My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped to the floor when I first saw the news on Facebook. My two favorite restaurants in Lansing were going to go toe-to-toe in a no-holds-barred old-fashioned another-hyphenated-adjective throwdown.
If you’ve ever seen the Food Network show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” you’re probably already familiar with the concept. In short, two people or establishments craft their finest dishes of the same genre and let the people decide whose is better. Naturally, an event this big couldn’t be fit into a single day, so the two restaurants would be serving up their “competition plates” all week long.
But before moving on, allow me to introduce you to the competitors; as if they need any introduction. On one side, we have Soup Spoon Café, a restaurant that began its existence by expertly crafting breakfast and lunch for a couple of years before expanding into the dinner and craft beer market. Located downtown near Sparrow Hospital on Michigan Avenue, the Spoon was by far my favorite dinner spot until their challenger came to town.
In the other corner we have the young upstart Fork in the Road. This culinary mecca started just last Spring as a food truck carrying their “slow fast food” throughout Old Town and the rest of Lansing. Featuring slow-cooked barbecue mostly prepared ahead of time for fast service, it wasn’t long at all before demand allowed them to open their own permanent location at the crossroads of Oakland and Saginaw just north of Lansing’s West Side Neighborhood.
The best part about both restaurants is that they focus on local ingredients as much as possible while trying to be good neighbors and building their surrounding communities. If you asked me today which was my favorite, I wouldn’t have an answer. And yet, this throwdown would test me to do just that.
The cuisine? Barbecue.
The rules? Simple.
Each patron would go to each location at some point during the week. There, they would order the “competition plate,” costing $18, as well as a vote card that cost an additional $2. It may seem like a steep price, but much of the proceeds are headed for the Greater Lansing Food Bank. So I had no problem splurging a little for excellent food and a good cause.
My original plan was to head to Fork in the Road for dinner on Tuesday – the first day of competition – split a plate with a friend, and head to Soup Spoon Café to sample their wares directly after. However, I underestimated the popularity of the contest; Fork in the Road sold out of their daily competition plate before lunch had even passed.
I met up with a local culinary expert for lunch at Fork in the Road on Wednesday instead. The plate served that day was, “Porchetta.” It looked to me to be a pork tenderloin filleted flat, filled with a delicious spread concoction of herbs eggs, and tied back up before being grilled to perfection. This was served alongside a couple of small medallions of homemade sausage, some giant leaves of ramp, and a rhubarb gastrique (carmelized sugar, deglazed with vinegar, used as a flavoring for sauces).
Yes, that last bit is from Wikipedia. Apparently I’m not quite that much of a Foodie.
The result was spectacular. The rhubarb gastrique was slightly sweet with a tinge of sour and paired perfectly with the smoky, savory deliciousness of the pork. But quite honestly, my favorite part might have been the homemade sausage. They should seriously consider serving up some bangers and mash or a sausage sandwich with that stuff.
I completed my throwdown challenge at Soup Spoon Café later that night (after a run on the trails at Lake Lansing North). I seemed to arrive at the perfect time. I walked straight to the bar, grabbed an open stool and immediately ordered the throwdown plate. If I had waited much longer, I may have been out of luck.
I got the last plate of the day.
This plate featured three different types of barbecue: ancho braised pork tenderloin with a cherry coriander rhubarb sauce sitting atop miso braised red cabbage; Cuban style smoked ribs topped with orange mojo salsa and a Goslings dark rum sugarcane reduction; and pork belly with housemade sweet barbecue sauce atop sage and mushroom grits.
It was even more impressive than it sounds.
The different flavors were evident from each section and the smoke flavor added by the Northern Michigan Red Hickory that they traveled up north to get just for the competition kicked everything up a notch. All the meat was tender, flavorful and well-cooked. And the accompanying sauces and sides suited everything perfectly. In fact, my favorite part of the plate might have been the miso braised red cabbage.
I washed it down with an IPA from one of my favorite new Michigan breweries, Greenbush, as I contemplated which box to check. Do I go with the porchetta or the red hickory trio?
I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of an answer. Mostly, I don’t want to influence anybody to vote a particular way. That’s because if you hurry, you can still participate! The throwdown continues until Saturday, May 26. And I recommend going to Fork in the Road for lunch that day, as I guarantee their pork belly confit will fly out of the kitchen!