Big Hoss Bar-B-Q
I love fried cheese. Of all the things that man has invented over the course of history — the wheel, zombie movies, Gary Busey, the interweb — fried cheese has to be in the top ten. I mean, penicillin is great: You go to Thailand, drink a few too many Tiger beers, take a wrong turn and end up at the lady-boy bar at the end of Songwat Road, you're going to be thanking Jesus that someone invented penicillin. But there's gratitude for avoiding gonorrhea, and then there's fried cheese.
In ancient Egypt, the fortunate were buried with loaves of bread and jars of honey — the assumption being that if Pharaoh Jimmy liked bread-and-honey sandwiches while doing time on the corporeal plane, he'd probably be hungry for the same in the afterlife. In the Christian mythos, heaven is full of angels eating fluffernutter sandwiches and cotton candy. But if there is a heaven for restaurant critics (a notion that most folks would find highly doubtful), I'm sure it's groaning under the weight of buffets filled with fried cheese — fried cheese like you'd find at Big Hoss Bar-B-Q.
But there's a problem: The fried cheese appetizer here is called "Cheese Nips," and for some reason, I'm embarrassed to say "Cheese Nips" in public. I've got no problem talking about the time I got drunk and, mad at my cats, peed in their litter box. And I can stand up anywhere (work, church, the DMV) and call someone a dirty motherfucking cunthead if he's rubbed me the wrong way. But "Cheese Nips"? That's too much. It's like the only meal I can stomach at Denny's: There's just no way I'm going to look up from my menu and say, "I'll have the Moons Over My Hammy" to a complete stranger.
Aside from its name, the fried cheese at Big Hoss is excellent — batter-dipped cheddar, perfectly fried, dusted with parmesan cheese and salt and that dried green parsley dandruff and served in a portion large enough to clog every artery I have. But still, I make whoever I'm eating with place the order for the fried cheese. And if my dining companion has the same disinclination to say "Cheese Nips" in public? Then I guess that dirty motherfucking cunthead ain't going to be invited back out for dinner, is he?
I went to Big Hoss on a Sunday night, when Green Bay was playing the Giants. The cool, low-slung horseshoe bar was almost full, but I managed to find a stool. One of the bartendresses soon came my way, asked my name, gave me hers and stuck out her hand for a shake. Why? Because that's just the way it's done. At Big Hoss, everyone is a regular, immediately, and everyone is treated like a friend of the house who's been too long away. I've been there on slow nights when out of boredom, maybe, or some urge toward the creation of a more civil society, the servers and bartenders have acted the part of matchmakers, introducing one group of barbecue-eaters to another or bringing a handful of solo drinkers together to try and do a crossword puzzle.
The convivial attitude is contagious. Next to me was a man old enough to know better drinking Jäger shots with a Guinness back, and when Green Bay made an ultimately pointless fourth-quarter fumble recovery deep in Giants territory, he found it reason enough to grab me around the neck and shake me like a kitten he didn't like. That's a fairly intimate exchange between two men who don't know each other, and had I not been stunned by the shaking and already full of Hoss's thick and smoky center-cut St. Louis ribs, chunky mashed potatoes and sticky-sweet barbecued baked beans, I might've said something. Something like: "Hey, buddy, I gotta take a leak. Can you do me a favor and order me some of those Cheese Nips?"
At a proper barbecue joint, almost as embarrassing as ordering Cheese Nips is drinking wine that doesn't come out of a jug or a paper bag. No one ought to be eating salad, either. In fact, no one at a proper barbecue joint ought to have anything green on his plate that isn't the deep, weedy green of collards or, depending on your latitude, the slick, electric green of okra.
But Big Hoss isn't really a proper barbecue restaurant. On some nights, it's a great neighborhood bar that just happens to serve some king-hell barbecue. On others, it's a classic, American-regional boîte with an artisan-whiskey selection, hushpuppies, Cajun oysters, a boisterous crowd of happy locals — and some king-hell barbecue. And on still others, the place is plainly a steakhouse, the buffed bar, wood-paneled walls, comfortable booths, bone-in New York strips and campfire baked potatoes a dead giveaway — until that kitchen door opens, a waitress walks out carrying a tray loaded down with mesquite-smoked Texas brisket, and the smell is enough to lift me right off my bar stool and send me fluttering after her like a cartoon hobo smelling a pie cooling on a windowsill. Or some king-hell barbecue.
The way the story goes, Hoss Orwat — who often can be found walking the floor of his eponymous restaurant, flopping down beside favored customers for a chat or sitting at the bar for some of his own ribs — traveled the country researching barbecue before opening Big Hoss in December 2006. You know, like Kwai Chang Caine — only eating barbecue, not kicking people's asses. He went everywhere, from California to the Carolinas and back again. And when he was done traveling, he took everything he'd learned, threw it out the window, and did things his own way. Big Hoss's sauce is an amalgamation of everything that's good about deep Southern, Texan, Eastern seaboard and K.C. mop — a sweet and spicy and smoky and savory brick-red mess of flavors that (true to Hoss's claim) go well with everything, except the smoked half-chickens that are better slathered with Alabama white sauce. Hoss also offers Jim Beam and Coke ice cream floats for dessert, two happy hours that actually total five hours daily, fantastic herbed steak fries and a couple of options for all-you-can-eat barbecue and sides — a dangerous proposition in any restaurant. But Hoss is fearless and weird, and that's why I like him. He has a salad bar in his restaurant, but he offers a "health side" of pulled pork for four bucks that should be enough to convert a few vegetarians. And his pork is just partly pulled: a genius twist on the traditional pulled-pork prep that gets you big, thick hunks of pork shoulder that have retained a lot of fat and a lot of flavor and almost need to be eaten with a knife and fork. I still use my fingers, of course, but that's because I don't care about being seen with five inches of pig hanging out of my mouth and barbecue sauce in my hair.
There are three ways to know you're eating barbecue prepared by an expert who has nothing but your worst interests at heart:
First, there's the line — the transition point in a rib seen from the side, a visible change in coloration from pinkish-gray to grayish-brown that denotes how deeply the smoke has sunk into the meat and, thus, how long and how carefully the rack was smoked.
Second, there's the smell. If you can smell your pulled-pork plate coming before you can see it being brought to the table, that's a good sign. If you can smell a barbecue restaurant before you turn onto its block, that's a very good sign. If you can smell the smoke on your leftovers through a Styrofoam go-box, the paper bag the go-box is sitting in and the plastic bag the paper bag is wrapped in, you're in for some fine eating. And if, the next day, you get back in the car and it still smells as though the neighborhood kids broke in and started a whiskey-soaked pecan wood fire in your back seat, you know you've found a keeper.
Third (and this is the one that, for politeness's sake, most people don't talk about), there's your pee. If, after a barbecue binge, you wake up to take a leak and it smells like you're pissing out a backwoods campfire, then you probably ate at Big Hoss the night before.
I return to Big Hoss on a weeknight thinking that this time, I'm going to control myself and not spend all my time and expense account on barbecue and the gentle kiss of Mister James Beam, and instead sample more from the big, wide-ranging menu. Maybe even try the salad bar. That's what I tell myself, but who am I kidding? I walk in out of the cold and am immediately hit by the competing smells of deep-smoked half-chickens and fat ribs and beer. I like a nice steak or some thick-cut lamb chops as much as the next guy, but barbecue I love as much as any three next guys, and my resolve fails almost before I've gotten my coat off.
I take a seat along the curve of the horseshoe. Around one corner, a couple of older gentlemen are drinking red wine and working their way through a book of crossword puzzles. Around the other, a couple of shitfaced hat boys are putting down Jäger depth charges and Stellas in ridiculous balloon snifters. Behind them, a birthday party of parents, kids, friends and grandparents are digging their way through massive plates of ribs and baked beans and Midwestern sweet corn in a gummy cheese sauce. The waitress asks my name and asks what I'd like. I order a PBR off the tap and Hoss's perfect barbecued shrimp, which are the closest thing I've found in Denver to the vinegar-sharp and spice-shot sauces of the Carolina tidewater style — thin and watery, tart enough to make a grown man tear up and a wuss like me weep.
"Oh, and can I get an order of the fried cheese, too?" I pause, look around at the hat boys, the crossword enthusiasts, the birthday boy — no help there. Then I bravely rally, pointing to the menu. "The, uh, Cheese Nips?"
"Sure thing," she says, and walks off without laughing at me. I settle onto my stool and roll my short pint between my palms, pleased with myself — waiting for my fried cheese, trying to decide between pulled pork and ribs and watching the hat boys sag lower and lower toward the bar.
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