with gallery: After expansion and menu tweaks, Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery remains a winner
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The wait for a table on a recent Friday night at Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewery — a place that now seats 211 — was an astounding two hours, and there wasn't even a home football game. Was the aroma of barbeque emanating from the front of the restaurant the lure? I was intrigued.
Managing partner Dan Glazer said Blue Tractor decided to double its space because of its popularity. With typical one-hour waits, "some people decided to go elsewhere," he said. He added that a more typical wait time is now closer to 25 minutes, with traffic up 44 percent since the new space was unveiled in February.
Blue Tractor expanded into the neighboring Cafe Habana, which is moving into the former Parthenon Restaurant space. Blue Tractor is now enormous. In addition to the voluminous dark, original space, bordered wood and paneled walls, there is an entirely new wing to the right. It has a decidedly cheerier feel, with yellow walls and a whimsical drawing of a giant pig with the different parts outlined, like "Pulled Pork" and "Shoulder Roast," etched in black.
The owners have reshaped the menu to reflect more of an international barbecue instead of just American. Glazer said the goal was to keep the traditional Southern American barbecue favorites, like pulled pork sandwiches and brisket, while broadening the offerings to include Korean barbecue, featuring hoisin sauce and a bulgogi burger, along with Latin influences, like chimichurri sauce on the brisket sandwich.
207 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor
- Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Food served until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Food served until midnight. Sunday, noon-midnight. Food served until 10 p.m.
- Plastic: American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Discover.
- Prices: Moderate. Burgers are in the $9-$11 range; entrees range from $15-$18.
- Noise level: Loud.
- Wheelchair access:Yes.
"We're trying to make our menu appealing to a lot of different kinds of people," Glazer said. In addition to the expanded barbeque offerings, Blue Tractor features appetizers, salads, burgers, and sandwiches.
We started with the soft pretzels, yummy balls of cooked dough, not overly salted. Dipped in thick and creamy smoked cheddar dipping sauce, these were a great way to begin our meal.
We sampled the grilled angus beef slider, and it was mouth-watering, an indication of the expert way the chef here prepares burgers.
Though Blue Tractor specializes in barbecue, I was impressed by the salads, which were full of the freshest ingredients. We sampled one of the rotating specialty salads, the Greek. Fresh fresh beets in this salad were a great touch, as well as the variety of Kalamata and Calabrese olives.
Except for these salads, a black bean burger and a tofu hoagie, there isn't much for vegetarians. All the entrees are heavy, with side dishes that are loaded with carbs. This is not a place to go unless you're in the mood to indulge your waistline. But it's worth it to let your diet go temporarily astray with the many tempting offerings.
Blue Tractor smokes everything from tofu, to fish, meat and chicken. My son, our family's most devoted carnivore, eagerly anticipated the BBQ plate, which consisted of baby back ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket. My favorite of the three was the baby back ribs. The meat was tender and easily pulled off the bone and was glazed with a wonderful sweet sauce.
I didn't care for the brisket, which was braised with a North Carolina-style vinegar-based barbeque sauce. The pulled pork was dry and could have benefitted from sweeter seasonings. I suggest adding one of the four barbeque sauces the server brings with the main course to give it some kick.
The cracklin' chicken consisted of two enormous barbecued chicken pieces. The meat benefitted from the beer-can cooking process. Though it was fried, it wasn't greasy, just moist and delicious. I especially liked the homemade, balsamic baked beans that accompanied this dish, true to the spirit of barbecue.
The preview we got of the burger in the slider appetizer held true for the larger version. The black, blue and bacon burger was fantastic. The meat was perfectly cooked, while the thick slab of bacon and blue cheese was a wonderful fusion of flavors, further complemented by an inventive sweet onion jam.
My daughter ordered her burger with sweet potato fries, and they were a hit, slightly salted with the perfect amount of seasoning. The hoisin BBQ sauce was an ideal choice for the pan-seared salmon, another standout.
Among the misses was the Wisconsin cheddar and beer soup, which had a wan consistency. It was so heavily infused with beer that I could detect the aroma from across the table, and it overpowered the rest of the ingredients. The "smashed" potatoes were a more healthful version; they tasted fine, but if you prefer the richer, whipped type, I would skip them.
In addition to our plentiful main courses, we couldn't resist ordering the vanilla bar that we saw being whisked to another table. It's essentially an uber ice cream sandwich easily shared among four. Two giant, homemade chocolate chip cookies surround vanilla ice cream, and are topped with whipped cream and hot fudge.
Though this easily satisfied my sweet tooth, the cookies were so hard that we had to use our fork as a chisel to get a bite, and that caused the sandwich to fall apart. Still, this is a minor quibble. It was worth the effort.
Blue Tractor is the kind of place that shows you a good time. When we headed there, the atmosphere was festive, with many lining the seats of the bar, choosing among the three permanent beers and three rotating beers, brewed on the premises. This convivial atmosphere, combined with the generally outstanding hearty food, made it clear to me why it's so popular.