Neal Rubin: The key to BBQ (and everything else) is passion
Before he started making barbecue, Arkan Karana pondered it.
He considered seasonings and cuts of meat. Combinations. Temperatures. Techniques.
Then he pondered some more.
He wasn’t marking a calendar, but he’s thinking he thought about barbecue for seven or eight years.
Finally, in 2010, he bought some spices and his first slab of ribs.
“By the time I made ‘em,” Karana says, “I had confidence.”
Now, six years later, he has passion, which he’ll tell you is the most important thing of all.
It’s probably even more important than customers, which he also has.
Karana, 42, owns Arkin’s Sweet BBQ Pit in Southfield. Yes, Arkin’s, at arkinsbbq.com; his name is Arkan, but everyone calls him Arkin, so he went with it.
He used to have a liquor store in Taylor, but that was just a business, not a calling. Since December, he’s been spending seven joyous days a week in a storefront on Southfield Road, north of 12 Mile, between a Jet’s Pizza and a Starbucks.
The restaurant is closed Monday, but he drives in from West Bloomfield anyway, scrubbing and prepping for the next six days.
Otherwise, he’s behind the counter, personally slicing brisket or pulling pork or making cheesecake. He’s in back, dry-rubbing the St. Louis ribs. Or he’s dropping by the tables, asking how everything is.
Granted, there are only four tables to visit, but he’s clearly interested in the answers. This is someone who is asked for a menu and instead, on a bustling Saturday mid-afternoon, grabs a tray of redolent ribs.
“Sweetheart!” he says. “You don’t have to look at the menu. Look at these!”
Andrea Turner of Oak Park is sold. A carryout customer, as is typical, she orders a dinner with two sides of collard greens – “the best you’ve ever tasted,” Karana promises.
“Coming out from around there and talking to me,” Turner says, “that means a lot.” The sample forkful of greens helped, too.
“Passion,” Arkan says. “You’ve got to have heart and passion to do this.”
Restaurants in his blood
Strong arms help, too. Lugging, chopping, stoking the big smoker with hardwood from the racks along the front wall.
He’s a burly figure, with a net over his short black hair and an apron over his black Arkin’s T-shirt.
“Look here,” he says, and he proudly opens the door to the smoker to show off the chicken and the sausage and the rest of it that make the whole room smell exactly the way you’d expect, which is knee-buckling.
Karana never came across a meat smoker when he was a kid, probably because he grew up in Baghdad.
His dad owned restaurants and he started working in them when he was 12, but they were Middle Eastern, like hordes of others.
Karana was 20 when he moved to the U.S. and he found the opportunities he’d hoped for. Nothing, though, lit his fire like barbecue.
“You don’t need that much,” he tells a man in a gray tam o’shanter.
The man wants four large side orders of baked beans for himself and three guests.
“These are 12 ounces,” Karana says, holding out an empty container. “I’m glad to sell it to you, but that’s a lot.”
‘You can do anything’
He’s talking about the side dishes again — “Nothing canned here. All homemade” — when David Perkins walks in for a hello and a hug.
Perkins will leave empty-handed; Lent has put a crimp in his family’s dining habits. Speaking just as David, he says, and not as a 36th District Court judge, “it’s killing me.”
Perkins and his wife served Arkin’s BBQ at their Christmas brunch, he says, “and people were asking, ‘Where’d you get this brisket?’”
They didn’t believe the answer: from a Chaldean immigrant who thought about barbecue for longer than he’s been making it.
“If you love people,” Karana says, “you can do anything you want.”
He says it, of course, with passion.