Smoke—the wafting aroma of it clung to me the moment I pushed open the restaurant door, embracing me with a warmth that resonated with Southern hospitality. Already damp and disheveled from the rain, I made a mental note to change my clothes later. Perhaps it was the prevailing gloom outside that accentuated the immediate coziness of the room, or maybe it was the decor—the red walls were decked out in small homey paintings that seemed appropriate for a restaurant known for its comfort food.
I walked towards the register to order, passing four person tables helpfully adorned with a roll of paper towels and a set of house–made sauces. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed for a barbecue joint with a closing time determined by whenever it sold out of food—only a certain amount was prepared every morning. The menu, hand–written on brown construction paper on a wall, was as straightforward as they come, listing a variety of meats by the pound, accompanied by a list of sides and specials. While easy to peruse, the menu was overwhelming only in the abundance of choices available.
Mike Strauss, the founder and owner of Mike’s BBQ, helpfully chose for me, placing two trays piled with generous helpings onto my table. The main attractions were, of course, the meats, including: brisket, sausage, pulled pork, and ribs. While not especially unique in presentation—they were placed directly on a sheet of butcher paper atop of a cafeteria tray—they still looked irresistibly good.
My immediate favorite was the sliced brisket, the half–inch thick slices were tender and savory, particularly due to the salt–and–pepper char on the sides. It tasted authentic, like the brisket I had enjoyed in Austin, Texas, which seemed to be intentional. As Strauss explained, his brisket “has a Texas influence for sure. We cook it the way they would cook it in Texas, and we season it mostly with just salt and pepper, 50–50, like they do in Texas,” he said.
Mike’s BBQ boasts a variety of Southern influences in their food—not just the Southern area of the United States—but also, of Philadelphia. Their ribs and pork are Carolina–style, and their white sauce originates from Alabama. But their smoked brisket cheesesteak, as well as a few of their sides, are distinctly South Philly.
One–by–one, I went on a geographical food tour, plunging my fork (in a failed attempt to keep my hands clean) into the ribs. With gentle coaxing, the meat fell cleanly off the bone. Slightly pink on the inside, with a perfectly charred crust on the outside, the ribs were distinctly peppery, and overall, a delectable feast. The slices of sausage possessed a pronounced blend of unique spices that kept me reaching for more. The pulled pork was a bit dry, making it the least flavorful of the bunch, but it did make for a perfect foundation for any of the house–made sauces to shine.
“Mike’s BBQ” sauce was a solid classic—a warm and smoky barbecue sauce that paired with everything. “Sweet Heat” was spicier than it was sweet, but its heat was addictively good. “Pepper Vinegar” had a strong acidic taste, and according to Strauss, is often used by customers to put on their collard greens. Their white sauce, though not available as a bottle on the table, was still accessible and provided a cooling relief to its spicier counterparts.
The brisket cheesesteak was the unexpected star of the show. It’s easy to see why it’s a customer favorite, with one large bite taking me through an adventure of thick, chewy bread wrapped around a generous stuffing of brisket, house–made wiz, and a sprinkling of chopped, caramelized onions. Get this to share—half is definitely enough for one person, especially since you don’t want to miss out on the barbecue.
Finally, I enjoyed the gouda mac & cheese—thick spirals slathered with the right amount of cheese, neither too strong nor too heavy. Maybe it was because of the richness of the meat, but I almost wanted the mac and cheese to have a little more of an oomph. Similarly, their house chips were unfortunately a miss. While crispy and chewy, the chips weren’t seasoned enough to have a lasting impact.
Despite how well the barbecue seems to resonate with flavors from the South, Mike is surprisingly not from the South. “I have no roots [in the South],” he says, laughing. Mike is a jovial man; we found him bustling in the kitchen along with the other employees when we first got there. He is originally from central New Jersey, but has been in Philadelphia for 20 years. He got his start in the barbecue business not out of tradition, but out of a sheer homegrown love for it. “I’ve always been a backyard barbecue person,” he says, “feeding my friends and family.”
Now he serves all of Philadelphia, catering to office parties, festivals, and even weddings. His authentic love for barbecue is clear in how the meat is smoked fresh every day and doled out to customers in a simple and uncluttered atmosphere. It’s notable that Mike’s BBQ is also a BYOB—a liquor store is conveniently located a block away, so bring your friends. This is comfort food at its finest. I left full and satisfied, the smoke on my clothes following me like a gentle reminder to return.
TL;DR: Barbecue to give the South a run for their money.
Location: 1703 S 11th St
Hours: Wed–Sun: 12 p.m.–6 p.m. (or until sell–out)
Price Range: $$