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Almost Famous

I have always lived and worked under the precept that too much is never enough. Too much food, too much drink, too much fun. No one ever wants to hear the story about the guy who had just enough of something and then called it a night.

This week, I put that axiom into action with barbecue (see review) And because repeat visits to two barbecue shacks over the course of just a few days -- and then another round for Second Helpings -- still weren't enough to take the edge off, I also dropped by the brand-new location of Famous Dave's Barbecue, out at 7557 East 36th Avenue, to try a little of that upper-Midwest cult 'cue.

And yes, there really is a Famous Dave. Dave Anderson opened Famous Dave's Barbecue Shack in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1994, and since then he's been like the Johnny Appleseed of barbecue, planting locations all over the place, often outside customary barbecue strongholds (the Stapleton outpost is the first in Colorado). Anderson and company have won awards for their sauce, for their meats, for their operation -- for just about everything they do. And we're not talking rinky-dink local awards, either: In 1995, Famous Dave's took home a first place at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest in Kansas City, Missouri (one of the biggest and most celebrated contests in the world). It's also won two "Greatest Ribs in America" titles (one in 1999, at the Great American Rib Cookoff in Cleveland) and more trophies than can be counted. All things considered, that ain't a bad run for a guy who was bankrupt in the '70's, turned things around with a Fortune 500 sales career, founded a barbecue chain and is now assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

I didn't love everything about Famous Dave's, but I was impressed. The place is big, but still near capacity on a Thursday night when everything surrounding it was as quiet as a grave. The service was fast and, if not entirely efficient, at least real friendly about it. It's done up in the style of a Wisconsin fishing cabin, with a lot of exposed, artificially weathered beams, antiques and fishing paraphernalia. To me, it looked like they opened the joint in an abandoned set for The Red Green Show's Possum Lodge, but that could be because I watch way too much PBS. And tucked away among all the fly reels, rusted cans of engine oil, aged posters and copies of Life magazine was a surprisingly well-run restaurant operation. The warren of dining rooms was broken down into seating areas, each of which felt more intimate than the whole; the bar was being used as overflow seating; a separate area was set off for to-go orders; and the kitchen was huge -- prepped and staffed to serve a thousand orders a day, easy.

I ordered the Georgia chopped pork and was pleased to see it come lumped atop a single slice of thick-cut white bread. The meat was smoky, shoulder-cut and touched with just enough sauce to give it a little sweet, Southern sting. The side of apples was awful -- at once tough and mealy and mushy, with an unpleasant tinny aftertaste -- but the honey cornbread was decent, and the beans (studded with big pieces of pork) were excellent.

Still, it was the ribs that really proved that Dave knows what he's doing. According to the legend of Famous Dave, Anderson spent 25 years traveling around the country eating barbecue and tasting sauces and experimenting with cooking methods that ranged from dry baking to greenwood smoking in a garbage can before he finally settled on his secret sauce and hickory slow-smoke process. I could taste his dedication in the ribs -- seriously, I got a little swoony after the first bite. They were that good -- tender, hit with just the right amount of sweet and peppery Southern rub, deeply smoky and served (on request) totally naked. I tried a bit of three different sauces on the side, but there was no need: The ribs were just fine on their own.

So if you ever find yourself out in the wilds of Stapleton with a hankering for some good 'cue, give Dave's a try. It might not be the best you've ever tasted, but it's a good addition to Denver's vibrant barbecue culture.

F marks the spot: Platte Park neighbors are weeping over the news that Lola -- chef Jamey Fader's coastal Mexican joint that's part of the Dave Query empire -- will be leaving its current location at 1469 South Pearl Street early next year and moving into the former Olinger Mortuary, 1575 Boulder Street. A big "F" now marks the spot where the Big Red F Restaurant Group will be moving in. Over the weekend, I got Query on the phone -- catching him between a vacation in Telluride and catering a wedding Saturday night -- to ask what was up. After all, most operators would kill for a restaurant half as successful as Lola has been (a success that has a lot to do with that choice Pearl Street address, the former home of Micole), and now -- seemingly out of the blue -- he's decided to pack up the elephants and move the circus crosstown? "Lola has been just wildly successful," Query said. "Really, it's been great, and this neighborhood has been really good to us. But lately we've been constrained on space."

 

Okay, not just lately. I went to Lola the night after it opened and was on a wait. I ate three more meals there before I reviewed the place ("The A-List," March 6, 2003) and had to wait for all but one -- a late lunch on a Monday afternoon. (Lola no longer serves lunch.) A few months ago, I was bounced from an hour-and-a-half wait at Sushi Den to an hour wait at Lola; on many other nights, the crowds waiting at Lola were packed so tight that no matter how many shots I had at the bar, I couldn't fall down if I'd wanted to.

According to Query, the move's necessity came down to three very simple factors: size, money and proximity. First, the Olinger space is huge -- twice the square footage of the Pearl Street location, split between two floors (the bottom giving the Query empire its first catering space for private parties), with room out front for a patio. Second, double the space means double the tables. Double the tables means double the money coming in (provided the legion of Lola fans are willing to make the shlep to Highland) without having to raise prices. And double the money means, well, double the money. How can anyone see that as a bad thing?

Besides, this time Query and Fader will be able to design the restaurant the way they want it rather than adapt to a space that's already built out. "It's going to feel like you're in someone's kitchen in New Mexico," Query explained. "There'll be almost no delineation between kitchen and dining room. We'll be able to show the kitchen, even the floors. Nothing will be hidden." And since they're "not stuck with someone else's stuff from the last go-round," he added, they'll be free to make a restaurant that's totally their own. "We're just going to do a better job of doing more of the same," Query said. As a matter of fact, he said that over and over during the course of the conversation.

Finally, the new Lola will be closer to Jax, the other Query outpost in Denver. Frankly, this didn't sound that important -- especially not when I was still trying to calculate how much green Lola is raking in and then trying to imagine doubling it -- but Query insisted it was a big deal. "Less driving," he said.

The old Lola is looking at early February to close down, with the new location opening at the end of that same month. And while Query said that the Pearl Street Lola might still throw one last party toward the end (a kind of neighborhood-appreciation deal at which he might give away laminated menus with copies of MapQuest directions to his new place on the back), he's already focused on getting things up and running in Highland. He's in the permitting process now, and drawings are in the works. He showed Lola's employees the spot last week, and the new neighbors are getting excited.

Query recently attended a community meet-and-greet to talk about the new joint, and while he was standing there, he said, "This guy comes up to me and he says, "Hey, my mom was burned in the basement! I can't wait to come to dinner!' You know, what do you say to something like that?"

I say maybe it's time to get yourself a bigger wallet, Dave. It looks like this thing is going to be huge.

And Lola won't be alone in the building, which is on the edge of Highland and boasts a terrific view of downtown. Leigh Jones, who brought us Atomic Cowboy (3237 East Colfax Avenue), has staked her claim to a section of Olinger's that will become a new joint called Barfly.

Leftovers: Come May, the Uptown neighborhood will have a new resident. With Steuben's, which is going into the former Dan's Garage space at 523 East 17th Avenue, Josh Wolkon of Vesta Dipping Grill will pay tribute to his great-uncles Max and Joe Schneider, who had a joint called Steuben's in Boston back in the 1940s. That Steuben's was a restaurant and nightclub on Boylston Street that hosted everything from proms to Sinatra. "In its prime, Steuben's was the center of the Boston dining and nightlife scene," Wolkon says. He's hoping to bring some of that magic to Denver.

 

The menu, which is still in flux and going through rounds of private testings and tastings every Tuesday afternoon at Vesta, will be another kind of tribute -- to all the great regional flavors and dishes that have come to define American culinary culture over the past several decades. In describing the place, Wolkon talks of the backgrounds of all the folks involved -- people from Boston, Long Island, Albuquerque, Philly and Chicago, who fondly remember the lobster rolls at Kelly's, the supreme sauce at Raynor's, green-chile cheeseburgers at the Owl Cafe and hot dogs at Pink's. If those are the kinds of places where Wolkon and crew are starting their explorations of culinary Americana, I can't wait to see where they end up.

And there's more Vesta news: On October 10, those crazy cats at the Food Network will air an episode of the show Unwrapped that -- along with delving into the mysteries of Milky Way candy bars and the secrets of Phillipe's French dip -- will feature Vesta's dipping-grill concept.

Robert Tournier has found a new chef for Le Central, his longtime spot at 112 East Eighth Avenue. Laurent Loubot, a native of Burgundy, is now riding herd on a great all-French crew -- Mathias Rouvray, Fabien Ducerf, Sebastien Aubry and Joel Gaillot -- who've suffered through a pretty tough year. Loubot comes to Denver following stints as the chef at the French Consulate in New York and at Café Bleu in Greenwich, Connecticut (which is owned by Jerry Seinfeld).

Finally, after three months of lunches, cocktails, tapas and small-plate flirtations, the Pinnacle Club, high atop the Qwest Tower at 555 17th Street, is jumping into full dinner service. Chef Kevin Villalovos -- a Hyatt-trained and Hyatt-chosen top dog who's been with the hotel chain since 1994 -- is still doing small plates and tastings, but he's also added a full spread of entrees that include signature crabcakes, lobster tails, pan-seared black bass and prosciutto-wrapped chicken. Dinner's going to cost you, but the spectacular views of the Front Range are still free.

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Famous Dave's

7557 E. 36th Ave.
Denver, CO 80238

303-399-3100

www.famousdaves.com


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