Bonos Pit Bar-B-Q
I can be bought with an easy smile and a pint of sweet tea. When someone has a grill going in my neighborhood, I will sometimes sit out on my porch just to smell the air. My wife has often told me that I've never met a barbecue restaurant I didn't like, and I have to correct her: Truth is, I've never met a pig, cooked in any old way, that I didn't love. Whenever I find myself in a barbecue joint (which is frightfully often), I develop a reflexive Southern accent — my vowels extending, my jaw loosening. I start ma'am-ing every pretty girl in the place and develop opinions on things like linen suits and Southern-states football. I was born and raised in the industrial Northeast. My experience is more Nelson Algren than Wild Bill Faulkner. And yet I sometimes believe that there's a small and deeply Southern man inside me — a culinary Quato who only comes out when the scent of hardwood smoke is in the air or the sting of mustard-heavy sauce on my tongue. And that little fucker? He's hungry. All the time. He just don't never get enough.
Weirdly, Colorado is a good place for barbecue. Not a great place, certainly not the best place (that would be the Carolinas), but I've been in much worse. Maybe it has to do with the number of transplants (like myself) who come to this state to reinvent themselves or just get away from whatever dogged them back home. Maybe there's some itching need in the Southern soul to find a place with dry air and big skies and snow, a place where you can breathe without drowning and the sun seems to rise without quite such a vendetta against all living things. Having done my own stretch of time down in Florida, I can tell you with confidence that Colorado is the Big Rock Candy Mountain by comparison. I would not go back for love or money, and am still hoping that someday that stinking, rotting swamp of a state snaps free of the continent and goes floating away, leaving only the Keys, because Laura has fond memories of getting drunk on Duvall Street and eating Key lime pie for breakfast.
Florida produces four things in abundance: humidity, cockroaches, barbecue and ass-kicking Cubano line cooks. The bugs and humidity it can keep. The cooks escape as soon as they are able. And the barbecue? Well, the barbecue tends to drift. Because Florida barbecue — and in particular, Northern Florida barbecue — is a mutt blend of everything from Southern barbecue to Carolina tidewater with a little Midwestern K.C. soul and Saint Looey sweet thrown in for good measure. It's a popular style and travels well. Big Papa's barbecue came up out of North Florida to settle in Denver. Hoss Orwat learned a couple things from Florida's pit men that he uses at Big Hoss. Jim 'N Nick's, which offers straight Alabama 'cue, has outposts in Niceville and Sandestin. And now the Denver suburbs have another Sunshine State refugee: Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q, which I visited last week when the temperatures started to climb.
Bono's has 24 locations, 21 of them in Florida, centered around Jacksonville, where the original shack was erected in 1949 by founder Lou Bono. The entire operation was bought in 1980 by the Adeeb family (a multi-generational hotel and restaurant family also based in Jacksonville), but the same pit master, Harvey Green, has been working the Jacksonville smokers for fifty years. There's one castaway address in Allendale, Michigan, and two in Colorado: one in Centennial, one in Aurora. Bono's franchises its name, its style, its concept to anyone who can put up the fee of fifty large and lay hands on $1.5 million for opening. Square-state barbecue ain't cheap.
But is it good? To judge it properly, I should've hopped a jet down to Jacksonville to pay a visit to Harvey Green, but that wasn't going to happen. Like I said, I am never going back to Florida — and neither love nor money nor slow-smoked pig will change that. Instead, I hit both Colorado locations, visiting at roughly the same times, assembling nearly identical orders of chopped pork and St. Louis-style pork ribs, sweet-potato fries, potato salad, baked beans, sweet tea and Brunswick stew. Bono's also serves beef brisket, but Texas barbecue is just a desperation measure concocted by pit men without access to pigs. Bono's serves chicken and turkey, too, but barbecued turkey is a gimmick best kept to street festivals and Renaissance fairs, and barbecued chicken is almost always bad when done anywhere outside your own kitchen. The menu also lists appetizers, but the only appetizer I want in a barbecue restaurant is more barbecue (or, in rare cases, burnt ends, which Bono's doesn't offer). And there are salads, but anyone who orders salad in a barbecue restaurant is plainly delusional and should immediately seek professional counseling.
As far as decor goes (which ain't far at all), both outposts feature big booths, lots of polished wood, artificially rusted tin paneling, and slogans and logos painted on the walls in the style of distressed 1940s advertising, chipped and faded by man, not age. These are barbecue-theme restaurants that have gone to a lot of trouble to look like weather-beaten, windblown, dusty backroad shacks, even though both exist amid seas of blacktop, right off two different highways, walking distance from hotels. In their defense, though, they smell real good. I've eaten barbecue in the South, sitting on the hood of my car or hunkered down at a picnic table under the meager cover of shade trees. I've stood before the old smokers when the doors were opened and gotten an eye-watering face full of greasy, rich, full-bodied pig and pecan smoke. That smell is one thing you can't fake, can't buy, can't reconstruct. Bono's slow-smokes all its meat for twelve to fourteen hours in Southern Pride smokers — top of the line in this modern world. And that's a good start.
But unfortunately, a good start is mostly all you'll get. At the Aurora location, when I looked past the decor, I saw the kitchen's disturbing setup: a plain galley line set behind the bar, with cooks slapping racks down on standard-issue gas grills to warm for service and big bags of frozen sweet-potato fries being used openly. The product produced here was even more disturbing. The ribs were meager — small and thin and on the wimpy side, the gnarled knots of muscle on one end charred, the rest of the meat strippable in just two disappointing bites. I'd ordered a pound of them and was left with three-quarters of a pound of bones and a still-powerful hunger. Good thing, then, that I had a half-pound of pork shoulder waiting for me — and too bad that the pork was no more than passable. I tried each of Bono's four sauces (available for purchase by the bottle everywhere you turn), but none of them helped. The red was too thick and too brackish, the hot like cheap K.C. Masterpiece hit with a shot of Tabasco sauce. The mild was sticky, mustardy and sweet but too strong, doing nothing but masking the flavor of anything it touched. The sweet and tangy was just a mix of the previous two, plus vinegar, so it came out stingingly sharp, bluntly tart, sticky, sweet and redolent of ballpark brat mustard.
The sides offered little distraction from my disappointment. The sweet-potato fries were mealy, the potato salad inedibly bad — like mashed potatoes laced with vinegar, relish and pickle brine. I washed that taste out of my mouth with sweet tea, which was done properly: a bag of granulated sugar with a drop of tea added for flavor. The meal's only other saving grace was the baked beans muscled up with bits of pork and sweetened with brown sugar.
Two nights later, I ordered the same meal in Centennial and had a much better experience. For starters, this location actually follows the Bono's design, with an open-face grill/oven from which all meat orders are taken — the pork and ribs and brisket and chickens and sausage links stacked up on the grates, a plastic garbage can full of split cordwood sitting close at hand for banking the fires. Outside, I'd seen the massive pile of wood, the chuffs of smoke crawling skyward from the chimneys. Inside, I saw the glaze of smoke and grease around the mouth of the big oven. It was like the heart of a great barbecue restaurant beating inside the body of an anemic chain.
The ribs here were a vast improvement — large and fat, with nicely mopped and crusted surfaces and deep, smoky flavor. Encouraged, I ordered the Brunswick stew, a surprisingly authentic take on the Georgia-cum-Carolina classic of tomato broth, potatoes, carrots, okra, peas, butter beans and boiled pork (originally squirrel) touched with a vinegary, almost citric bite. But that's where this Bono's charms stopped. I tried the sweet-potato fries (again, poured straight out of the freezer bag into the Friolator), the potato salad (still bad, but not as bad as at the Aurora store) and the baked beans (still good, and probably better than at the Aurora store). And the chopped pork was a wet, fatty mess: Poorly trimmed to start, the piece chopped for me had not spent nearly enough time in the smoker, and I actually left about half a plate's worth behind — something that I thought I would never do in a barbecue restaurant, tantamount to an alcoholic leaving a wounded soldier on the bar.
It's hard for me to find barbecue I don't like — so when I do, my disappointment is painful, palpable and stabbing. And because I am generally so forgiving of anyone worshipping the cult of the pig, I don't take this disappointment lightly. In Colorado, we attract barbecue restaurants like picnics do flies. And that means that anyone with a serious taste for America's only indigenous cuisine will always be able to find a better option than Bono's.
I certainly know I can.
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