By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Ronald and Louella came to Denver from Louisiana, which explains why their barbecue joint also serves frog legs, alligator, boudin sausage and okra gumbo. Ronald was a carpet installer for years, working with a crew and getting his culinary training by cooking for them. He cooked on weekends. He cooked on holidays. He cooked for everyone he knew. He would do barbecue, smoke turkeys, bring macaroni and cheese (the best macaroni and cheese I've had in town) and butter beans and pots of gumbo for the guys. And while that old saw about the restaurant business -- the one in which someone is a real good home cook, lets his friends talk him into opening a restaurant, then goes broke fast after he realizes that cooking for a party once in a while and actually cooking for paying crowds every night are two very different things -- generally ends tragically, the story of Brooks Smokehouse may yet be the exception to the rule. Ronald and Louella have been operating their place for about six months, and Louella told me they're doing fine. Ronald told me he's thinking of expanding. They'd already sold out of a few things -- the rice dressing, the potato salad -- when Laura and I showed up, and while Ronald might have been the greatest carpet installer Denver ever saw, that no longer matters. Because he's a better cook and pit man. A genius. A maestro of meat, smoke and fire.
Even though Laura isn't quite as nuts for barbecue as I am, I married her anyway, because she has other charms. She's pretty, for starters (which I am not), she's smarter than me, and she was once thrown out of Tijuana for creating a public disturbance, which -- if you know anything about Tijuana -- is no small feat. But our differences of opinion on barbecue are actually fortunate, because when I drag her along to joints like Brooks, I don't have to share. Matter of fact, I can make an impressive display of gentlemanly conduct just by offering her the first bite of the biggest, juiciest rib on the plate, knowing full well that she will turn it down, leaving me to tear into it myself like a total pig and her feeling included in my life.
Manners. That's what keeps marriages together, folks.
Chopped pork sandwich: $5.50
Link sandwich: $3.59
Barbecue ribs: $9< br>Pork: $8.50
Crawfish étouffée: $9.50
Frog legs: $5
Hamburger plate: $6
Baked beans: $3
Macaroni and cheese: $3
Laura ordered a hamburger plate this time -- six bucks for a burger served (properly) on a grocery-store bun with all the necessary fixings (mustard, onions and pickles), plus a side of mixed veggies out of a can and a piece of macaroni-and-cheese casserole that was dense and cheesy and perfect. It had been cut out of the pan in a lovely little square, and even though it was still warm from the oven, you could pick the whole thing up with your fingers and take a bite.
Rather, you could do that if you're an uncultured boob who's best not brought out in public, even to a restaurant in someone's garage -- which is what I am when under the influence of good barbecue. And anyway, all my silverware was otherwise occupied. I had my fork stuck in a bowl of brown-sugar-sweet baked beans studded with chewy bits of pork fat and big pieces of crunchy, thick-cut bacon; my spoon in another bowl of white rice that Louella had brought to go along with my spicy, red-crawfish étouffée, and Laura's spoon in the étouffée itself, which was hot and packed with big chunks of real crawfish and stewed tomatoes. My knife I was keeping close at hand, in case anyone snuck in and tried to touch my barbecue.
Over the course of my visits to Brooks, I ate every variety of barbecue offered except the beef -- which, for my own reasons, I think of as less a necessary barbecue meat than something you turn to when you've eaten all the pigs. I had sliced, smoked pork that was a little dry on its own, but excellent when dipped in the Brooks family's own secret-recipe, sweet-sweet Southern-style barbecue sauce (available for purchase if you ask nice) and drippy, gooey and delicious when chopped up for a pork barbecue sandwich. (Ronald serves everything off the smoker save the barbecue sandwiches with sauce on the side, which is the due conceit of a master pit-man who knows that his smoked meats are so good on their own that a sauce can only detract from their naked wonderfulness.) I had chicken legs and chicken breasts, both served on the bone, in the skin, and so deeply smoked that the meat had turned almost purple and the skin tasted like a mouthful of Boy Scout campfire. The barbecued link sausage was good but not great, and frankly, a waste of valuable digestive real estate when put up against the ribs.
Because the ribs were sublime. Meaty, fatty, dark pork ribs, smoked forever over enchanted wood, spice-rubbed with what I can only guess was salt, pepper and magical pit-man pixie dust, and so juicy that when I squeezed them, juice ran out. I had my first taste of these ribs on our initial visit, ordered more to go when we were done, ate them again the next time I was at Brooks, ordered another batch to go, and long after those were gone, my refrigerator still smelled like wood smoke. Three days after I'd picked up my last order, Laura found me sitting in front of the open fridge in the middle of the night holding an empty Styrofoam box in my lap and weeping quietly to myself because there were no more ribs, and Brooks was closed the next day.