On a Friday night in January, the young crowd at Blue Tractor stood three deep at the bar, their puffy down coats bulking up an already beefy mob and presenting something of an obstacle to the newcomer. But on closer interaction, they turned out to be a tame crew, Midwest friendly rather than East Coast anxious. I mention this because the new Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery on Washington is an instant success, attracting masses but not taking reservations for groups of fewer than thirteen. You should plan on spending some time at the bar if you go for dinner on a weekend.
We were told to anticipate a thirty-to-forty-minute sojourn there; when our seats turned up after just fifteen minutes, we didn't know whether to credit good luck, good psychology on the hostess's part, or good karma left over from the prior tenant, Jewel Heart. Whatever the explanation, we felt fortunate and disposed to like the place. The general ease of experience is reinforced by a comforting decor whose chief feature is rough, dark paneling recycled from old barns. The lighting is workmanlike, the ductwork exposed, and the on-site brewery on display in three giant stainless steel tanks behind the bar. Well-placed flat screens accommodate game days, but don't expect to hear the score-the noise level approximates that of a raucous family dinner with a blues band in the basement.
The bar itself has a built-in frosty cooling strip to maintain proper temperature on your brew. It's a useful novelty, so long as you don't let your mug sit too long. I was on the phone when the bartender set down my IPA, and by the time I was ready to take a sip, the filled-to-the-rim glass was stuck to the ice. I created a pond of spilled ale trying to pry it loose. Blue Tractor owners Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell grew up together on the Old Mission Peninsula, not far from where the young Ernest Hemingway learned to hunt and fish. I don't know why exactly, but I always slot Carlson-Lobdell restaurants into Hemingway eras. Their first local venture, Grizzly Peak, could be perched beside Walloon Lake, waiting for Nick Adams. Vinology (in which they are no longer involved) boasts a Gallic terroir fetish worthy of the Moveable Feast days. The old man might dream about heading to Cafe Habana for a drink after a long day at sea. Now Blue Tractor takes us back up north, not so much lakeside but inland, down some Emmet County back road, where tourists don't rent, so prices stay low. No single dish at Blue Tractor is more than $20, and most hover around $10.
These are simple plates and huge portions. There is more than a passing nod to the southern food canon; chef Heath Barbato spent six years in North Carolina, and frying, smoking, and barbecuing are his preferred methods of handling ingredients that are largely meaty, starchy, and spicy. For me, the kitchen staff proved their mettle early with an appetizer of onion rings that wrapped an excellent crunchy batter around a sweet toothsome fresh onion slice, a deep-fried feat pulled off with fairly-low-grease aplomb. An appetizer of warm potato chips featured mandolined spuds deep fried with a similarly perfect texture, but coated with too much of a sweet-spicy powder and accompanied by a wretched blue cheese “fondue” that tasted mainly like the starch used to thicken it. Less might be more here-I'd love to try those chips with just sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Blue Tractor has its own smokery-a roughly five-by-four-foot cabinet in the kitchen where the staff turn ordinary meat into a caveman's joy. Every meat we sampled from its cherry- and apple-wood-stoked confines was delicious, starting with a messy full slab of meaty “wet” ribs slathered with classic Texas barbecue sauce. That sweet-smoky Texas style is one of the three house-made sauces served on the side with every barbecue-the other two being a vinegar-based North Carolina and a tomato-based South Carolina with mustard and molasses overtones. A mountain of pulled pork, smoked eighteen hours, came with plenty of those outside-crunchy caramelized meat bits and was dressed with South Carolina sauce. Our favorite was probably the brisket, a not-too-fatty slab of certified Angus beef sliced just right to show off the red ring beneath its sharp crust, one mark of a great smoked brisket.
Beer-can chicken was tender and particularly moist, as you'd expect from a fowl propped indecorously on a can of beer that steams up its insides as it grills, but I could have done without the flavorless pan gravy poured across the top. (I almost got the feeling the people in the kitchen were just trying to hide its barbecue-blackened skin. Wear it proudly, man.) The accompanying fresh veggies, though, were very good-crisply steamed and including nonslimy okra among the carrots and broccoli. My husband hated his side of greens-at Blue Tractor collards come in a spicy roasted tomato-smoked paprika sauce. I loved that they made him say how much more he likes the way I cook greens (I'm more of a traditionalist), but these collards do have the health advantage of being vegetarian.
The half-pound burgers are cumbersome but quite good, grilled to order and served on fresh soft buns from Avalon Bakery in Detroit. Of the various burger versions, my favorite was the “Texas,” with a sharp pickle, Jack cheese, and minimalist coleslaw. I got this in trade from my companion for my original order-a “black, blue, and bacon burger”-which was loaded with too much stuff for my taste. In the end, we were both happy. Sweet-potato fries best the standard taters here, and will be familiar to anyone who has had the red-strings at Grizzly Peak.
As with Hemingway, not to mention other Lobdell-Carlson eateries, alcohol plays a central role here. At Blue Tractor, with its on-site brewery, beer is the beverage of choice, followed by bourbon. I ordered once from the pro-forma wine list and the barkeep looked at me as if I'd lost my mind; I understood why when I took a sip of the god-awful Rodney Strong Chardonnay. On subsequent trips I stuck with the house brews. Offerings change, but on my trips I tried a lovely IPA and a hoppy amber pils. The flavors are generally good, but Blue Tractor needs to perfect the pour and get a better head on these.
Service was variable, more barlike than restaurantish, and improved substantially over time. At one early all-women outing, everybody had a crush on the server by the time we left. Not only was he one of those handsome, hammy guys who toss out compliments like hot dogs at a ballpark; whatever he delayed or goofed up (which was quite a lot) he comped on the bill. On another outing, the poor waiter was so shy I could barely make out his mumble. But by the time the place had been open two months, servers and the kitchen always seemed to be in sync, with food arriving hot, as ordered, and at comfortable intervals.
Blue Tractor delivered its best news when it was time to settle up, with surprisingly low bottom lines and enough leftovers for the next day's lunch.
Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery
207 East Washington 222-4095
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes 11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., midnight Fri. & Sat.), Sun. noon-midnight (kitchen closes 10 p.m.)
Appetizers $4.95-$9.95, salads $4.95-$8.50, sandwiches & burgers $6.95-$9.95, lunch entrees $9.95-$13.95, dinner entrees $11.95-$15.95, desserts $4.95-$7.95
Disability friendly (elevator to basement restrooms); crowded but navigable
First published Ann Arbor Observer, March 2009