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Imagine that you're a restaurateur who's just been handed a million dollars. A little more than that, actually, but for the sake of nice, round numbers, I'll call it a million. You've got a big, fat check in your hand, ink still wet on all those zeros. What do you do with that kind of green? How do you spend it?
2000 E. 28th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
Small ends: $13.69
Fried shrimp: $11.59
Peach cobbler: $3.79
Pound cake: $3.79
Go ahead and think about it for a minute. I'll wait...
So what did you come up with? Something good, I hope. In a market like Denver's, a million bucks is still a powerful chunk of change. Not quite enough to put you in the stratosphere, but an admirable number. Brasserie Rouge, Indigo and Vega, fine houses all, came in under seven figures. Adega got open with resources in that vicinity. And while it took quite a bit more to outfit Zengo, New York money was involved there, and in New York, they're used to playing with really big bills. The way things stand in town right now, with a million bucks, a smart fella could lease, stock, outfit and open a restaurant in just about any neighborhood, buy himself a flash Ferrari to get to and from work, and still have enough left over for the kitchen to garnish plates with crisp tens and twenties.
So when I heard that Mack and Daisy Shead had gotten a million-dollar loan from the city just for renovations (fiscal as well as physical) to their 26-year-old rib joint, my first thought was that M&D's Cafehad better reopen with gold-plated toilets and wallpaper made from thousand-dollar bills -- because otherwise, where would the money go? With that kind of cabbage, I figured, they could knock down the old place, build a whole new restaurant on the ashes of the first, knock that one down just for fun, then build another and still come in with cash to spare.
But after talking with Bill Lysaught at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, the agency empowered to loan such big whacks of federal loot to businesses, like M&D's, that operate in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, I had another thought. I realized that if barbecue is what you do, and if you've got someone willing to pony up the pesos, why not build the city's most expensive rib shack? The idea of it appealed to the excessive sensualist in me, whetting my appetite, and I couldn't wait to taste what that sort of investment would buy.
But, of course, then I had to wait. And wait some more. M&D's was locked up tight for months while all those digits were transmogrified into a new kitchen, a new patio, a new dining room, a new expansion, a new everything. I had to bide my time while that money worked its transformative will on the space, wrapping a modern restaurant around the venerable bones of the old.
M&D's finally debuted the result last fall. And what did the city get for its investment? Exactly what it had, only more. The new M&D's is the Lee-goddamn-Majors of the smoked-meat set: bigger, better, stronger and faster than it was before. It's the home of the million-dollar barbecue.
Among Denver's restaurant elite, there are only two places that require a gentleman to wear a jacket to dine: the Russian Palace and the Palace Arms at the Brown. But these days, a jacket wouldn't seem out of place at M&D's, either. When I rolled in on a Friday night in my best blue jeans and Tijuana party shirt, I felt somewhat underdressed next to the guy in the black silk button-down, custom-tailored electric-lime sport coat and the stack-heeled green-and-orange-snakeskin rodeo kicks. He had his best girl with him, looking catwalk-poised in a juke-joint dress and dancing shoes. This was a couple ready for a night out, and I watched as they devoured barbecued chicken, hot links and baked beans without getting a drop on their clothes. Me? I ran through a whole stack of napkins and still ended up with barbecue sauce in my hair.
The entire place -- tight-packed dining room with its high-backed booths, the crowded waiting area, the bar (lemonade, but no liquor) and the front room -- had a vibe like midnight at a fashion-show after-party. Everything was smiles and great music, with P-Funk and Stevie Wonder filling the space with memories of the days when M&D's had the best jukebox in town and the staff flowing between tables and customers like water.
And the smell? Nothing on earth has a smell like a barbecue joint going full-out on a busy night. Indian restaurants smell exotic, Italian kitchens like hunger. To me, French restaurants and bakeries smell like home. But no other smell carries with it such a freight of comfort and joy as this dirty-clean odor of sweet heat and wood smoke, peppery sighs, perfume, tomatoes and meat. There's the dank stink of fryer oil and fish, low notes like peat and bogwater, and if you close your eyes, it wraps around you like brown-sugar kisses and a smothering embrace. I know why they call this stuff soul food: There's life in just a breath of it.
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