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For barbecue fanatics, summer is like one lengthy treasure hunt, a months-long stretch when, every weekend, the faithful can pile into their cars and strike out for the mountains or the plains in search of the next find.
25997 Conifer Road
Conifer, CO 80433
Region: West Denver Suburbs
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Brisket: $12/pound Pulled pork: $9/ pound Pulled pork platter (2 sides): $9 BBQ masher: $6 Cowboy chili: $6.50 Barbecue burrito: $7
As with all great adventures, most of us have no idea where we're going when we set out. We have favorite expanses of road, favorite towns, secret veins of blacktop where the pickings have been rich in the past. And even when we have a certain destination in mind, the details are often sketchy: We're looking for a tarpaper shed on a frontage road somewhere, a joint that might be called Willy's or Billy's or Chilly's, a place we heard about from this guy at a bar who heard about it from a friend who wasn't sure of the location but knew it was near where that runaway truck ramp closed a few years back. If we have maps, they're bad maps, and if we have directions, they're always the wrong directions and end up leading us to a spot that sells hats or chainsaw carvings of bears made from tree stumps, but never barbecue.
Barbecue shacks open and close around here with no warning. They appear and disappear overnight. They move around like floating castles in some freak-ass Michael Moorcock short story, settling in one place only long enough to be discovered by the pilgrims, then wandering off across the landscape for no discernible reason. A lot of the best barbecue joints are little more than modern-day gypsy carts -- literally, restaurants on wheels. Everything they need to work their alchemical magic of pigs and fire can be hitched to the back of an F-250 pickup and taken on the road.
But once we're on the road, real rib junkies have a finely tuned sixth sense for finding barbecue wherever we are. We can smell a hot smoker from a mile off when the wind is right, can track pit men across mountains and valleys like Indian scouts. It helps that this state has such a profusion of good 'cue. Head in any direction on any afternoon and we're bound to find something eventually. Colorado has shacks that do Kansas City-style pork and Texas brisket and St. Louis cut spare ribs. It has Memphis dry-rubbers and Carolina wets, hot-hot Deep Southern masters who'll burn your face clean off with their sauces, then laugh at you while you suffer, and backwoods purists who ascribe to no regional tradition at all, but just smoke like their daddies smoked, and their granddaddies before them. Some of these spots have no more advertising than a banner or a sign or a paper plate nailed to a tree with just three letters writ thereupon: BBQ. But that's enough. Spotting this, even the most staid and rational barbecue fan will suddenly turn into Burt Reynolds in Hooper, pulling a three-lane drift and a bootlegger's reverse on a crowded highway, terrifying our non-barbecue-crazed wives.
"You are not driving home, you idiot," Laura says to me before the dust has even settled around the tires. "What were you thinking?"
"I was hungry," I tell her, then point to the front of the dark-brown A-frame we've come to a stop in front of, where a white banner hanging from the porch reads "B.B.Q." in big red letters. "We need barbecue. We need barbecue right now."
Actually, we don't need barbecue. I need barbecue, but I'm only half of the "we" in question, and my better half would never do something as foolhardy as violating traffic laws and endangering the lives of her loved ones for a half-rack and some potato salad. For dumplings? Absolutely. For expensive tequila and occasionally for tamales, she'd submarine-tackle her grandmother. But barbecue is my thing. Like cigarettes and zombie movies, my obsession with barbecue is something she agreed to love, honor and tolerate when we got married. I'm pretty sure it was in our vows. And if it wasn't, it should have been.
"Fine," she says. "We'll get some barbecue. But go easy this time, okay? We don't have room in the refrigerator for -- "
Before she can finish that sentence, I'm out the door and up the steps leading to Cabin Creek Smokehouse BBQ, a perfect example of that spontaneously manifesting barbecue operation that makes summer in Colorado so much fun for rib-and-brisket treasure hunters. Situated along that developed stretch of Conifer Road in Aspen Park, just up from the lot where all the new Wendy's and Quizno's and whatnot are going in, Cabin Creek has been open for almost nine months now. It is the first stable, solid location for owners John and Christi Patrick, barbecue veterans who got their start in catering more than a decade ago. For several years after they sold their Aurora catering companies, they poured all their money and efforts into a barbecue trailer called Whiskey River, a full-time mobile extension of what had started as a way to offer catered barbecue picnics to keep up business in the summer months.
They took their trailer -- which was built in the shape of a log cabin and offered many of the unusual items that would eventually find their way onto the Cabin Creek menu -- to festivals and barbecue competitions. They took home some prizes, too. At Denver's Blues & Bones, their pork took third place, their brisket sixth. In Frisco, they won people's choice for their sauces and the open-barbecuing category with their smoked seafood. On weekends when they weren't competing or doing the festival circuit, they'd park the Whiskey River trailer in their neighborhood and sell to anyone who came by.
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