lines, and Cozadd were sitting around the Catallo-Stevenson home when they set about remaking the place.
“First, we had asked Aaron to work up an Italian menu around Pizza Coco [as their pizza oven is called], Catallo says. “It was good, but we just weren’t very excited. I looked at Ann and I could tell she wasn’t, either. Then someone asked what was it we liked about [the pizza oven], and we talked about wood-fire and grilling, and someone said, ‘You mean like barbecue?’ And, within a half-hour we had it.”
They renamed it Union Woodshop, in part honoring the wood that would be used in the cooking, and landed a menu in which barbecue was to be but one facet. It runs the gamut of American items: burgers, catfish, smoked pork chops, and other dishes. It also does grilled salmon on a cedar plank, burritos, sausages, and dinner salads.
The Union Woodshop, located in a high-ceilinged storefront on Main Street in the heart of Clarkston, offers an eclectic and unpretentious décor and a lot of wood, posters, and no-frills accoutrements.
Underfoot in one area is varnished, pressed flooring underlay, while the ceiling tiles are varnished squares of plywood stained in different colors and dropped into shiny brass framing.
The bar is from a restaurant in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and dates to the 1920s. Even the flatware, plates, and glassware are basic utilitarian. Your order arrives on paper in a rectangular aluminum brownie-baking tray. Glassware — other than for wine — is chunky canning jars. The tables are set to accommodate grease, with sheets of brown paper. Art Deco wall sconces that would look at home on a 1930s ocean liner frame a wide opening that connects the two main dining areas. Among the few remnants of the former Clarkston Café are the plush blue-green banquettes.
Despite the owners’ ambitions for creating a restaurant with a wider array of American food, its distinction has grown mostly for barbecue. The list of starters tells why: All but one are either smoked or wood-grilled and include wood-fired breadsticks with garlic butter, “Burnt Ends” of brisket ends on Texas toast, smoked chicken wings with sauce, a smoked shrimp cocktail, and a smoked salmon pâte.
“You can call it anything you want, so long as you love the food,” Cozadd says.
Also available is a wide assortment of salads that can come as side dishes or entree servings. They include chopped salad, Caesar, and other variations, each of which can have smoked beef, pork, or shrimp added.
The sandwich list is also exceptional because the grilled chicken club, pulled barbecue pork, and blackened catfish are so deeply rich in flavor. An 8-ounce, seared burger with fries is served flipped upside down, so that the topside of the bun becomes a juice cradle, which the restaurant swears tastes better that way.
Likewise, the assorted wood-oven pizzas are also very good, with just a touch of crisp charring on the underside and a fresh, solid crust that’s a tad shy of being doughy. The most unusual pizzas include one with Tasso ham, grilled fresh pineapple, and red onions. Another pizza is made with redskin potatoes, smoked cheddar, shiitake, bacon, sour cream, chives, and garlic-butter sauce.
The chorus of oooohs and aaaahs began mounting during our evening with the arrival of the smoked, moist pulled pork, beef brisket, catfish, and a smoky slab of spareribs, along with the side dishes and dark jalapeño corn muffins. The meats are smoked with young, green Michigan hickory, which Cozadd says give a better, cooler, and denser smoke than aged wood. His meats are rubbed with a recipe he got from singer Hank Williams Jr.’s personal barbecue chef. He also smokes his sour cream and pickles in hickory.
It’s said that you can tell good barbecue by how good the side dishes are. When I first heard that one some years ago, I rolled my eyes. But it’s quite true for a very good reason: A truly good meal of anything, including barbecue, doesn’t stand on its meats alone. It isn’t complete without equally good side dishes. The best sides at Union Woodshop are nothing short of heavenly, partly thanks to brisket-fat drippings instead of oil or butter — the corn muffins, for example.
The mac ’n’ cheese deserves its own altar, and is made from Vermont sharp cheddar, Pinconning cheese, penne rigate, béchamel, and Parmesan, and cooked to a point that was just a smidgen-and-a-half away from being dry, a point at which the internal flavors reach their most intense point and the dish develops a slight crustiness.
Diane’s Cheesy Potatoes, a variation on Cozadd’s mother’s Thanksgiving recipe, took the Academy Award from our table for best dish of the evening. In it, shredded potatoes are made with fresh stock, onion, sour cream, cheddar, thyme, and topped with breadcrumbs, all tucked into individual ramekins.
The national debate about barbecue is wide-ranging. Who makes the best? North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, or somewhere else? Which wood smoke is best? Hickory, mesquite, or apple wood? Beef or pork? Sauce with horseradish, vinegar, or molasses or brown sugar and tomato? And what about the red-hot stuff?
There’s a reason it’s hard to get a table at Union Woodshop (even on weeknights) and why Bob Seger and Kid Rock have been repeat patrons when they’re not on the road. It’s all here. And it’s darned good.
18 S. Main St., Clarkston; 248-625-5660. L Sat.-Sun., D daily.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.