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At Big Papa's, there's no grizzled old papa standing watch over a hickory fire in the back parking lot, tending to his pit with a poking stick and trusting only his innate sense of when done is done. Although both the East Evans location, which is nearly a year old, and the new kid in Ken Caryl are little storefront outfits, they run more like fast-food factories, keeping things moving quickly, almost cafeteria style, with rarely more than ten minutes going by from the moment you order to the moment you begin eating. With barbecue, this speed is made possible only by the intelligent application of technology and mass-production methods. As you stand at the counter, you can see the big stainless-steel smokers in the back, can see guys loading and pulling trays of meat all day, every day. The ribs, the brisket, the chicken and turkey breasts and link sausage get ten, twelve, fourteen hours of straight hickory smoke before they're done, wrapped and packed away in the coolers.
By then, though, the line runs deep. I'd put a rack of Big Papa's modern, strip-mall baby-backs -- dry-rubbed, slow-smoked and technologically porkerific -- up against a traditional pit smoker's best any day. I don't believe they'd win all the time, but neither would Big Papa's embarrass itself.
6265 E. Evans Ave.
Denver, CO 80222
Region: Southeast Denver
12652 W. Ken Caryl Ave.
Littleton, CO 80127
Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs
5151 S. Federal Blvd.
Littleton, CO 80123
Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs
Brisket po’boy: $5.99
Baby-back ribs: $16.99
St. Louis-style ribs: $14.99< br>Pulled pork: $7.89
Big Papa's further separates itself from the scrum of competing barbecue enterprises with its sauces, each an attempt to re-create a mop associated with one of the four centers of the American barbecue universe. There's a sweet, sticky, dark and molasses-rich Kansas City sauce that overwhelms everything it touches; a pale, South Carolina-Georgia mustard base, stingingly tart and faithful to the biting, fast-hit sharpness preferred by those eating in the middle North of the barbecue belt. The Deep South sauce is something of a cop-out, compromising regional integrity by offering a little spice, a little vinegar and a little molasses without allowing any of the elements to step forward boldly. But the tomato-and-brown-sugar Memphis mop is a dance-hall standard, all jazz and rock and roll, perfectly tuned to bring the peppery spice and tough-love sweetness into balance with the hickory smoke and natural flavors of any meat it touches. This is an artisan sauce, a beautiful blending of old Memphis sweet and new Memphis heat, and if I had access to some hospital supplies, I'd hang a bag of it from an IV rack and haul it around with me everywhere I went, dosing everything from my morning Wheaties to my midnight snacks.
The one important sauce that Big Papa's is missing (and a vital provincial offshoot of traditional barbecue culture that's underrepresented everywhere outside its home, not just in Papa's kitchen) is the eastern North Carolina tidewater sauce -- the vicious vinegar-and-red-pepper concoction that makes for the greatest pork sandwiches in the world. In choosing to go with the more acceptable and universally palatable Southern mustard base as the exclusive Carolina representative of the barbecue spectrum, I think Big Papa's skipped a chance to do something truly original. And I believe that sucks.
Sauce aside, I believe that the best barbecue sandwiches come on slices of pasty-white Wonder Bread with pickles on the side, so I was concerned when Big Papa's kitchen went all froufrou on me, putting my brisket po'boy on French bread. But then I tasted it, getting a mouthful of fatty, smoky, perfectly done beef, neither too dry nor too damp nor too anything except wonderful, and fell in love. I still like my white-bread sandwiches, but now I believe that sometimes change is okay.
I believe that good barbecue requires no decor, and that the best barbecue exists despite its trappings. Which is fortunate, because there's not much to say for the dining room at the original Big Papa's. A few black-and-white prints on the walls, some framed awards, plain tables and a counter. That's it. I believe that well-tended and plainly presented 'cue could make a tin-roof shack with pine-box tables and milk-carton chairs feel like a palace, and that too much fuss makes the barbecue gods pissy.
I believe that paper plates are okay in a barbecue joint. And paper napkins. And plastic silverware. I believe that the fact that Big Papa's uses real plates (cheap and plain white, but more china than Chinet) and serves sit-down orders on plastic cafeteria trays comes dangerously close to putting on airs.
I believe that good barbecue needs sides the way good blues need rhythm, but that the sides are almost ancillary to the experience. There's only one rule: Whatever you serve, make it fresh. Have someone's mama in the back doing the 'taters and hush puppies and sweet tea, because Mama will know what she's doing -- or at least know better than some assembly-line worker bagging up potatoes for Sysco.
Big Papa's stumbles here. There's no cornbread on the menu, and what's barbecue without cornbread? Instead, I tried sweet-potato casserole that wasn't a casserole at all, but rather puréed sweet potatoes jacked up with brown sugar and served like mashers. The mashed potatoes were forgettable, the steak fries just a step up from frozen, and the hush puppies not a step up from anything -- just small, hard and as unappetizing as fried golf balls. The mac-and-cheese was fine and gooey and smoky, though, and the fried okra done as right as the hush puppies were wrong. And the barbecued beans? Made in-house from sauce and scrap and leftovers, they were so deeply down-home and wonderful, I could still taste them days later.
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