The interior of Shead's Fish and BBQ Heaven is not hip or slick or fabulous. Nor does it have that bogus clutter aesthetic or the faux-rustique feel so popular at some of the carefully sculpted eateries I've been skulking around these days. I can guarantee you that not a single professional was consulted in the outfitting of this dining room; as a matter of fact, nothing here seems to have been done on purpose -- except, maybe, for the purposeful and complete lack of attention to trivialities.
If the vulgarities of excessive design are a sin (and they are, in my opinion, if the food is not a fit player for the stage), then Leon and Ivy Shead and their sons, Demond and Neelein, are saints of the austere. Shead's has four walls and a roof, some carpet on the floor, a counter where you order your food, utilitarian Formica tables to put that food on, and several slatted bench seats on which you can plant yourself.
And that's it. This is the unadorned temple in which you will dine (unless you've come in for takeout). It's been rumored that Charlie Trotter's in Chicago budgets tens of thousands of dollars yearly toward breakage of its china and Riedel crystal. At Shead's, where the barbecue is dished up on disposable plates and plastic forks are available for the fussy, that kind of thing is never going to be a concern.
I fell in love with food eating in places like this. Long before coming to appreciate the clutching formality of French service, long before meeting my first ice carver or seeing a plate designed with such spare beauty that I was afraid to touch it when it came to my table -- years before I knew any of this -- I'd learned to love food on its own terms, unaccessorized and naked. Just as a beautiful woman isn't beautiful only because she wears Prada, smells of Chanel No. 5 or drips diamonds, food isn't good only because it appears on bone china or is eaten with a gold-plated fork.
My love of barbecue in particular stretches back to Rochester, New York, in the late '80s, when a younger me could be found rumbling off on a Friday night in my first car -- a chocolate-brown '73 Caprice Classic -- with the nose of that monster aimed for the worst neighborhood in town, sniffing out Hercules Chicken and Ribs.
Hercules (I'm not sure that was the actual name of the place, but everyone I knew called it that) had a huge yellow sign and a big bank of front-facing windows -- at least one of which was always boarded over with plywood as proof of the previous night's rough action. There were two bullet holes in the ceiling that had never been patched, scars on the tables that told of a thousand random impacts, and a crowd that -- to my feverish adolescent imagination, anyway -- represented a cross-section of a particular population I'd become obsessed with after reading too many books by Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson and Hubert Selby Jr. Hercules was also where I learned my first lesson in the economics of diminishing returns, which states that the more crap a place has hung on its walls, the worse the food will be, and, conversely, the more stark the walls, the better the grub.
Barbecue joints are not places you go to be seen; they're places you go to eat. They exist, and continue to exist, solely on the pit man's reputation for making good 'cue. In some circles, good barbecue is as sought-after as the perfect martini, fantastic sex with a total stranger or high-grade dope, and while -- in times of either shortage or social stigma -- the consumption of any of the above can get you press-ganged into some kind of twelve-step program by overly helpful relations, no one is ever going to mess with you for overindulging in a rack of pork ribs.
Okay, maybe your cardiologist will mess with you, but he's just a doctor. What does he know?
At Shead's, the ribs, chicken and brisket are slow-cooked over a hickory-and-mesquite fire until the meat is tender but not soft, and infused with smoke all the way down to the bone. When other alleged BBQ pros brag that their meat is so tender it falls right off the bone, what they're really saying is that they overcooked their ribs and think you're too dim to know the difference. Don't let them get away with this. Done properly, barbecued meat should still be firm and should still hold together -- and you should still need teeth to eat it.
Leon Shead understands this. He was taught the magic by his father, a pit man in Indianapolis, and went on to school Demond and Neelein, who man the kitchen at the eighteen-month-old Hampden outpost. (Leon and Ivy spend most of their time at the original Shead's at 1685 Peoria Street, which they opened five years ago.) This is a family with a serious generational commitment to the barbecue business: Leon's brother, Mack Shead, is one half of the Mack-and-Daisy team that runs M&D's BBQ and Fish Palace, at 2004 East 28th Avenue.
I was a glutton in my attack on Shead's menu, ordering broadly and sucking bones like a starving cannibal. I started with the chicken (a half order brings a big split breast and fat drumstick, skinless and slathered in sauce), and although I'd gotten a plastic fork at the counter, I dug in and ate with my fingers. The bird was incredibly moist and flavorful, especially the dark meat that had soaked up the hickory essence like a sponge. I'd suggest that braver eaters go with the hot barbecue sauce, because it doesn't penetrate the chicken too deeply, and there's still plenty smeared around the plate for dipping. (A word of caution, though: These boys aren't kidding when they say "hot." You'll sweat, no doubt, and while your head won't actually catch fire, this sauce still has a mean bite and a wicked burn that will follow you all the way home.)
Ribs came next (available by the half order, full order, slab, or as "small ends," which just means short ribs), and this was where the kitchen really got to show its stuff. The pork was cooked perfectly -- not mushy, but just tough enough that you could really tear into the ribs -- and complemented this time by a mild barbecue sauce, which bounced wildly from sweet to hot to stinging to sour and back again with the kind of complexity and mellow confidence you'd expect from a recipe that's been worked over for years. Barbecue sauces come in about a dozen regional varieties, generally thickening and getting hotter as they move west to Texas, then mellowing again as they head out toward California. Shead's is working with a kind of Texas-Kansas City combo: a tomato-based thick sauce that runs to a smooth, sweet heat if you order it mild, but gets punched up with a hint of the antique vinegar and red-pepper "tidewater" sauces of the Carolinas and a heavy dose of chili powder if you want it hot.
Bottled mops, marinades and sauces can't hold a candle -- hell, can't hold a match -- to one created and perfected in a barbecue restaurant where it alone is the star. Most restaurant kitchens have a palette of dozens of sauces they work with every day; in a barbecue place, there is only one. It's the pit man's recipe, his magic that converts 'cue fans, and you know the sauce is a good one when you can taste his years of experience in every bite. I learned this at Hercules. I remembered it at Shead's.
The only menu item here that didn't do it for me was the fish. In the tradition of old Southern fish shacks, Shead's armors fillets of catfish, perch or whiting in a cornmeal crust, then deep-fries the fish until it's golden on the outside, hot and flaky in the middle. The kitchen has the timing down right so that none of the oil seeps through to muck up the fish inside (except for a late-night order of perch that came overcooked from dank oil in need of changing), and if you're of the cornmeal persuasion, I'm sure you'll like Shead's offerings fine. I just happen to be a beer-batter man myself. The fish, like the rest of the entrees, is served with two slices of plain white bread. With the barbecue, that's meant for sopping up the sauce. With the fish, the bread makes for a nice sandwich.
Shead's sides are limited, and though I was crying for some cornbread and corn on the cob, what's available will do. The unadorned greens were a bit dull, but cooked soft until all the bitterness was gone. The potato salad was a church-picnic champ, creamy smooth and chunked up with fat bites of potato, boiled egg and pickle relish. The skinny, skin-on French fries (cut fresh by hand, not frozen and pulled out of a bag) had been blanched in oil before frying and tasted like pommes frites. The baked beans, which I consistently ate too much of every damn time I sat down, were spiked with a hit of the hot BBQ sauce for a nice contrast in flavor. For dessert, the sweet-potato pie was excellent (particularly after it was warmed up), with layers of sharp spices fighting their way through the smooth sweetness of the filling. And the peach cobbler was to die for.
I'm not kidding. If there was one order left and you were standing between me and the cobbler, I'd be moved to consider murder. Even though Shead's uses canned peaches, and even though the cobbler comes in a little styrofoam dish like the kind they used to serve you sherbet in grade school, it was wonderful: heavily spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, the soft yellow peaches swimming in a thick, sugary syrup studded with hunks of thick crust. It doesn't get much better than this on a hot summer night in Denver.
But just remember that I'll be coming back to Shead's -- and if it's getting toward the end of the night and the cobbler supplies are running low? Watch your back....
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