By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The way the story goes, Hoss Orwat — who often can be found walking the floor of his eponymous restaurant, flopping down beside favored customers for a chat or sitting at the bar for some of his own ribs — traveled the country researching barbecue before opening Big Hoss in December 2006. You know, like Kwai Chang Caine — only eating barbecue, not kicking people's asses. He went everywhere, from California to the Carolinas and back again. And when he was done traveling, he took everything he'd learned, threw it out the window, and did things his own way. Big Hoss's sauce is an amalgamation of everything that's good about deep Southern, Texan, Eastern seaboard and K.C. mop — a sweet and spicy and smoky and savory brick-red mess of flavors that (true to Hoss's claim) go well with everything, except the smoked half-chickens that are better slathered with Alabama white sauce. Hoss also offers Jim Beam and Coke ice cream floats for dessert, two happy hours that actually total five hours daily, fantastic herbed steak fries and a couple of options for all-you-can-eat barbecue and sides — a dangerous proposition in any restaurant. But Hoss is fearless and weird, and that's why I like him. He has a salad bar in his restaurant, but he offers a "health side" of pulled pork for four bucks that should be enough to convert a few vegetarians. And his pork is just partly pulled: a genius twist on the traditional pulled-pork prep that gets you big, thick hunks of pork shoulder that have retained a lot of fat and a lot of flavor and almost need to be eaten with a knife and fork. I still use my fingers, of course, but that's because I don't care about being seen with five inches of pig hanging out of my mouth and barbecue sauce in my hair.
There are three ways to know you're eating barbecue prepared by an expert who has nothing but your worst interests at heart:
First, there's the line — the transition point in a rib seen from the side, a visible change in coloration from pinkish-gray to grayish-brown that denotes how deeply the smoke has sunk into the meat and, thus, how long and how carefully the rack was smoked.
3961 Tennyson St.
Denver, CO 80212
Region: Northwest Denver
Second, there's the smell. If you can smell your pulled-pork plate coming before you can see it being brought to the table, that's a good sign. If you can smell a barbecue restaurant before you turn onto its block, that's a very good sign. If you can smell the smoke on your leftovers through a Styrofoam go-box, the paper bag the go-box is sitting in and the plastic bag the paper bag is wrapped in, you're in for some fine eating. And if, the next day, you get back in the car and it still smells as though the neighborhood kids broke in and started a whiskey-soaked pecan wood fire in your back seat, you know you've found a keeper.
Third (and this is the one that, for politeness's sake, most people don't talk about), there's your pee. If, after a barbecue binge, you wake up to take a leak and it smells like you're pissing out a backwoods campfire, then you probably ate at Big Hoss the night before.
I return to Big Hoss on a weeknight thinking that this time, I'm going to control myself and not spend all my time and expense account on barbecue and the gentle kiss of Mister James Beam, and instead sample more from the big, wide-ranging menu. Maybe even try the salad bar. That's what I tell myself, but who am I kidding? I walk in out of the cold and am immediately hit by the competing smells of deep-smoked half-chickens and fat ribs and beer. I like a nice steak or some thick-cut lamb chops as much as the next guy, but barbecue I love as much as any three next guys, and my resolve fails almost before I've gotten my coat off.
I take a seat along the curve of the horseshoe. Around one corner, a couple of older gentlemen are drinking red wine and working their way through a book of crossword puzzles. Around the other, a couple of shitfaced hat boys are putting down Jäger depth charges and Stellas in ridiculous balloon snifters. Behind them, a birthday party of parents, kids, friends and grandparents are digging their way through massive plates of ribs and baked beans and Midwestern sweet corn in a gummy cheese sauce. The waitress asks my name and asks what I'd like. I order a PBR off the tap and Hoss's perfect barbecued shrimp, which are the closest thing I've found in Denver to the vinegar-sharp and spice-shot sauces of the Carolina tidewater style — thin and watery, tart enough to make a grown man tear up and a wuss like me weep.
"Oh, and can I get an order of the fried cheese, too?" I pause, look around at the hat boys, the crossword enthusiasts, the birthday boy — no help there. Then I bravely rally, pointing to the menu. "The, uh, Cheese Nips?"