(Grand Rapids, MI) For years now, we’ve been meaning to visit Sandmann’s down on Wealthy but, for one reason or another, just never got around to it. Other friends warned us away, citing it wasn’t as good as it used to be, before they moved locations. Still, we both love BBQ and knew it would only be matter of time before we visited...

He Fed:
One thing I love about Wealthy Street is the abundance of street parking. That comes in handy because snow still chokes most of the parking lots, not to mention some jackass is blocking the driveway into Sandmann’s. We snag a street spot close by, however, and head inside.

Looking like a quick-change lube joint forged in yellow brick painted white, Sandmann’s is small, with only two high-top tables and 4 stools. There is low bench-style seating around the walls, though. A rambling menu is posted on the wall next to the ordering window. An enticing aura of smoky meat wafts from the kitchen in back. We peruse the offerings and are soon joined by our friends, JB and DB. More consideration takes place, then we are ready to order. Our friendly attendant jots down our items, then suggests we can save a little money by getting the Family Meal Deal. Nice to have someone watching out for us!

While awaiting our food, we slap the two tables together and jaw-jack while sipping drinks (Diets all around, except Sweet Tea for me). More people start to come in until there is quite the late Saturday lunch crowd. If it were summer, these patrons might have carried their BBQ outside to the picnic tables...but said picnic tables are now piled atop each other, near-buried in snow. Still, one or two sit on the bench seats inside and enjoy their lunch, while most take it home. It’s then I notice there is no station for silverware, napkins, or other accompaniments. This is meant to be take-away. No matter; we are brave and hardy Michiganders who will not blanch in the face of adversity. We will eat here.

About 15 minutes later, our food comes out in plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. We bust them open and lay them out, digging in. I immediately go for the ribs. They are monstrous pork spare ribs (no baby backs on the menu, nor pulled pork) with tons of sauce. My first bite is sweet, with just a touch of molasses, and then the smoke oozes out of the meat. I’m not keen on spare ribs because they contain a fair amount of fat and those gristly bone nodules, but with a little spelunking there is plenty of meat to be had. And it is all good. I’ve had better ribs and better sauce—hell, I’ve MADE better ribs in the oven—but these are solid and I certainly wouldn’t turn them down.

I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t at least try the Gizzards. They seem to be little elongated bites of gristle, coated in flour and spices, then deep-fried. That pretty much sums it up. I crunch into a couple of them, chomping away, savoring the taste but recoiling slightly from the texture. You have to work at them. Not bad, but nothing I’d go out of my way to seek. Next up is the Catfish Nuggets, which are more like gently folded cuts of fish, lightly breaded and fried. They are more delicate than they appear and the odor is mild, though a bit dirty (from the skin, Juliet surmises). I like them, though I would have preferred some kind of dipping sauce...mustard or aioli. Same holds true for the fried Okra; they are crunchy bits of deep-fried veggie that would be improved with some sauce.

I would argue the Jumbo Chicken Wings need ranch or blue cheese sauce too, though others at the table seem content with just the crispy skin. There is no room for improvement, however, with the BBQ covered Half Chicken. It is moist, succulent, and slathered with sweet sauce. At this point, I am picking through the bones in search of more meat like a cannibal on holiday. Although the online menu proclaims the potato salad is homemade, I have my doubts. It, and the coleslaw, tastes exactly like it came from a Gordon Food Service tub.

In the beginning, I had high hopes to try the sweet potato pie. In the end, there is no chance. I am totally stuffed. Most of the dishes are solid and hit the spot when you’re in the mood for a lot of BBQ. I wouldn’t mind swinging by on Soul Food Sunday to try out some of their more varied seasonal items like Chitterlings and Blackeyed Peas. Until then, I’ll stick to my time-tested recipe for oven-roasted baby backs.
She Fed:
I'm only slightly hungry as we walk through Sandmann's door but when the aroma of smoke, charred meats, and barbeque sauce envelops me, I am suddenly famished. We're a few minutes early and I wonder if it would be rude to order a few chicken wings while we wait for our friends. The smells floating out of the kitchen are absolutely amazing and my hunger rapidly grows. Once JB and DB arrive, we game plan and order a mess of food to share.

As the wall-mounted menu promises, the chicken wings are indeed jumbo. They're very lightly coated in seasoned flour and deep-fried. A couple of these would be a meal all on their own. The chicken is tender and juicy and the breading is crispy. I am loving these wings and consider ordering a second batch just to take home for nibbling on later.

The coleslaw is standard—shredded green and purple cabbage with carrots in an overly-sweet white sauce. Someone suggests it's probably from Gordon Food Service and I realize I had the exact same slaw the day before with lunch at a Cascade restaurant. It was identical which disappoints me at a place like Sandmann's, known for down home "from scratch" cooking. I avoid the potato salad, assuming it's store-bought as well, though I later see it's called "homemade" on their website.

Like the chicken wings, the catfish nuggets are lightly breaded which lets the fish really shine through. A few pieces taste a little overly fishy to me, but the rest of the nuggets I eat are clean tasting. And I discover that dipping them in the sweet barbeque sauce is a nice treat too.

The ribs are gigantic planks of porkalicious heaven and are my favorite dish of the day (followed very closely by those jumbo wings). These big meaty ribs have been smoked, then grilled, and finally mopped in the barbeque sauce. The meat is flavorful and tender and there's lots of it on the rib I have. Jeremy mentions something about them being kind of fatty, but I always expect ribs to be fatty. After all, isn't that what causes all the smoke on the grill and all the juicy flavor in the meat? That's why you only eat ribs once in a great while, because they're so incredibly rich and fatty.

I move on to the chicken, which has also been smoked, grilled to crisp up the skin, and slathered in sauce. I just can't think of anything tastier than smoked chicken and this one reminds me of the beer-butt chickens I used to cook when we lived in the 'burbs. The meat is packed with flavor and incredibly juicy which is such a treat with breast meat. I would like to eat the entire piece of chicken, but have hit "critical mass" with all the 'que.

The barbeque sauce is very good and there's plenty of it on the ribs and chicken. I tend to like sauces termed "sweet and sassy," which Sandmann's is, as opposed to "hot and spicy" or "tangy and tart." I think barbeque sauce is quite a personal thing though and I can't name a single sauce that would appeal to everyone. I find it easier to pick out wine for a dinner party than barbeque sauce for a cookout because it's such a hot button for some people. I've seen grown men debate the merits of their favorite sauce, homemade or jarred, with all the ardor and conviction of a political debate on Face the Nation. I'm not really all that passionate about barbeque sauce so I'll admit right here that I love several varieties of Sweet Baby Ray's and Stubb's. In my opinion Sandmann's holds its own against those commercial varieties.

I am a little disappointed at the lack of Southern sides I assumed would be on the menu. Where's the baked macaroni and cheese, smothered green beans, collard greens, and black eyed peas? What about homemade cornbread? How great it would be to mop up some of that sauce with a warm wedge of cornbread. Turns out Sandmann's has Soul Food Sundays from 12 noon to 6 pm featuring many of these items. I knew I'd be back the moment my nose got a good whiff of the place and now I know it will be on a Sunday.

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