Pigging Out & Pulling Pork
Somebody has to take these jobs and when it involves eating, it is often me.
So when asked if I was available to track down a handful of pulled pork sandwiches being served in Northern Michigan and try them all in a single day, I responded with an immediate “Hell, yeah!”
A few years ago, I don’t recall seeing pulled pork on a menu other than the occasional special. Today, as I found out, you can try at least three different ones at three different establishments within less than a five-minute walk in downtown Traverse City. Northern Michigan isn’t going to match the cultural iconic BBQ level of the South or Kansas City, but that won’t stop those of us who live here or visit from wiping plenty of barbecue sauce off our chins.
On a sunny Saturday in May, I began my pork adventure with a drive to Charlevoix, where two pulled pork sandwiches were an excellent start to the day. I wisely skipped breakfast and headed straight to a cozy little place on the Round Lake Channel. Smoke on the Water (103 Park Ave., Charlevoix) smokes their pig butt right outside the door and within a pig tail’s throw from the water. If you arrive early, you can opt for the Pulled Pork Omelet, but I was in it for the sandwich and the lunch menu is available at 11:30. The one thing that is easy to appreciate about pulled pork sandwiches is that they typically are served in a paper-lined basket to help focus the attention on the tender meat inside. Smoke on the Water’s pulled pork, sourced from Michigan farms, comes dished as such with creamy coleslaw on top and Kettle Chips and a pickle on the side. It looks delicious with nice sized chunks of pork spilling over the house-made Kaiser roll. Some might prefer sauce on the side, but here it is delivered all mixed with the meat, resulting in a spicy, tender and juicy sandwich. Fresh-squeezed raspberry lemonade was a refreshing chaser.
Charlevoix is also home to Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, which just opened a new restaurant to complement their fleet of food trucks, on the south side of the city (1418 Bridge St., Charlevoix). Hands down, this is a first-bite sandwich winner. From the solid construction and appearance to the evenly shredded meat, it is a reward for all the good you ever done to have that first bite melt into your mouth. As my 9-year-old lunch companion, who is typically the epitome of understatement, exclaimed, “This is really good. Like, really good.” Here the sauce is controlled by the customer with a selection of sauces displayed on top of a Craftsman toolbox. The sandwich is served with homemade BBQ potato chips.
After two lunches, the 45-minute drive to Traverse City provided enough time to create some room for the ginger and fennel delicacy at Smoke and Porter (1752 US- 31, Traverse City). This pork sandwich is fancied up a bit with additions of watercress, a vinaigrette, mustard BBQ sauce, and served on a brioche bun. It is juicy and saucy with just the right amount of a ginger kick to open up the taste buds. As well, and something you begin to discern more after your third pulled pork sandwich of the day, this had just a hint of smoke. Sometimes the smoky flavor can be a tad much; Smoke and Porter gets it just right. There’s a full selection of drinks here from the bar, and the Smoke House Bloody Mary went with the meal perfectly. It also put me in the mood for a nap.
After a bit of snooze, I geared up for the second half of this pulled pork adventure. The final three in succession are located on East Front Street in Traverse City, beginning with Taproot Cider House (300 E. Front St.), followed by Sparks BBQ (439 E. Front St.) and ending with the Cordwood BBQ truck parked at The Little Fleet (448 E. Front St.).
Taproot Cider House’s Phat Gregory is the one sandwich on the tour made with locally sourced protein from Realeyes Homestead in Cedar, Michigan. The meat is braised in cider and served in a housemade bun with a dry cabbage slaw served next to Great Lakes Potato Chips. It was a perfect first sandwich for a three-sandwich dinner as it isn’t as heavy as your typical pulled pork and has a fresh taste, perhaps from the localness of the pig. I paired it with Left Foot Charley Cinnamon Girl Cider to delicious effect.
A four-minute walk east is the latest establishment to try the incubator-sized space at 439 E. Front. Sparks BBQ opened in 2016 and is your traditional BBQ joint with a wide selection of beef and pork options on the menu. Their pulled pork sandwich is a mass of slow-smoked shoulder meat topped with a pile of coleslaw. Of all the sandwiches, this one was the messy, gorgeous BBQ one might find at a Missouri State Fair. The menu has an assortment of side dishes like pit-roasted beans, but at this point of my tour the generous sandwich was plenty.
The last place on my list was the summer watering hole across the street. Cordwood BBQ is one of eight food trucks parked at The Little Fleet for the summer. I must admit I was feeling a bit porked out when I walked up to the window, but my taste buds aroused enough when they called my name. The consistency was tender and drier than previous sandwiches, finely shredded threads of pork. I enjoyed the last few bites of the adventure with the sun on my face, sipping on a Stormcloud IPA, and dreaming of the good food and times ahead—just a happy little pig in a blanket of summer satisfaction.
The Other Burger
In recent years the pulled pork sandwich has become so popular on menus that we here at Edible Grande Traverse are dubbing it “the other burger.” Meaty enough to satisfy a hearty appetite, juicy and flavorful and easy to eat out-of-hand (if a bit messier) in a good bun, it carries additional benefits that many a conscious eater can appreciate.
Pork is fast becoming a product that small-scale farmers can add for diversification and to increase the resiliency and stability of their farm operations. Whether selling directly to consumers or to restaurants or working through a distributor, pork can be raised, processed and sold at a small or moderate scale more reliably and profitably than can beef, making it easier for restaurants to consider sourcing their pork from local farms—and many are.
Pork is also a good meat choice for reducing the carbon footprint of your own diet. According to a 2016 Factsheet from the University of Michigan, 80 percent of the greenhouse gases from the average household’s food choices come from meat, dairy, poultry, fish and eggs. Beef has far and away the biggest carbon footprint at 6.61 pounds CO2 per 4-ounce serving. Pork has only about a quarter of that amount, at 1.72 pounds.
Experts agree that drastically reducing beef consumption could be the single most effective step a person can take to reduce the environmental harm caused by modern diets. Going vegetarian isn’t for everyone, so we say thank goodness for the other burger, pulled pork, in all its slow-cooked, meaty, juicy goodness. Grab an extra napkin and enjoy!