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Bite Me

Get a 'Cue

I sometimes regret that I was born a Yankee. Truly, I think a part of me (some piece of my insides mysteriously wedged between gut and gullet) was misplaced at conception -- put into a Rust Belt boy, but meant for a creature acclimated to gentler Southern latitudes.

It's like an extra organ, this piece. Something small and hidden from medical science behind one of those less interesting bits of internal machinery like the spleen or pancreas. But it beats like a second heart and hungers like an extra stomach, and when it gets down to doing its biological business, it makes me crave barbecue as only a Southern gentleman can.

When the fever comes over me, I stalk around the kitchen like a caged animal, eating Pop-Tarts and leftovers in an attempt to quell a non-specific craving for something I just can't put my finger on. I tear through the fridge like Yogi Bear through a picnic basket. I fuss. I fidget. Under normal circumstances, I am a fairly intolerable creature to live with -- cranky and loud, keeping unusual hours and always coming home smelling of whiskey, with sauce stains on my best shirts. But in the first stages of barbecue withdrawal? Forget it. My wife is in the market for a high-powered tranquilizer gun, if anyone out there is selling.

As the craving gets worse, I become more desperate. I'll sometimes go into a sulk and do nothing but sit on my couch watching Iron Chef reruns or old Barney Miller episodes for hours. At other times, I'll go out and pick up fifty dollars' worth of Asian takeout, hoping to find something to scratch my itch. But it never works, because there's really only one thing I want, and that thing is barbecue.

As I'm not just a Yankee, but also a straight blue-collar suburbia, fish-on-Fridays Mick, nothing in my socio-cultural makeup accounts for this wicked barbecue jones. My childhood memories aren't stocked with folksy recollections of Granny in the kitchen pulling pork or Granddad sneaking moonshine into the sauce. I didn't attend a lot of church picnics, and those I did go to were spartan, utilitarian affairs with weak coffee, bug juice and stale doughnuts as the penitential offerings at the communal table -- not potato salad, not cornbread, not fried chicken or huge platters of barbecue.

I can trace the first fluttering twinges in my Dixie organ back to Rochester, New York, sometime in the late '80s. There was this barbecue joint, called Hercules Chicken and Ribs by its fans (its true name having been forgotten at some point or just lost to my own spotty memory), that sat right on the edge of one of Rochester's nastier neighborhoods -- a frictive point between the punk holdouts and modern hippies of downtown and the post-industrial housing projects just outside. Hercules had a big yellow sign, battered plastic seats, and burn-covered Formica tables that looked like they'd been torn out of a McDonald's whole and just screwed right to the floor. For decor, there were two bullet holes in the ceiling over the cash register and mousetraps in the corners. And all you needed to know about the menu was contained in its name (official or not): Hercules did chicken and Hercules did ribs.

I loved this place with all the irrational exuberance of a misspent youth, and when I went there, I ate. I had my first ribs there, my first smoked chicken -- all of my first real barbecue experiences. And you know what they say: You never forget your first time.

While the food at Hercules was undeniably great (the meat smoked, if I remember correctly, in a giant oil-drum cooker out back that was filled with scrap lumber and held closed with cinderblocks), what I remember most about the joint was entering a world that was both totally alien and incredibly welcoming. I never felt weird walking into Hercules at midnight on a Saturday, never felt out of place even though I was. And while being a beans-and-wienies Irish kid hanging out in a black barbecue shack was Muslim-at-a-kegger odd, that experience also helped fuel my belief that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. I now understand how the biggest blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South (the home of true pit barbecue) were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, back yards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.

At Big Papa's BBQ (see review), you still find all kinds bellying up to the counter: businessmen and kids, families and couples, neighbors in every shade of the gastronaut rainbow. And though things were a little different at Hercules way back in the day, I always got the feeling that somehow, the guys behind the counter understood why I couldn't stay away. They saw the gleam of the burgeoning junkie in me and knew that they were the only dealers in town.

In Denver, barbecue shacks of all description seem to be popping up across the landscape (though none serving that Carolina vinegar brine I'm so fond of). Before it was a year old, Big Papa's had spawned a second location. Brothers BBQ, the prosaic yet profitable venture of Brit brothers Nick and Chris O'Sullivan (two guys even more ethnically removed from the heart of barbecue country than me), already has four metro spots and plans to open a few more by next year. It's also getting into the franchise business as Blokes BBQ International. Over the past year, the kitschy, Elvis-heavy vibe of Joe's West of Memphis BBQ has been cleaning up on East Colfax, not far from Brooks Smokehouse, which I reviewed in January. And then there's Jim Walker's place, Dr. Daddio's Kitchen on Wheels, which operates out of a gas station on North Airport Boulevard. It ain't the best 'cue in the world, but I defy you to find a better rack of gas-station ribs within a hundred miles.

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