On a Friday afternoon, a customer walks up to the register at Mike’s BBQ.
“How you doing?” he asks. “Got anything left?”
Technically, Mike’s BBQ isn’t set to close for another 45 minutes. But at Mike’s, Eater Philly’s Casual Restaurant of the Year, it’s not a ridiculous question. The no-frills barbecue joint often sells out before closing time.
Sometimes, the small kitchen staff can make it to 6 p.m. without running out of smoked ribs or crispy pork belly. But it doesn’t happen often, according to owner Michael Strauss.
“On the weekends, never,” Strauss adds.
The restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday from noon until the food is gone, and long lines of hungry customers are guaranteed on Saturdays and Sundays — which is why the staff started handing out free beer.
“Because I feel bad!” Strauss says. “If someone’s standing with a beer in their hand, and they’re waiting, then they’re...” He trails off, distracted for a moment as a pile of glistening meat sails by on a bright red tray. “Those are short ribs,” he points out.
Strauss whips up specials using whatever he has — wrapping ribs in mozzarella, throwing kimchi into a smoked chicken cheesesteak, stuffing mac and cheese balls with pork. In one day, the menu can showcase ribs deep-fried in panko, a sandwich named after Flyers’ mascot Gritty, and an elaborately crafted Korean-style barbecue sauce.
”It has like 50 ingredients, right, Rob? That’s why I hate making it. Like, Rob, you make it,” Strauss laughs, as Rob Soto, who handles prep and front of house duties, pours a stream of white Franzia wine into the mixture.
The restaurant itself may be no frills, but Strauss and his staff cook like a team of scientists that got lost and stumbled into a smokehouse. The smoke rubs off: Chef Fred Muser says he was reminded of that when he was wandering through a CVS and the fire department showed up. There was no fire — just the fumes that follow Muser wherever he goes.
Mike’s BBQ opened in January 2018, but Strauss was experimenting with barbecue long before. He smoked meat at Taproom on 19th in South Philly’s Girard Estates neighborhood, where he’s a co-owner. Then came the pop-ups: Strauss began booking breweries and festivals, equipped with a Lang smoker he picked up in Georgia.
“It became a challenge,” Strauss says. “Like, ‘how can I make the perfect brisket?’”
“He’s like ‘oh, this would be a great barbecue place,’” Strauss remembers.
Strauss hadn’t been looking for a location, but he made a snap decision. The former barbacoa spot, in his words, had “a good qi.”
Mike’s BBQ doles out the essences of Texas and Carolina barbecue, along with flavors that are distinctly local. The long, firm-but-supple Carangi’s rolls are a reminder you’re not too far from Oregon Avenue.
And then there’s the brisket cheesesteak, a love child of Southern barbecue and Philadelphia’s most famous food.
First, pitmaster Josh Roeber rubs a mixture of kosher salt, coarse black pepper, cumin, onion, and garlic onto a slab of soon-to-be Texas-style brisket. To keep the spice rub close to the meat, some of the fat is cut away.
After years of experimentation, Strauss chooses to smoke the brisket around 10 hours, before letting it sit for four to five hours. The resting period allows the meat to retain its moisture, so once the brisket is finally sliced open, the juices don’t run. While it rests, the meat is wrapped to retain its color and prevent it from tasting too smoky.
Strauss whisks together a spruced-up whiz of Cooper Sharp and American cheeses and heavy cream. During busy hours, the mixture is slathered onto sandwiches with squeeze bottles.
Once the whiz and brisket are ready, Christina Pham assembles everything into the cheesesteak, one of the most popular items at Mike’s BBQ.
The brisket cheesesteak is on a Carangi’s long roll and sprinkled with sweet fried onions.
Meanwhile, Rob Soto slices potatoes for potato chips.
Fred Muser, a chef at Mike’s BBQ, estimated that the restaurant took 100 tickets on Friday, May 10 — probably a couple hundred guests, he said, all within a few hours.
To signal that a menu item is sold out for the day, Pham sticks tape over it. As it gets later in the day, she doodles a “sold out” sign to hang in the window. According to Strauss, that doesn’t always stop people from coming in, hopeful that there’s a little something left.
Cheesesteaks (and ribs and wings) sold, Strauss and crew get ready to wrap up — before it’s time to start it all again.
We’re publishing a story on each of the 2018 Eater Awards winners in Philly. Read about Restaurant of the Year Suraya, Chef of the Year Cristina Martinez, Empire Builders of the Year Michael Schulson and Nina Tinari, and Design of the Year winner Louie Louie.