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I can be bought with an easy smile and a pint of sweet tea. When someone has a grill going in my neighborhood, I will sometimes sit out on my porch just to smell the air. My wife has often told me that I've never met a barbecue restaurant I didn't like, and I have to correct her: Truth is, I've never met a pig, cooked in any old way, that I didn't love. Whenever I find myself in a barbecue joint (which is frightfully often), I develop a reflexive Southern accent — my vowels extending, my jaw loosening. I start ma'am-ing every pretty girl in the place and develop opinions on things like linen suits and Southern-states football. I was born and raised in the industrial Northeast. My experience is more Nelson Algren than Wild Bill Faulkner. And yet I sometimes believe that there's a small and deeply Southern man inside me — a culinary Quato who only comes out when the scent of hardwood smoke is in the air or the sting of mustard-heavy sauce on my tongue. And that little fucker? He's hungry. All the time. He just don't never get enough.
Weirdly, Colorado is a good place for barbecue. Not a great place, certainly not the best place (that would be the Carolinas), but I've been in much worse. Maybe it has to do with the number of transplants (like myself) who come to this state to reinvent themselves or just get away from whatever dogged them back home. Maybe there's some itching need in the Southern soul to find a place with dry air and big skies and snow, a place where you can breathe without drowning and the sun seems to rise without quite such a vendetta against all living things. Having done my own stretch of time down in Florida, I can tell you with confidence that Colorado is the Big Rock Candy Mountain by comparison. I would not go back for love or money, and am still hoping that someday that stinking, rotting swamp of a state snaps free of the continent and goes floating away, leaving only the Keys, because Laura has fond memories of getting drunk on Duvall Street and eating Key lime pie for breakfast.
Florida produces four things in abundance: humidity, cockroaches, barbecue and ass-kicking Cubano line cooks. The bugs and humidity it can keep. The cooks escape as soon as they are able. And the barbecue? Well, the barbecue tends to drift. Because Florida barbecue — and in particular, Northern Florida barbecue — is a mutt blend of everything from Southern barbecue to Carolina tidewater with a little Midwestern K.C. soul and Saint Looey sweet thrown in for good measure. It's a popular style and travels well. Big Papa's barbecue came up out of North Florida to settle in Denver. Hoss Orwat learned a couple things from Florida's pit men that he uses at Big Hoss. Jim 'N Nick's, which offers straight Alabama 'cue, has outposts in Niceville and Sandestin. And now the Denver suburbs have another Sunshine State refugee: Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q, which I visited last week when the temperatures started to climb.
9393 E. Dry Creek Road
Englewood, CO 80112
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Bono's has 24 locations, 21 of them in Florida, centered around Jacksonville, where the original shack was erected in 1949 by founder Lou Bono. The entire operation was bought in 1980 by the Adeeb family (a multi-generational hotel and restaurant family also based in Jacksonville), but the same pit master, Harvey Green, has been working the Jacksonville smokers for fifty years. There's one castaway address in Allendale, Michigan, and two in Colorado: one in Centennial, one in Aurora. Bono's franchises its name, its style, its concept to anyone who can put up the fee of fifty large and lay hands on $1.5 million for opening. Square-state barbecue ain't cheap.
But is it good? To judge it properly, I should've hopped a jet down to Jacksonville to pay a visit to Harvey Green, but that wasn't going to happen. Like I said, I am never going back to Florida — and neither love nor money nor slow-smoked pig will change that. Instead, I hit both Colorado locations, visiting at roughly the same times, assembling nearly identical orders of chopped pork and St. Louis-style pork ribs, sweet-potato fries, potato salad, baked beans, sweet tea and Brunswick stew. Bono's also serves beef brisket, but Texas barbecue is just a desperation measure concocted by pit men without access to pigs. Bono's serves chicken and turkey, too, but barbecued turkey is a gimmick best kept to street festivals and Renaissance fairs, and barbecued chicken is almost always bad when done anywhere outside your own kitchen. The menu also lists appetizers, but the only appetizer I want in a barbecue restaurant is more barbecue (or, in rare cases, burnt ends, which Bono's doesn't offer). And there are salads, but anyone who orders salad in a barbecue restaurant is plainly delusional and should immediately seek professional counseling.
As far as decor goes (which ain't far at all), both outposts feature big booths, lots of polished wood, artificially rusted tin paneling, and slogans and logos painted on the walls in the style of distressed 1940s advertising, chipped and faded by man, not age. These are barbecue-theme restaurants that have gone to a lot of trouble to look like weather-beaten, windblown, dusty backroad shacks, even though both exist amid seas of blacktop, right off two different highways, walking distance from hotels. In their defense, though, they smell real good. I've eaten barbecue in the South, sitting on the hood of my car or hunkered down at a picnic table under the meager cover of shade trees. I've stood before the old smokers when the doors were opened and gotten an eye-watering face full of greasy, rich, full-bodied pig and pecan smoke. That smell is one thing you can't fake, can't buy, can't reconstruct. Bono's slow-smokes all its meat for twelve to fourteen hours in Southern Pride smokers — top of the line in this modern world. And that's a good start.