By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
It's good to be at the top of the food chain.
I get letters all the time from diehard vegetarians who don't want to see animals killed for meat--but who delight in describing my impending demise in less than humane ways. And some of these letter-writers are quite articulate, such as the guy who recently wrote, "You're always eating the mothers and fathers of tomorrow."
Still, more catchy sayings have been created in defense of meat-eating than in favor of vegetarianism. Even Gandhi once wrote, "I have known many meat eaters to be far more non-violent than vegetarians." Then there's my personal favorite, the author of which was no doubt a devout carnivore: "If God wanted us to be vegetarians, then why did he make animals out of meat?"
And why did he make the meat taste so good?
Surely there must have been some divine intervention leading to the heavenly bones at Smokey's Bar-B-Que. This is a way-out-of-the-way spot to the west of Pecos on 64th Avenue, in a sparsely occupied residential area that doesn't look like it could possibly be home to a barbecue joint.
In fact, Smokey's occupies one of those houses, which used to be the owners' home. After years of weekend family barbecues, Kansas-born Ron Hein, who at the time worked for Coors Brewing Company, and his wife, Ida, a Denver native, decided to open their own barbecue place in 1969. The original Smokey's was in the garage, but the family soon moved out and turned the entire house over to the business. Now it has a comfy outdoor deck, a fifty-seat dining room open at lunch, and a thriving take-out area that's open all day. (Smokey's is closed on weekends, and be warned: No credit cards or checks are accepted, and only 3.2 beer is available.) Through the late Eighties, the family also franchised the Smokey's concept, so there were outposts in Greeley and Arvada, along with several in Denver. "But those people didn't take care of their businesses the way we do," says Ron and Ida's daughter Sharon. "They all closed one by one, so now there's just this one." The Heins have retired, and Sharon runs the business along with her sister, Sharlene Higgins, and their cousin Duane ("Just Duane," he says).
But the next generation has retained the Heins' tried-and-true recipes. Smokey's secret barbecue sauce is a thick concoction that's more heat than sweet, although the intensity varies depending on when a batch was made, since the fire burns out a bit after a few days. On our first visit, that sauce soaked almost to the bone of the whole smoked chicken ($16.95), sixteen pieces of chicken whose crisp skin carried the flavor of hickory chips. "We just use a commercial smoker," Sharon says. "The open pit takes too much monitoring of the temperature and too much work to keep it going."
The smoker obviously works just fine. The beef ribs ($7.95 for a three-piece dinner with one side and a roll, or $28.80 for twelve bones) were moist and appropriately chewy, with charred ends and a dearth of fat. And we pigged out on the pork spare ribs ($7.95 for a four-piece dinner with one side and a roll, or $28.80 for twenty bones). Although a few of the bones had some dry sides, the fatty ends more than made up for that, and the little end ribs were even better, all fat and greasy juice.
For really, really tender pieces of meat, the sandwiches are the way to go. We chowed down on the pulled pork ($2.95 for a small) and the turkey ($3.75 for a large), each bite dripping with that spicy sauce. Like the dinners, the sandwiches came with piles of excellent baked beans--which sported translucent bubbles of pork and more evidence of Smokey's remarkable balance between sweet and spicy--and sides of decent potato salad, the only thing the family doesn't make from scratch.
The Heins even make their own beef jerky (prices vary according to size). It's terrific, like a chewy, salty all-day sucker, pungent with smokiness. In fact, everything I sampled at Smokey's was so good that I've vowed to return for the whole smoked suckling pig; if it's anything like Sharon described it, hog heaven awaits a mere 64 blocks from downtown.
Or maybe it's over in Aurora, at We're Smokin' Barbecue. This no-frills eatery at the end of a strip mall also hickory-smokes its meats, then slathers them with either a killer hot-hot sauce or a well-balanced sweet-and-heat sauce. That gentler creation is a blend of owner Bob Hovenden's college days--when he worked with his roommate's father, a pitmaster, at a St. Louis barbecue joint--and a little bit of his wife's San Antonio heritage.
Three years ago Hovenden gave up a 26-year career as a counselor to start a mobile rib joint in Conifer. But after two years of that, he decided to put down some roots. "There was another guy doing a mobile unit up there," he explains. "And he had them twenty or thirty deep lining up to get his ribs. And his ribs were terrible. Every time I saw that, I kept thinking, 'I could do that, and I could do it better.'"