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Slow-smoked, finger-licking barbecue in Niles

This past weekend was the Hunter Ice Festival in Niles, Mich. Three days of ice carving, kids activities and a chili crawl, among other things. It’s always great to stroll through your hometown and see people enjoying the outdoors, the ice sculptures and each other.

But I went for the barbecue.

People are passionate about their barbecue. What type of wood to use; how long to smoke it; and the choice between dry rub, vinegar-based sauce, or that thick, sweet sauce that clings to your barbecue of choice and makes you lick your fingers before you can even contemplate grabbing a napkin.

It’s all an art form. I tend to be a fan of the smoked, rubbed and vinegar-based sauce variety because I like a little bite and a little heat.

Fortunately for me, Jim Morris of Jim’s Smokin’ Café in Niles  also loves barbecue. He left the car sales business to chase down his dream of having a little barbecue joint. (It’s tucked away inside Wonderland Cinema at 402 N. Front St. in Niles — look for the smoker!)

To be perfectly honest, I would drive a great distance for his baked beans alone. Bourbon and molasses? Yes, please. It just so happens that the beans are vegan. Jim had a bunch of requests for pork free beans and he obliged his fan base.

Plus, he makes a crispy slaw that is vinegar based, a pasta salad and, on occasion, a black bean and corn salad (all without animal products). I do not have enough space to discuss the beans…it might just be an ode to beans, and that is a different article.

But back to the barbecue. You’re probably asking, “What barbecue can a vegan eat?” Well, it’s a fair question. On this day, I had an incredibly delicious smoked portobello mushroom cap on a soft bun, topped with slaw and sauce made in house. Yes, he is making his own sauce over there — an assortment of sauces, actually.

So the awesome thing about this sandwich is that it is smoky, hearty and requires two hands. I like that in a sandwich. You need some napkins handy.

To be fair, if you want to get your hands on this bad boy you may need to send a Facebook message a day or two ahead and mention you are vegan and heading that way. I mean, how many vegans are wandering the streets of Niles looking for barbecue?

But that’s not all. I had a side of those awesome baked beans and couldn’t resist ordering the chili, too (I was hungry). It was meatless (vegan). It was spicy with an incredible depth of flavor. My omnivore dad was also eating that chili and looking real happy about it. It was a very savory dish. I got some to go, too. That is an item that rotates with other soups/chilis, so check for it before you head over.

What I like best about this place is that it is owner operated and he is happy to accommodate his customers. When he found out I was vegan, he took the time to get familiar with what that entails and then even went so far as to ask if I had any suggestions (cue the angels singing). He knows how to accommodate the gluten-free diners out there, too.

While the menu is limited by design, he is flexible, the food is consistently good and it is a bargain price, in my humble opinion.

For more tips on dining vegan in Michiana from Crystal Hallwood and her co-blogger Rama Ganesan, subscribe to the Vegan at the Bend email newsletter.

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