A Slice of Heaven
On the sixth day, God made the beasts -- some of them very tasty -- and when He was done, He looked the beasts over and said, "Yes, this is good." Then He paused for a moment and added, "But it might be better with sauce."
And so man created barbecue.
Many years later, Pastor Gene Washington and his wife, Sharon, came up with a righteous recipe for barbecue sauce. At first, only the congregation of Washington's Unified Body of Christ Church in Denver was blessed with the opportunity to partake of the couple's meat-smoking savvy, since the Washingtons only made their ribs and brisket for friends and church fundraisers. But then other churches got wind of their expertise, and since You Know Who says we should share, the Washingtons began cooking up barbecue for other denominations.
Blest Bar-B-Que of the Rockies, 5654 South Prince Street, Littleton, 303-738-8589. Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Caldonia's Bar-B-Que, 2252 South Parker Road, Aurora, 303-752-3829. Hours: 4 p.m.-11 p.m. daily.
But things didn't really start smoking until the Washingtons realized that all of God's children had a right to eat great barbecue. So last year they found a storefront space, a former market just off the main drag in downtown Littleton, which they filled with mismatched tables and chairs, bits and pieces donated by their congregation, and a soda fountain the former owner had found at an auction. And then, finally, they set up the smoker behind Blest Bar-B-Que of the Rockies.
"It's a family operation, that's for sure," says Gene Washington, who's lived in Denver all of his life. "Otherwise, I don't know how we'd do it." But the Washingtons' daughter, Tanya Williams, helps out, as does her daughter, eleven-year-old Jasmine, who's a budding marketing expert. "My grandma makes 'em," Jasmine says of Sharon Washington's fabulous pies, "and they're the best." Meanwhile, the pastor concentrates on smoking the meat "real, real slow," he says, then laughs and adds, "real slow."
The slowness shows. The brisket was as soft as velvet, so tender you could pull it apart with your bare hands -- and we wanted to, because cutting it simply added to the time required in order to stuff the meat in our mouths. But it's not just the brisket ($8 for a dinner, $5.50 for a sandwich on thick, ideal-for-sauce-soaking rolls) that was special. The pork ribs ($9 for a dinner) were hog heaven: thick and meaty, with a perfect rim of fat so well-smoked it was almost liquid; an order of sliced pork ($7.25) brought more succulent flesh. The sliced turkey ($7 for a dinner) was done right, too -- the meat so supple it was still wet -- and imbued with an intense smoky flavor. And then there were the hot links ($7.50): big, fat, fiery homemade sausages so darkly smoked they looked like the charred remains of a campfire.
All these meats needed was a dousing of Washington's sauce to send me straight to heaven. It took the pastor years to develop his celestial formula. "It doesn't really follow any one style," he says. "I took a little from Kansas, a little from Memphis, a little from here and there. I call it 'a Southern taste in the West.'" That's not a bad description, since the well-balanced sauce carried the best characteristics of each region's 'cue: some sweetness, but not too much; a little bit of heat, a little bit of vinegar. Our only complaint: There were no bottles of sauce on the table -- if there had been, we would have baptized ourselves with the stuff.
All of the dinners come with a choice of two homemade sides (they're also available in single servings and to go), and we tried them all. The eggy, pickle-sparked potato salad was a marvel; the red-cabbage-enhanced coleslaw was a tangy, not-too-sweet treat; and the spicy, pork-filled baked beans were a solid version. Our favorite, though, were the rich, flavorful collard greens. The kitchen tends to run out of the greens first -- and with good reason.
Fortunately, there's always dessert for consolation. You can't go wrong with a piece of Sharon Washington's pie -- the sweet potato ($2.25), with its brown sugary goo and flaky crust, or the thick-crusted peach cobbler ($3) -- or a slice of her coffee cake ($1.50), a sweet, dense pound-cake-like version that begs for a tall glass of cold milk. Blest also offers a genuine Coke float ($2) made from Liks ice cream and syrup out of that soda fountain. But no matter how you choose to end it, your meal at Blest is bound to be a little bit of heaven.
Although things aren't quite unholy at Caldonia's Bar-B-Que, this 21-year-old Aurora institution remains a meat market in more ways than one. But while some regulars may go to Caldonia's merely to suck down brewskis and socialize -- its many televisions are tuned to every sport available, and the big-screen sports-trivia games inspire convivial chatting -- the kitchen also turns out damn good barbecue.
The place is owned by John "Doc" Gardner and a slew of unnamed partners; Gardner's also been instrumental in other longtime meeting-and-greeting spots like Govnr's Park Restaurant, Marlowe's and the Paramount Cafe. But at Caldonia's, the meating (like the greeting) is more basic than at some of those other places: The emphasis here is on downhome, Oklahoma-style smokin', slathered with a sauce that's more sweet than not, with a faint hickory flavor.
The Chuck Wagon platter ($12.95) lavished that sauce on an assortment of Caldonia's barbecue choices: a pile of crispy-caramelized-edged pork spare ribs, a quarter of a slightly dry but still tasty smoked chicken, a hefty helpin' of sliced beef brisket made from Certified Angus Beef, and a couple of sharply spicy links. And if that load weren't enough to do in even the most bulky beer-swilling dude, the platter also included half a head of steamed broccoli and one of Caldonia's sugar-kissed cornbread muffins, as well as a fat mound of skin-on country-style mashed potatoes smothered in a peppery, gluey gravy. Caldonia's generous portions make all of its meals a bargain. The fried-chicken dinner ($10.75) brought half of a honey-soaked, crispy-skinned bird, as well as the same sides on the Chuck Wagon. And while Cal's baby-back ribs ($9.75 for a half order) didn't sport the sweet, charred edges that I'd gnawed off the spare ribs, they were drippy, luscious and plentiful.
Caldonia's non-barbecue items were a smokin' deal, too. For starters, we dug into authentic, Tabasco-fired Buffalo-style chicken wings ($5.50 for ten) and a gooey spinach-and-artichoke cheese dip ($6.50), with cream cheese making it just that much richer. The humongous beef burrito ($6.25) arrived bursting with super-spicy ground beef, and the Certified Angus Beef burger ($5.50) stuffed a half-pound of more good beef inside a top-notch roll that held up to the meat's oozing juices and more oozing Swiss cheese. The burger came with an enormous pile of just-fried potato chips and a crunchy coleslaw with a nice mayo-vinegar balance.
Like Caldonia's entrees, the desserts were jumbo-sized. Unfortunately, the carrot cake ($3.25) was too much of a bad thing; it tasted like one of those loaves of healthy bread that's supposed to bulk you up, all whole grain and vegetables and no sugar, with too thin a layer of icing. But the large slice of pecan pie ($3.75) was just what the love doctor ordered: a tooth-achingly sugary, sticky and rich filling covered with pecan halves and sitting inside a thick, solid crust. Caldonia's may have a reputation as a pick-up joint, but I'd rather take home another piece of this pie than any hunk at the bar.
"I'd say we're about three things," says a Caldonia manager: "First, we're fun. Second, we're a good deal. And third, we're great barbecue."
Amen to that.
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