When "Daddy" Bruce Randolph Jr. says that "it's more blessed to give than receive," he knows what he's talking about. Randolph's father, the late "Daddy" Bruce Randolph Sr., was Colorado's best-known food philanthropist, a down-home Mother Teresa who gave away thousands of home-cooked meals -- especially at Thanksgiving -- from his restaurant on 34th Avenue near Five Points. Randolph died in March 1994, but his legend lives on: That stretch of 34th now bears his name, as does the Thanksgiving food-basket giveaway sponsored by the Salem Baptist Church and local business groups.
And for two decades, Daddy Bruce Randolph Jr. has been following in his father's footsteps in Boulder. His year-round ministry is built on his father's giving spirit, barbecued ribs and sauce, and a little something else.
"You want me to show you how to play the piano?" he asks, snapping me out of a dream state induced by his perfectly charred pork spareribs. A moment later, Randolph settles in at a bruised piano that almost fills his joint, a down-and-dirty six-seater that looks as out of place in Boulder as a Whole Foods outlet would in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
"See these white guys?" Randolph asks, laying his spare-rib-length fingers across two handfuls of yellowed piano keys. "Each of these guys has seven bandmembers on the keyboard. These black guys living up here?" he adds, pointing to the upper keys of the piano. "They all work together with these white guys."
Within minutes, Randolph and his "knucklehead" teaching methods have taught me how to almost walk a two-finger blues across the piano, a lesson that makes the instrument seem far more racially harmonious than Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney ever did on "Ebony & Ivory." "You know the code now," Randolph says bluntly. "I just showed you more in ten minutes than you'd learn in two years of lessons."
Hang out in Randolph's Southern-style time capsule and you can learn a lot of worthwhile things. "Daddy Bruce is my mentor, my mediator, my minister," says Sparky, who's working behind the counter, chopping a head of cabbage. "This is my church, and he's the light behind Christ to me."
Over Sparky's shoulder, in a spot where most countertop eateries would post a menu, is a fading, grease-speckled sign that informs diners "Jesus Christ is my Lord!" Sparky has worked here ever since Randolph opened Daddy Bruce's Bar-B-Que at 2000 Arapahoe Avenue, tending the fire and helping in the kitchen between Bible-reading stints with his part-time boss and full-time spiritual ally. "He claims I'm the best white-boy cook around," Sparky says, smiling.
And when Randolph isn't witnessing over grilled meats, he's offering culinary succor, feeding barbecue (and a secret stash of hot dogs) to Boulder's hungry.
"If someone comes in and wants something to eat, we'll give them something to eat," Randolph says. "If you're trying to hustle me and gonna spend your money for drinks, I'll demand you give me fifty cents or a dollar or something. But nobody who comes here and needs anything will leave hungry. I have plenty."
Randolph picked up that philosophy from his father and the Bible. "Cast your bread upon the water and it will return unto you," he says, quoting a passage from the Scripture that frequently rings true for him. "I go in restaurants, they always give me extra helpings," he explains. "They pile me up; a lot of times they give it to me."
His father's recipes have also yielded many returns -- and return customers.
Randolph's fare has landed him on CNN and in various national publications, although his props list doesn't approach the accolades accorded his father, whose awards (including a public-service nod from President Ronald Reagan) decorate the walls in Randolph's shop. Regulars include Roger Ebert -- "Whenever he comes to Boulder," Randolph notes proudly -- and Chris and Nick O'Sullivan, the British brothers behind the three local Brothers BBQ outlets. "They used to hang out here and pick up all my secrets," Randolph says of the O'Sullivans. "They're my friends."
Randolph lures in new friends by flirting with Boulder's no-smoking-in-restaurants rule. "I'll stoke that fire and get that smoke going up and down the street," he admits. "The natives all start getting restless; they all start coming around."
Maija Gazur walks into Randolph's shop, Pyrex dish in hand, and orders a rack. It's her son's thirtieth birthday, and he's asked for Randolph's ribs. "Anytime there's a celebration, this is where we come," says Gazur, who's been a Daddy Bruce customer for twenty years and feeds her family ribs every Christmas Eve. Special occasions warrant special fare, even in healthy, whole-earthy Boulder. "This is the most wonderful food in the world," she declares.
Rick Williams agrees. A fan of Randolph's ribs since childhood, today he's driven 35 miles from his home outside of Boulder to break tradition and finally try one of Randolph's barbecued chickens. He also swears by Randolph's sauce, as does John Taylor, a University of Colorado math professor and transplanted Texan who's seated one stool over. "It tastes like home," Taylor says.
Randolph's crimson rib paint is a Southerner's dream, a vinegar-rich OSHA violation for ascetic-acid exposure. Its unholy tang is balanced by a supple, teasing amount of heat and layers of flavor over an almost indiscernible tomato base. Light-years from the sugary sauce loved by many Westerners, it's a restorative red that reflects Randolph's Arkansas roots. "We don't deal in sweet stuff here," Randolph says. "But it's not so hot that grandma and the kids can't enjoy it, too."
The ribs adorned with this sauce are hog-heavenly wonders that defy the "low and slow" credo of most rib purists: Randolph's slabs cook over high heat for about two hours. He also eschews the hickory-only mantra, starting out his fires with maple and oak, then adding hickory and mesquite from the woodpile outside his shop. The resulting ribs are more grilled than smoked, with a delicious charred skin and outer fat, and a toothy bite-back not found in slow-cooked ribs. Rounding out the menu are grilled chickens and a semi-tough beef brisket that benefits greatly from the addition of sauce.
As the day's lunch rush winds down, a family visiting their CU freshman son splits a rack of ribs at the counter. A pair of students speaking excited Italian hurry out with a rack of their own. A regular taking out three brisket sandwiches leaves behind this ringing endorsement: "Daddy Bruce got it goin' on!" Randolph slips out from behind the counter, sits at his piano and slips into a few bars of "Misty."
"Where else can you get good barbecue and live music like this?" Randolph asks the folks still at the counter. "Only at Daddy Bruce's Bar-B-Que," he answers, and he's absolutely right. A few bars later, he interrupts the tune to check a slab. "You know, all barbecue sauce got the same ingredients," he says. "The secret is in what you do with them, how you mix things up. There's nothing mystical or magical about any of this."
But on that point, Daddy doesn't know best.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.