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We saw Hog Heaven Bar-B-Quecoming from a distance. Laura and I had been out wandering -- ostensibly making a quick, up-and-back run over Guanella Pass to see the aspens changing like good Coloradans, to ooh and aah over the foliage along with several thousand other day-tripping yuppies in their SUVs. But what I was really after was some back-road jerky, some street-side stand offering homebrew lemonade and root-beer candies. And barbecue, of course.
63658 Highway 285
Bailey, CO 80421
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Chapter One BBQ and Grill
2260 South Quebec Street, 303-755-4777. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday< br>Rib plate: $8.75
Pork sandwich: $5.25
Whenever I escape the pull of Denver's strong urban gravity, I start thinking about barbecue. My antennae go up, the radar switches on. I develop an extra two or three preternatural senses finely tuned to the odor of hickory and mesquite smoke, the ethereal vibrations given off by pit men working their smokers. I've been known to sense barbecue from miles away, like a shark scenting blood in the water, feeling it as a tightening in my chest and a tingling in my extremities. Laura tells me these are actually the signs of an impending stroke or heart attack -- no doubt brought on by an annual consumption of barbecue on par with that of entire towns south of the Mason-Dixon -- but I know better. These are my Spidey Senses going into overdrive -- not much good for fighting crime, but ideally suited for hunting down the purveyors of smoked meats, baked beans and peach cobbler, the people I consider this world's true superheroes.
Coming down off the pass, we'd passed a spot where there'd been barbecue a few days previous. I knew with the surety of an Indian tracker that we'd missed something good, because I could still see the indentation of trailer wheels in the packed dust of a pull-off, the deep pile of wood ash, the casual detritus of a party gone by: crushed beer cans, dirty paper napkins stuck in the brush, a couple of broken-backed styros. Further down, I'd waved Laura past another pull-off where cardboard arrows marked "BBQ" pointed the way to a dusty stretch of side road where three big trailer smokers were set up, tended by two biker-looking fellows. Several cars and trucks had pulled in, and a few people were tailgating it with ribs in their hands -- but I just didn't get the vibe from these folks. So we kept on moving.
I was getting a little worried by the time we'd made our way back to Highway 285: I knew there was good barbecue out there, but I hadn't found it. And then, just over the crest of Crow Hill in Bailey, we spotted Hog Heaven, set back off the blacktop on a frontage road with a parking lot overflowing with cars and white smoke coiling up from an outdoor smoker. One double-lane drift and a rooster tail of gravel dust later, we came to a rocking stop in front. We piled out, anticipating greatness.
Yes, greatness. Every time I happen on one of these places -- a small-town barbecue shack, trailer operation or outdoor grill covered with brats and burgers and foil-wrapped bundles of ribs or brisket -- I expect something wonderful. I walk in looking for the Holy Grail of meat, and I've found it often enough that I'm thinking of buying a helmet and a pair of stainless-steel underpants and changing my name to Gawain. I'm not just hoping for these kitchens, these pit men, these enablers of my last, best addiction, to do well; I believe they will. Every one. Every time. Like a die-hard Red Sox fan, a lifelong believer in the imminent arrival of UFOs or a Christian anxiously awaiting the Rapture, I approach each door with an innocent's unshakable faith.
As Laura and I stepped up to Hog Heaven, I was almost knocked back by the smell of barbecued ribs and chopped pork and smoked links and the greasy slickness of fried chicken. The crowds were spilling out into the dusty parking lot, perching at picnic tables set in the shade of an awning or wandering around by a barbecue trailer -- done in the shape of a caboose with a rack smoker glommed onto the side -- that looked like it hadn't moved in several seasons.
For five years, that trailer was the original home of Hog Heaven. Owner and pit man Rod Ashby -- a former truck-drivin' man who got his taste for 'cue on the road -- has had the standing location for another six. Inside was a small dining room bedecked with piggy paraphernalia, set with a half-dozen tables curled around the counter, which was manned by Ashby. The tables were full, and a dozen more parties were waiting for orders; a half-dozen more were waiting in line to place an order.
We waited, we ordered, we waited some more. And when the girl behind the counter finally shouted my name, I loaded my pockets with napkins and wet wipes and forks, and we took our bounty outside to dine al fresco, with a view of the parking lot, the highway berm and cars zipping by on their way down the mountain.
Hog Heaven's barbecue is a mutt, Kansas-gone-Southern style with a little coastal twist. The ribs were big, deeply smoked, almost black at the edges and pink at the bone; the beef brisket was sliced and served wet. The chopped pork shoulder was a standout, combining the tender inside bits with beautiful, chewy-crackly shreds of outside meat -- the stuff that had been closest to the heat, exposed to the brunt of the smoke and turned brownish-black like old teak with caramelized sugars and rub. Those edges are the best part of a chopped shoulder portion, and while I'm driven nearly to tears when I see a place scraping them off to the side as though they weren't fit for serving, Hog Heaven doesn't waste a scrap. Unfortunately, my pork came drowned in a flood of sweet-hot, molasses-colored "Nectar of the Gods" that, while a good freehand version of a KC mop, had a flavor so overpowering that I could barely taste the meat. I learned the hard way that at Hog Heaven, you need to order your meat sauce-on-side. Most good pit men do this without question, since they see sauce as nothing more than something that gets in the way of the meat.
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