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Bite Me

Man About Town

While out wandering a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the Bugling Bull Trading Post out on Highway 67, west of Sedalia, where I had one of the best orders of country-style ribs of my young life. Granted, I wasn't looking for ribs: I'd muscled the car off the road because I'd seen a hand-lettered sign saying the Bugling Bull was grilling brats and burgers as a weekend special, offering them up along with the canned goods, cold Cokes, fly kits, bug spray, radiator fluid and other esoteric sundries of a proper back-road pull-through. But as soon as I spotted the box smoker set up in the dirt parking lot, the outdoor grill, the lanky fella with tongs in his hand and the ranked bottles of mysterious, unlabeled sauces, I figured a burger was the least of the good things going on.

"Yeah, we got burgers," said the man behind the counter. "Dogs, some brats. And we're doing ribs. Baby backs and country style." He then proceeded to explain to my wife the difference between the two by (somewhat disturbingly) pointing out on his own anatomy where the two cuts would have come from if he were a pig. At least, that's what I hope he was doing. Come to think of it, I never did specifically ask if those were pork ribs on the grill.

No matter. I knew I was in the presence of a competent pit man at my first sniff of the deep, rich, woody clouds coming out of the smoker, and thought that maybe -- just maybe -- he could be a great one when I saw the scorched foil of a couple dozen brick-like packages banked up tight against the back of the grill. And when I cut into my first rib with a plastic knife and fork, peeled the meat back from the bone and popped it in my mouth, I knew the man was a genius. The rib was just plain porkerific -- kinda light and hot-doggy-tasting close to the bone, thick and dense at the tips; the meat chewy-tender, lined in beautiful pinks and grays from the smoker, then doused with just enough home-brewed mystery sauce to give it a lingering, sweet-hot sting.

Granted, a lot of the ribs' goodness was situational. There was the pleasant surprise of blundering on the Bugling Bull in the first place, the pure joy of standing on the porch in the summer sun talking with the locals, bathed in fragrant smoke while my order was drawn, sauced and wrapped up picnic style. And then there was the eating, which I did mostly with my fingers, sitting cross-legged on the hood of our car parked off in the quiet of a nearby pine wood.

I've had a lot of good meals in my time, but this one was a different sort of perfect -- a meal I never would have found had I been looking for it, a discovery that was equal parts luck and circumstance. Which just goes to show, you never really know where you're going to find the truly great meals of your life. They're often in the last place you'd expect -- and almost never in a place that requires reservations.

Turn the page: Speaking of great meals, I had one a few months back at the Fourth Story ("Another Story," June 3) while checking out the stylings of new chef Christopher Reap. But now the restaurant above the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek has dumped Reap and is beating the bushes for a new top dog.

"We have an incredibly strong, tight kitchen, and things are going well here," said general manager Teri Hanifen when I got her on the blower last week. But when I asked what happened with Reap, she was somewhat less than forthcoming. "We really don't talk about personnel issues like that," she replied, then reiterated how strong her team was, how on-course the kitchen was and how everything is the same.

Except, of course, that the one and only Fourth Story chef who's ever served me a great meal is gone. But whatever. If that restaurant's crew is used to anything, it's change. The Fourth Story has gone through a chef a year on average since opening and has had its fair share of shakeups and breakdowns over the years. "A lot of the changes we've made have been internal, and most of the chefs we've worked with have been great," she said. "Every single person who has left the Fourth Story, we've been very supportive of what they've gone on to do. Great chefs are like artists, and we've learned something from everyone who's worked here. So we've never viewed [the staff changes] as a negative. It's always been positive for us."

And, in fact, Hanifen just put in her notice, as well. She's planning to hand over the reins of the Fourth to Jerry Payne, assistant general manager and sommelier, in a couple of weeks. So while the crew left in the Fourth Story's galley soldiers on, restaurant managers are in the early stages of picking chef number seven or eight (depending on how your scorecard works) to man the burners. Once the new top toque is chosen, there will be another menu change, another period of breaking in, and -- at some point -- yet another visit to the Fourth Story by yours truly so that I can see for myself how things are going high above Cherry Creek.

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