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"The competitions were more for fun than anything else," Christi tells me a week or so after my first visit to Cabin Creek. "It was just to see if we knew what we were doing. We wanted to make sure the product was something we could be proud of. We knew they needed more restaurants up here, but we didn't know if we wanted to be the ones to do it, you know?"
The decision was made for them when a cease-and-desist order arrived at the Patrick house, courtesy of Red Robin restaurants. It seems that Red Robin already had a federal trademark on the name "Whiskey River" (using it to describe a sandwich or a sauce or something), and though the Patricks had a state claim on the title, the federal trademark superseded theirs. They were asked to shut down immediately, and being good, upstanding citizens, the Patricks did just that. They retired their trailer, pulled down their sign, took all of their equipment and all of the tricks they'd learned while competing against other mobile BBQ joints and found this space in Aspen Park, a former bakery and sandwich shop. Christi was worried it would be too small -- the spot has a good-sized kitchen but no dining room to speak of, just a counter inside and a few tables and chairs set out on the patio. But since their equipment was on wheels, the Patricks could just roll their two big commercial smokers onto a cement pad outside the back door of the kitchen, arrange a couple smaller box smokers for the pork, print up a menu and get to work.
Cabin Creek still does a tremendous amount of catering. It does whole pigs for luaus, smokes seafood and game meats by special request. But the carryout business started the minute the Patricks hung that BBQ banner out front. To fanatics like me, the invitation was irresistible.
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 I step inside for the first time, I pick up a menu and immediately start ordering -- from Christi, it later turns out. I need pork shoulder, I tell her. A pound, dry. She explains that everything is done dry, that the sauces are available on the side, and I realize that I'm in the presence of professionals. I ask what kind of wood they're using out back, and she tells me mostly oak with just a little hickory thrown in. It's better for the more delicate meats and seafoods, she explains, and for the way they cook, which is as low and slow as I've ever heard of: eighteen to twenty hours in the box for the pork shoulder, between 100 and 150 degrees.
"It's a huge infusion of smoke," she says, and the oak works very well. A stronger wood for that length of time would make for an overpowering flavor, would ruin just about anything but a Texas brisket -- which is the tramp of the barbecue world, anyhow. A brisket will take almost any kind of abuse and still come out tasting like brisket. You could smoke a brisket for thirty hours over a bed of old newspaper and charred Ikea furniture and a Texan would recognize it as barbecue -- though I don't know whether that's saying something bad about brisket or Texans or both.
Regardless, I also order a half-pound of Cabin Creek's brisket (for scientific purposes), then add on a half-rack of the Memphis-style dry-rubbed St. Louis cut spareribs (done with a peppery, strong rub followed by five hours in the box and smoked fresh all through the day), a side of potato salad, a side of beans and a chocolate chip cookie. Then I take a breath.
"Anything else?" Christi asks.
"Just give me a minute."
Laura is standing at the end of the counter, less overwhelmed and anxious than I am. Whereas I'd picked up the Cabin Creek menu and simply looked to make sure the Patricks offered all the things I usually order in any barbecue restaurant, she was actually reading the menu to see what else they might have on board.
And while the standard barbecue offerings are excellent -- the ribs stiff and smoked all the way to the bone with a surface like shellacked hardwood, the pork juicy, fatty, tender and woody-sweet, turned electric with the addition of the best Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce I've had anywhere in the state -- what sets Cabin Creek apart from so many other barbecue joints is indeed the other things the Patricks have on board. They do open-faced barbecue sandwiches and barbecue po'boys. They do green chile shot with barbecued pork, and cowboy chili made with molasses-sweet, and red-chile-spiked baked beans hit with a handful of pulled pork or shredded brisket. The kitchen rolls a barbecue burrito that I can't believe I haven't seen somewhere else before, wrapping spicy beans and pork in a tortilla and smothering it with green chile, cheese and sour cream. And then there's the ultimate in barbecue-junkie midnight hangover food: the BBQ masher. It's a bowl of mashed red-skin potatoes topped with pulled pork or brisket, topped again with cheese and again with sour cream, and I can't think of anything better that's been done with barbecue since the first pork sandwich with pickles was invented.