Five years ago, while on assignment for Sunset magazine, I went hog wild and cattle crazy, prowling the plains and prairies of Colorado for the state’s best barbecue. It was a dizzying trail hunt that took me from the high altitude of Durango to the flatlands of Strasburg searching out sauces and spice rubs, meaty ribs and slow-cooked pork, Kansas City and the Carolinas, vinegar and molasses, cultural lexicons and sacred secrets.
My educational romp was a testament to the fact that while barbecue is as American as Elvis Presley, wagon wheels, paper plates and flip flops, the pride and patriotism that swells in the souls of the self-proclaimed barbecue kings who smoke, slice and sauce your meat is more passionate than locking lips with your first flame.
Embarking, yet again, on my second barbecue quest – this time closer to my own backyard smoker – I visited familiar homely haunts with flimsy screen doors and a deep affinity for tradition, modern new joints trying to outgun their legendary counterparts (with little success) and everywhere in between. While Denver and its outlying suburbs aren’t on anyone’s list of the country’s top bona fide BBQ capitals (for those, you’ll need to hit up the heart of Texas, the Carolinas, Kansas City and Memphis, y’all), there are plenty of pits wafting with smoke and fire that have hit their strides.
The following five barbecue hook-ups are worthy of wearing your dinner on your face.
Cabin Creek Smokehouse: 25997 Conifer Rd., Conifer, 80433; 303-838-0375; cabin-creek-smokehouse-barbeque.com
It’s so unbelievably busy that you can’t fathom why on earth the owners don’t expand. The seats number fewer than a half dozen, which means you’ll need to aggressively stake out your stool, and it’s in Aspen Park, so forget about whatever plans you have for the day, because it will take that long and then some just to get here and back. Is it worth the pilgrimage? Indeed. The kitchen turns out terrific Texas brisket, stupefyingly good Southern-style pulled pork, spicy Polish sausage links the size of baseball bats and finger-licking ribs that will linger in your collective culinary memory until you’ve been branded for your addiction.
The Rib House: 1920 S. Coffman St., Longmont, 80504; 303-485-6988; theribhouse.com
Well before Prospect New Town, Longmont’s kitschy hub of highfalutin’ home-dwellers, people were hot on the barbecue trail of this squadron of smoke, a down-home Kansas City-style joint where you can hunker down on the sprawling, umbrella-shaded patio and pig out (and beef up) on hedonistically good hickory-smoked meats. The baby-back ribs, smoked for 24 hours and rubbed with an onslaught of paprika, garlic, sugar and a whole slew of other rousing seasonings, steal the show, although the pink-flushed shreds of pulled pork, creamy, cheesy corn bake and delicious carrot cake are all indicative of a joint that takes pride in its pickings.
Brickyard BBQ: 4243 W. 38th Ave., Denver, 80212; 303-561-4875; brickyardbbq.com
Huddled squarely in-between Highland and Berkeley Park, a gentrified neighborhood swelling with watering holes, ethnic joints and white-tablecloth dining dens, Brickyard BBQ stands out. It’s not just about its unabashedly Americana red-and-white checkered tables and racy red wall scribed with accolades from devoted regulars. Rather, it’s about the indelible Kansas City-influenced barbecue, most notably the irresistible burnt ends – crusty-edged pork wet-mopped in a simultaneously sweet and spicy sauce that requires a bib if you’re prone to drooling. The pit-masters also turn out excellent brisket, tender as a whisper, sausage links and chicken, and where else, but here, can you wash down your barbecue with cherry Kool-Aid?
Jabo’s Bar-Be-Q: 9682 E. Arapahoe Rd., Englewood, 80112; 303-799-4432
-When you’re in the mood to fire up the smokestack, head to this unassuming spot in a Greenwood Village mall for barbecue king Jabo Lawson’s take on Texas barbecue. Lawson, who originally smoked his meats in a parking lot before the crowds begged and pleaded with him to move his operation inside, is also a master of meat-slicking sauces, of which there are infinite possibilities, including sauces spiked with fruit, habanero peppers and whatever else might be rolling around in his head. All of the meats – big bites of brisket, jolting Polish sausage, tender pork shoulder and pork ribs – are smoked entirely with wood and pair perfectly with the sweet potato fries. For a sustaining sugar high, don’t ignore the pudgy scones swiped with soft butter-scented with honey.
Yazoo Barbecue Company: 2150 Broadway, Denver, 80205; 303-296-3334; second location at 9555 E. Arapahoe Rd. Greenwood Village, 80112; 303-792-9500; yazoobbq.com
Don Hines, a one-man smoker, stoker and rib tickler who hails from the Deep South, doesn’t mess with down-home tradition. Born and bred in Mississippi, the serious pit chief, whose Web site warns that “all Yazoo meat items can fend for themselves in taste, but we let you add different barbecue sauces,” would clearly prefer that you dirty up your face on his dry-rubbed pork ribs and sausage links sans sauce, which is just fine and Yankee Doodle Dandy, considering that the meats are gloriously good without an ounce of smear or slather. Hines uses a duo of pecan and hickory wood to delicately smoke his meats, the results of which deliver on the promise of great barbecue served in a low-rent, community-friendly shack.
Lori Midson, restaurant critic for Colorado Avid Golfer (coloradoavidgolfer.com), lives in Denver and writes for a variety of publications.