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By MARK NIXON
There it sits on a busy westside street corner, drab as a fire hydrant. Imagine the bewildered looks from hungry newcomers who step inside and see … a cell phone store.
Welcome to Capital City BBQ, a place I fell in love with almost instantly, once my bewilderment melted away.
Yes, indeed, this tiny restaurant shares the same roof as the Sunshine Cellular store.
Which, oddly, makes it more endearing.
It’s hard to wrap my head around a restaurant that blends Southern barbecue with humble Vietnamese cuisine. Maybe this is common. Maybe I simply don’t get out enough. I choose to call it inspired.
On the Southern end of the food spectrum are items like smoked beef brisket ($12.95 for a half-pound) and baby back ribs ($30.95 for a full rack, plus two sides). I maintain that Saddleback BBQ in REO Town sets the gold standard for smoked meats in this town. But comes very close to that mark.
Smoke permeates the menu. Indeed, on one visit they were hawking smoked meat loaf. I began salivating. Alas, that special was scheduled for the following week when I wasn’t around.
On the other end of the spectrum is Vietnamese fare. They have seven kinds of Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich, for $5.95. I tried the grilled lemongrass pork Banh Mi, a concoction of pulled pork and coleslaw tucked into thick slices of baguette-like bread. The taste and texture were outstanding.
Just days before Thanksgiving and with family in town, I ordered a huge amount of takeout food to feed the clan (since in-house dining is very limited, I noticed most customers order takeout).
Per usual, I ordered too much food. The Vietnamese spring rolls, six for $11.95, were practically an entree unto themselves. Here you have shrimp, cilantro, rice noodles and cucumber sheathed in a translucent rice wrap. They look like museum pieces under frosted glass. Dip one end of the spring roll in the accompanying peanut sauce and you have a pure taste of humble Vietnamese cuisine. The freshness of the ingredients, the aromatic bite of the cilantro and the toasty notes of peanut sauce make a perfect symphony.
It was so good that it inspired our two-year-old grandson, Keelan, to call out for another thick sliver of “doo-dum-buh” — cucumber.
Keelan’s mom raved about one of the sides: cornbread. “The cornbread was delicious—not an easy thing to do, to get flavor properly balanced with moistness. I hate crumbly cornbread,” Ryanne said.
Her partner Luis — no stranger to foreign cuisines — complimented the fare as fresh and authentic. “The food is like what you could make at home, if you made that sort of food at home.”
Capital City BBQ offers an impressive array of sides — I counted 12 — that accompany dinners and sandwiches. The family’s verdict was mixed on the baked beans. I loved them because they contained bits of smoked pork.
Less inspiring was the Mac and Cheese (a $1 up-charge for a side). Capital City BBQ needs to work on the creaminess and cheesiness and make the topping crumblier.
The grilled lemongrass chicken with rice noodles ($8.95) was the least inspiring item I tasted. It was packed with fresh flavors, but overall the taste lacked any wow factor. Because my order was so large and was made a week earlier, the restaurant mistakenly forgot I had ordered Vietnamese egg rolls — $8.95 for six egg rolls with pork, shrimp, carrots and green onions. I didn’t discover the omission until I got home. A pity. They sounded good.
Besides cooking savvy, Capital City BBQ brandishes marketing savvy. The names of their sandwiches are whimsical in a down-on-the-farm sort of way: Awesome Mess, Steer Clear, Barnyard, Moo Over and Forgotten Thanksgiving are among the cleverly named offerings.
And not to let publicity go to waste, this place has played its 15 minutes of fame to the hilt. A few months ago, Guy Fieri, the host of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” dropped by Capital City BBQ and it was later featured in one of Triple D’s episodes.
The restaurant seized on the publicity — who wouldn’t? When I dropped in for my first visit, I noticed T-shirts hanging from a wall: “Guy Ate Here. Have you?” On my second visit, I noticed a minimalist drawing of a goateed Fieri lording over the scene.
Despite its Plain Jane looks, Capital City BBQ seems delighted with the notion that it’s here to help its patrons enjoy life… like a good friend having you over for dinner. The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” truly applies. Open the book, turn the page, expect the unexpected.SHE ATE BBQ joint lives up to Guy Fieri-hype
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
Let’s get one thing straight – the location is atypical. Positively wedged into a corner lot at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Saginaw, Capital City BBQ is a one-stop shop if you need a cell phone or lunch.
That’s right, this place has both. If you hadn’t heard of it before, that might have changed a few months ago when the aggressively blonde, highly obnoxious Guy Fieri came to town and featured the Banh Mi on his Food Network show. Ignore that. Go there anyway, because the food is good and the location is weird. Don’t we like things to be a little bit weird in Lansing?
We started with an order of Vietnamese spring rolls, traditionally one of my favorites. I love the clear wrapper, which lets you see the fresh, colorful ingredients like cucumber, cilantro and shrimp – all are included in this version. Unfortunately, my excitement to try these died with my first bite, as these were totally devoid of flavor.
Beautiful, yes. Flavorful, not so much. My lunch continued with a bowl of pho, eaten at a table in my office because our order was to-go.
A word on this – seating at the restaurant is extremely limited. As in, there might be 10 seats in the place, and parking is even worse.
During a subsequent trip for takeout, when I went inside to collect our food, I heard more than three groups of people mention a 25-minute wait for sandwiches and there was no seating. They left to go somewhere else. I understand there isn’t much that can be done about logistics, but I hate to see a small business hemorrhage its customers like that.
My pho (Vietnamese noodle soup, pronounced “faux”) was brothy, rich, meaty and had lots of accoutrements, just like it should. The broth came in a separate container than the bean sprouts, Thai basil, thinly-sliced jalapeno pepper, lime wedges, fish sauce and beef slices. The idea is you toss your preferred additions into the broth and let the heat meld everything together. That is great, in theory, but it proves to be extremely difficult when you’re eating out of Styrofoam containers that are too small to contain the broth plus anything else of substance. Also, my food safety-conscious husband (personally, I have the stomach of a rabid dog) was concerned that the vegetables were in the same container as the raw beef. A fair criticism, especially when the pho-eater is nine months pregnant.
Yes, I’m still pregnant and no, it’s not twins. His Awesome Mess sandwich with a side of fries boded well for us. The smoked pork was tender and topped with a tangy coleslaw and spicy/sweet BBQ sauce. The fries were the star of the show, because they were hot, crispy and seasoned. If you’ve followed the grievances of Mr. She Ate through the years, you’ll recall that an unseasoned fry sends him into despair, but these are properly salted. He said they didn’t even need ketchup, which I think is insane.
On our next visit, we ordered the Sweet Chick and Steer Clear sandwiches to share.
The Sweet Chick – smoked chicken topped with BBQ sauce, lettuce, tomato, and onion – was too sweet. The chicken didn’t have enough smoky flavor to stand up to the cloying sweetness of the BBQ sauce and there was no acidity to it. The Steer Clear was much better – beef brisket was topped with a red-onion jam, smoked-Gouda cheese and bourbon-BBQ sauce. The onion jam was perfect and, since we Hoovered this sandwich a few weeks ago, I’ve been making a quick apple-and-onion jam to serve with pork chops. The combination of onion and the richness of the meat was out of this world. If you want that sandwich (or anything else on the menu) for lunch, you’d better call in early. Our orders each took at least 30 minutes to complete, which was double the time that we were given on the phone. Service is slow.
Beyond that issue, the menu is extensive, with over 20 sandwich offerings, various salads and a Vietnamese section featuring everything from a Banh Mi (essentially a Vietnamese hoagie) to pho and egg rolls. There is also a display case full of desserts and we couldn’t help but try a slice of chocolate cheesecake. It wasn’t particularly chocolatey, so I had to follow it with some Christmas cookies.
I hope Capital City BBQ finds a better way to serve as many people as it aims to serve, or a way to streamline its process. Until then, what it offers is unique and adds an interesting dynamic to the local food scene.
Capital City BBQ
11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Closed Sunday 1026 W. Saginaw St., Lansing (517) 775-8500 facebook.com/capitalcitybbq