Over the two decades that he's operated Wolfe's Barbeque, Louis Wolfe has seen many a rib joint come and go. The reason so much barbecue bites the dust? "Other people don't think it's as good as you do," says Wolfe. "To you, it's a beautiful baby, but to others, it's just a baby."
Wolfe's baby, which sits in the shadow of the State Capitol, is one gifted child. The storefront establishment is humble, and Wolfe's ribs look bare-bones and basic, too. But tug off a nugget of flesh, and you get a mouthful of time travel that pulls you through Wolfe's lengthy quest for the perfect rib right up to the very delicious present.
Flame, hickory smoke and charred meat are in Wolfe's blood, and a photograph hanging by the counter inside his shop proves it. In the picture, a forty-something man is standing over an outdoor griddle, squinting into smoke, flipping flapjacks behind a stack of cooked bacon and what look like eggs. "That's my dad cooking breakfast on the grill," Wolfe says. "That's what we did in the back yard."
Father Wolfe passed his grilling skills down to his son, who did his first cooking at the age of nine, some fifty years ago, in Great Bend, Kansas. For a long time, Wolfe's cooking stayed at the amateur level. Unhappy with his managerial job at University Hospital, he found satisfaction in cooking meals for others on his backyard barbecue. Then in 1985, he finally decided to cook for a living and opened Wolfe's Barbeque on East Colfax Avenue.
Today he remains the only one involved in the one-man operation. "It's always seemed faster and easier for me to do it myself," he says. And during all those years of working by himself, for himself, he's forged some strong opinions. "I have a problem with people making Œbarbecue' with an electric box smoker and some sawdust in the bottom," he explains. "I'm prejudiced to barbecue that's actually made over a fire. Without wood and combustion, you don't get that primal flavor." Even so, some of the city's most successful barbecue joints don't cook their meat over a fire.
From the start, Wolfe has worked his magic on a blackened, custom-made smoker designed by the folks who manufactured the Hasty Bake Oven that his dad used. The Hasty-like design -- especially the smoker's bottom-mounted smoke vent -- is key to Wolfe's 'cue. "The smoke flow is better," he says. "The smoke has to pass around the meat. It's gotta stay there and visit the meat a while."
His regulars like to visit the meat a while, too, and crowd the place at lunch and dinner Monday through Friday. At the top of Wolfe's food chain are those ribs, old-school versions with a rosy smoke ring. Wolfe recommends eating them with sauce on the side. "The meat has to stand up on its own," he says. Wolfe boils up about three tons of sauce -- "a nice condiment," he calls it -- each year, in 25-pound batches. He combines ketchup with a commercial spice rub he massages into his meats, the same blend his dad used fifty years ago. (And, no, he won't reveal what brand it is.) The result is a shiny, middle-of-the-road sweet sauce that's distinctly Western. "If people push me, I tell them it's Oklahoma style," Wolfe says. The sauce has a hotter counterpart, too, which Wolfe makes by adding a teaspoon of cayenne pepper to each pound of the original recipe. (The two sauces combine for a nice, not-too-sweet, not-too-much-heat hybrid.)
Both sauces work well with Wolfe's smoked chickens, his smoked hot links -- chewy sausages that taste of herbs and smoke -- and slices of pork butt that sport a crimson outer ring around a quarter-inch of pink. The meat's a twin to a campfire pork roast.
Smoked tofu is another signature dish. The toothy, smoked-to-golden slivers are intriguing, tasty enough to both tickle a meathead and lure vegans into the forbidden confines of a BBQ joint. This dish was born back when Wolfe was getting ready to open his place, and the vegan pals helping him wondered what he could fix them for dinner. Wolfe popped up to the now-defunct Rainbow Grocery, grabbed some Denver-brand tofu, barbecued it -- and had an instant hit on his hands. "It's as important as anything on the menu," Wolfe says. The tofu has earned him consistent press and Web attention, as well as loyal meat-free fans.
Wolfe's sides, also homemade, include lightly barbecue-sauced beans, vinegar-based coleslaw and two church-supper-worthy desserts: pecan pie with roasted pecans floating over a pearly, perfectly sweet, corn-syruped filling, and lemon pie based on a thrifty Shaker recipe. Wolfe warns customers who want to try a slice that "it's for people who like to eat raw lemons" -- and that includes lemon rinds, which add bitterness to the explosive sweet and sour flavors in the filling.
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Even after nineteen years, Wolfe knows the odds are still stacked against barbecue joints. "Barbecue is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of going out to eat or getting something to take home," Wolfe says. "In other places, somebody says, 'Pick something up,' and barbecue's got a fighting chance. Here, it's just not there as people's first thought."
That's another reason he's seen so many places come and go over the years. Still, new outlets "get people thinking about barbecue, and that's a plus," he says. Even when McDonald's offers its McRib special, he gets a boost in business.
Wolfe's Barbeque got a big bump a few months ago, when Citysearch listed it among the nation's top-ten Q-houses. But Wolfe knows that his place is in the heart of this city. "This is a crossroads," he says, standing on the sidewalk outside his shop, watching Colfax street theater roll by. "Can't you feel the energy here?"
He's on fire.