So this is becoming a trend: for the second time in four weeks, I've encountered an Ohioan running a barbecue restaurant in Denver. I get it that who wouldn't want to come to Colorado from Cleveland or Cincinnati? -- but the barbecue connection is a little more tenuous. Perhaps it's just that Ohio shares its southern border with northern Kentucky, so all that smoke drifts up, permeating Ohio with the rich smell of a well-seasoned smokehouse. While Ohio isn't exactly in the heart of Dixie, it's certainly a lot closer to the Carolinas and Tennessee than Denver is. So maybe it makes sense that a pit master can learn a trade and then get the itch to head out West, resulting in a place like 3 Sons BBQ, a little joint in the Whittier neighborhood putting out a variety of smoked meats and sides with an inclusive attitude when it comes to regional barbecue boundaries and sauce-styles.
Residents of the neighborhood or fans of Southern cooking will remember that M&D's Cafe once occupied the majority of the building that now houses 3 Sons (and the neighboring Whittier Pub). I was joined for lunch by "soul food scholar" and James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller, who reflected fondly on M&D's and the Shead family who ran the place for more than thirty years.
That's a lot of coincidental restaurant history for a relatively new (3 Sons opened last fall but just added a dining room this summer) and diminutive barbecue joint, especially when you consider that 3 Sons was also the name of a classic Italian restaurant that operated in Sunnyside for over fifty years before relocating to Arvada. History is a good thing in the world of barbecue, where family businesses tend to thrive across generations in the towns and cities where the various regional specialties originated. Maybe these were all good omens for the meal to come.
History is something that the Denver barbecue scene -- if a town without its own authentic style can be said to have a scene -- seems to be lacking, but that doesn't mean good barbecue can't be had. What it means to me is that there aren't many places that do everything well; you have to take your brisket from one joint, your pulled pork from another, your spare ribs or baby backs from a third. So while you can come to a place like 3 Sons and get good and deeply smoked 'cue in a variety of styles, purists are likely to throw in the towel and call Denver a lost cause because they can't get it all here.
I'm not so quick to give up: I liked the 3 Sons pulled pork, with its clear visual evidence of a pink smoke ring and a softness to the strands of meat that came just shy of dreaded mushiness. That the shoulder was done Carolina style, according to the menu, but lacked serious vinegar tang didn't bother me too much. That's because the smoked sausage -- good, local Gold Star hot links -- next to it was as good as any I've had in Denver. And a non-traditional saffron yellow mustard sauce went well with both.
The spare ribs, left long and with the tips intact, also had good smoke depth and a decent dry rub, although the presence of grill marks isn't typical for any regional style. Finishing slow-smoked barbecue on a grill can dry out the meat a little and add a charred flavor from fat flare-ups. 3 Sons' ribs avoided that flaw, but the meat was just shy of easily pulling off the bone. The brisket was in the same boat: flavorful and well-colored but just a little firm.
Miller's book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, touches more on the dishes you're likely to find as sides at a barbecue restaurant than on the smoked meats themselves. (Perhaps there's a future project there?) His favorite, and I agree, were the braised collard greens, tangy with vinegar and infused with smoke from what the owner told us was brisket burnt-end trimmings. Moist, cheesy cornbread flecked with bacon also held its own. Other sides -- baked beans, coleslaw and potato salad -- carried no surprises, either good or bad.
3 Sons is definitely a nice addition to a neighborhood lacking in eateries. Breakfast has also recently been added, according to the restaurant's Facebook page, with breakfast burritos and sandwiches as well as Daz Bog coffee. Will Denverites flock to it as the next great savior of the city's barbecue scene, a worthy successor to its storied address? That may be a little much to ask for now, in a town that's still struggling to find a barbecue identity. But one thing is certain: It's the best barbecue in the neighborhood since M&D's closed, and while that may be faint praise, it's certainly a fine place to start.
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After all, good barbecue isn't rushed -- but if you give it time and patience, the reward is a rare combination: pure magic and just a plain good lunch. 3 Sons gets the second part right, something welcome in any neighborhood.