For barbecue fanatics, summer is like one lengthy treasure hunt, a months-long stretch when, every weekend, the faithful can pile into their cars and strike out for the mountains or the plains in search of the next find.
As with all great adventures, most of us have no idea where we're going when we set out. We have favorite expanses of road, favorite towns, secret veins of blacktop where the pickings have been rich in the past. And even when we have a certain destination in mind, the details are often sketchy: We're looking for a tarpaper shed on a frontage road somewhere, a joint that might be called Willy's or Billy's or Chilly's, a place we heard about from this guy at a bar who heard about it from a friend who wasn't sure of the location but knew it was near where that runaway truck ramp closed a few years back. If we have maps, they're bad maps, and if we have directions, they're always the wrong directions and end up leading us to a spot that sells hats or chainsaw carvings of bears made from tree stumps, but never barbecue.
Barbecue shacks open and close around here with no warning. They appear and disappear overnight. They move around like floating castles in some freak-ass Michael Moorcock short story, settling in one place only long enough to be discovered by the pilgrims, then wandering off across the landscape for no discernible reason. A lot of the best barbecue joints are little more than modern-day gypsy carts -- literally, restaurants on wheels. Everything they need to work their alchemical magic of pigs and fire can be hitched to the back of an F-250 pickup and taken on the road.
But once we're on the road, real rib junkies have a finely tuned sixth sense for finding barbecue wherever we are. We can smell a hot smoker from a mile off when the wind is right, can track pit men across mountains and valleys like Indian scouts. It helps that this state has such a profusion of good 'cue. Head in any direction on any afternoon and we're bound to find something eventually. Colorado has shacks that do Kansas City-style pork and Texas brisket and St. Louis cut spare ribs. It has Memphis dry-rubbers and Carolina wets, hot-hot Deep Southern masters who'll burn your face clean off with their sauces, then laugh at you while you suffer, and backwoods purists who ascribe to no regional tradition at all, but just smoke like their daddies smoked, and their granddaddies before them. Some of these spots have no more advertising than a banner or a sign or a paper plate nailed to a tree with just three letters writ thereupon: BBQ. But that's enough. Spotting this, even the most staid and rational barbecue fan will suddenly turn into Burt Reynolds in Hooper, pulling a three-lane drift and a bootlegger's reverse on a crowded highway, terrifying our non-barbecue-crazed wives.
"You are not driving home, you idiot," Laura says to me before the dust has even settled around the tires. "What were you thinking?"
"I was hungry," I tell her, then point to the front of the dark-brown A-frame we've come to a stop in front of, where a white banner hanging from the porch reads "B.B.Q." in big red letters. "We need barbecue. We need barbecue right now."
Actually, we don't need barbecue. I need barbecue, but I'm only half of the "we" in question, and my better half would never do something as foolhardy as violating traffic laws and endangering the lives of her loved ones for a half-rack and some potato salad. For dumplings? Absolutely. For expensive tequila and occasionally for tamales, she'd submarine-tackle her grandmother. But barbecue is my thing. Like cigarettes and zombie movies, my obsession with barbecue is something she agreed to love, honor and tolerate when we got married. I'm pretty sure it was in our vows. And if it wasn't, it should have been.
"Fine," she says. "We'll get some barbecue. But go easy this time, okay? We don't have room in the refrigerator for -- "
Before she can finish that sentence, I'm out the door and up the steps leading to Cabin Creek Smokehouse BBQ, a perfect example of that spontaneously manifesting barbecue operation that makes summer in Colorado so much fun for rib-and-brisket treasure hunters. Situated along that developed stretch of Conifer Road in Aspen Park, just up from the lot where all the new Wendy's and Quizno's and whatnot are going in, Cabin Creek has been open for almost nine months now. It is the first stable, solid location for owners John and Christi Patrick, barbecue veterans who got their start in catering more than a decade ago. For several years after they sold their Aurora catering companies, they poured all their money and efforts into a barbecue trailer called Whiskey River, a full-time mobile extension of what had started as a way to offer catered barbecue picnics to keep up business in the summer months.
They took their trailer -- which was built in the shape of a log cabin and offered many of the unusual items that would eventually find their way onto the Cabin Creek menu -- to festivals and barbecue competitions. They took home some prizes, too. At Denver's Blues & Bones, their pork took third place, their brisket sixth. In Frisco, they won people's choice for their sauces and the open-barbecuing category with their smoked seafood. On weekends when they weren't competing or doing the festival circuit, they'd park the Whiskey River trailer in their neighborhood and sell to anyone who came by.
"The competitions were more for fun than anything else," Christi tells me a week or so after my first visit to Cabin Creek. "It was just to see if we knew what we were doing. We wanted to make sure the product was something we could be proud of. We knew they needed more restaurants up here, but we didn't know if we wanted to be the ones to do it, you know?"
The decision was made for them when a cease-and-desist order arrived at the Patrick house, courtesy of Red Robin restaurants. It seems that Red Robin already had a federal trademark on the name "Whiskey River" (using it to describe a sandwich or a sauce or something), and though the Patricks had a state claim on the title, the federal trademark superseded theirs. They were asked to shut down immediately, and being good, upstanding citizens, the Patricks did just that. They retired their trailer, pulled down their sign, took all of their equipment and all of the tricks they'd learned while competing against other mobile BBQ joints and found this space in Aspen Park, a former bakery and sandwich shop. Christi was worried it would be too small -- the spot has a good-sized kitchen but no dining room to speak of, just a counter inside and a few tables and chairs set out on the patio. But since their equipment was on wheels, the Patricks could just roll their two big commercial smokers onto a cement pad outside the back door of the kitchen, arrange a couple smaller box smokers for the pork, print up a menu and get to work.
Cabin Creek still does a tremendous amount of catering. It does whole pigs for luaus, smokes seafood and game meats by special request. But the carryout business started the minute the Patricks hung that BBQ banner out front. To fanatics like me, the invitation was irresistible.
As I step inside for the first time, I pick up a menu and immediately start ordering -- from Christi, it later turns out. I need pork shoulder, I tell her. A pound, dry. She explains that everything is done dry, that the sauces are available on the side, and I realize that I'm in the presence of professionals. I ask what kind of wood they're using out back, and she tells me mostly oak with just a little hickory thrown in. It's better for the more delicate meats and seafoods, she explains, and for the way they cook, which is as low and slow as I've ever heard of: eighteen to twenty hours in the box for the pork shoulder, between 100 and 150 degrees.
"It's a huge infusion of smoke," she says, and the oak works very well. A stronger wood for that length of time would make for an overpowering flavor, would ruin just about anything but a Texas brisket -- which is the tramp of the barbecue world, anyhow. A brisket will take almost any kind of abuse and still come out tasting like brisket. You could smoke a brisket for thirty hours over a bed of old newspaper and charred Ikea furniture and a Texan would recognize it as barbecue -- though I don't know whether that's saying something bad about brisket or Texans or both.
Regardless, I also order a half-pound of Cabin Creek's brisket (for scientific purposes), then add on a half-rack of the Memphis-style dry-rubbed St. Louis cut spareribs (done with a peppery, strong rub followed by five hours in the box and smoked fresh all through the day), a side of potato salad, a side of beans and a chocolate chip cookie. Then I take a breath.
"Anything else?" Christi asks.
"Just give me a minute."
Laura is standing at the end of the counter, less overwhelmed and anxious than I am. Whereas I'd picked up the Cabin Creek menu and simply looked to make sure the Patricks offered all the things I usually order in any barbecue restaurant, she was actually reading the menu to see what else they might have on board.
And while the standard barbecue offerings are excellent -- the ribs stiff and smoked all the way to the bone with a surface like shellacked hardwood, the pork juicy, fatty, tender and woody-sweet, turned electric with the addition of the best Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce I've had anywhere in the state -- what sets Cabin Creek apart from so many other barbecue joints is indeed the other things the Patricks have on board. They do open-faced barbecue sandwiches and barbecue po'boys. They do green chile shot with barbecued pork, and cowboy chili made with molasses-sweet, and red-chile-spiked baked beans hit with a handful of pulled pork or shredded brisket. The kitchen rolls a barbecue burrito that I can't believe I haven't seen somewhere else before, wrapping spicy beans and pork in a tortilla and smothering it with green chile, cheese and sour cream. And then there's the ultimate in barbecue-junkie midnight hangover food: the BBQ masher. It's a bowl of mashed red-skin potatoes topped with pulled pork or brisket, topped again with cheese and again with sour cream, and I can't think of anything better that's been done with barbecue since the first pork sandwich with pickles was invented.
Our order takes two bags to hold, and Laura shoots me a look that says, "Didn't I tell you to take it easy?" But as we're packing up, fixing up sides and sauces for the road, a guy comes in who needs three people to carry several boxes of barbecue out to his waiting truck. He's got pounds of pulled pork, coleslaw, baked beans and chicken halves, along with big plastic tubs of Cabin Creek's Blackjack sauce (hot, made with whiskey and coffee) and Old-Tyme Memphis style (spiked with Coca-Cola).
I nudge Laura. See? That is a guy who needs to learn some self-control. At least I didn't order so much that we need help out to the car.
"He's probably feeding a whole party, Jay. You're just feeding you."
Still, if she hadn't taken the keys away from me, I totally would have followed that guy home. He struck me as the kind of fella who really knows how to throw a party.
And he probably knows of a few more great barbecue shacks, too.
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