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There are those barbecue fans who claim you can get the same flavor with an electric smoker that you can by burning charcoal (and most of the fans who claim this are purveyors of electric smokers). I disagree, as do many barbecue purists, including the owners of Smacks Cafe (see review above). Electric smokers may infuse the meat with the same amount of smoke from the chosen wood -- be it hickory, mesquite, apple, oak or, less popular in this area, cherry, alder or maple -- but what's missing is that little extra boost from charcoal, which adds its own distinct woody flavor.
333 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
Louis Wolfe, for example, uses charcoal and hickory to smoke the heck out of the ribs and brisket he serves at Wolfe's Barbecue, located at 333 East Colfax Avenue. "The guys who sell those electric things will say that a calorie of heat is a calorie of heat," he says. "And it is a lot easier to use the electric boxes with sawdust, but I think there's a difference, and that's how I've done it since day one."
Day one was almost sixteen years ago, when Wolfe decided to open his own barbecue joint. "It was the most frightening thing I'd ever done," remembers Wolfe, who moved to Denver in 1971 from Kansas, where his dad had taught him barbecue. "Up until I opened this place, I'd never even been so much as a busboy, and nothing from my nine years of working for the state as a bureaucrat helped. But I had turned forty, and that's when you make the big changes." But he's never changed one thing: Wolfe's started small, and it's stayed small -- which is part of the reason it's been successful, he says. Wolfe's is a one-man operation, and Wolfe himself looks like the culinary equivalent of a one-man band, with a headset telephone hooked to a base on his belt, a pair of tongs in one hand and a spoon in the other. "Maybe when I had my arm in a sling, I had some help from friends," he acknowledges. "But other than the first few months when I opened, it's just been me."
Just him, and the dozens of people who crowd into the place at lunch and dinner (Tuesday through Saturday) to grab takeout or fight for one of the few tables in the sparse eatery, waiting -- sometimes a long time -- for food and watching the passing parade of Colfax out the front window.
Still, Wolfe's is a bare-bones operation in terms of employees and decor only. The ribs ($7.39) are plenty meaty and come coated with a thick, hickory-smoky, molasses-sweet sauce that's packed with flavor and available mild or hot (better described as perky, since it's not very hot at all). Although occasionally the ribs can be dry, as though they've been hanging around a while (one-man operations do have their drawbacks), usually they're an ideal texture midway between tender and chewy. The brisket is always tender, though; order it chopped rather than sliced, because not only is chopped cheaper ($5.49 instead of $6.49), but it carries extra flavor after being slow-simmered in the sauce.
You can also try the sauce on barbecued tofu ($5.49), a Wolfe invention that involves smoking strips of firm tofu just like meat. "I've kind of made my reputation on the tofu, of all things," Wolfe says. "I started doing them when some friends were helping me paint the restaurant when it first opened, and some of them were vegetarian. They kept asking me what I was going to do for them. I sort of owed them, you know, so that's what I came up with. I can't believe how popular they've been."
But there are other reasons for Wolfe's popularity. As at Smacks, no dinner costs more than $7.50, and portions are generous. Wolfe's also gives you two sides, chosen from a selection that can include a mustardy homemade potato salad; very smoky, very thick baked beans (there's a flavorful vegetarian version, too); a sweet, raisin-studded, shredded-carrot salad; a simple fruit salad; and a vinegar-soaked coleslaw. And then there are Wolfe's desserts, one of which he doesn't even want mentioned because it requires a "song and dance to make," and he doesn't want to make too many.
For the little guy, Wolfe explains, for the guy who started small and stayed small, too much publicity can be a bad thing. "I don't want to sound as though I don't appreciate the business, because I do," he says. "But on the other hand, can't we do something where we have people with last names starting with A through M come tonight, and the rest of them come tomorrow night? It's only me, remember."
Well, him and that charcoal smoker.
United we stand: I recently ate some decent barbecue on a United Airlines flight, of all places. I also enjoyed excellent service from flight attendant Tony Contreras, who went the extra mile for little ol' infrequent-flier me after I discovered that the standard meal that day came covered with dreaded dill, to which I'm allergic. Contreras hastily tracked down the ribs alternative -- and a tasty alternative they were, with a rather vinegary but still sweet sauce blanketing a boneless short rib. Interestingly, a piece in the airline's Hemispheres magazine, written by Chicago Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno and focusing on restaurant service, quickly made it clear that Denver isn't the only town currently in service hell. "The basic fact is that the depth of the labor pool is getting pretty shallow," Bruno writes. If Contreras ever decides to give up the sky for a ground gig, someone should snatch him up, quick.
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