It was real easy to find Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs. Even if I didn't know where it was, even if I hadn't been there plenty of times before, even if I hadn't had the slightest clue, it would've been easy to find. All I had to do was look for the billows of smoke, the heads turning and the huge crowds gathered right there on the corner of 16th and Arapahoe — stacked two and three deep — just waiting for their turn to be called.
Last week, after an exhaustive survey of Denver's best wiener men ("Dog Days," August 30), I promised I'd get back out there for a look at some of the town's best hot dog carts. But two problems presented themselves almost immediately. First, after having eaten nothing but dogs for a couple of days straight, I didn't really want any more. I was all dogged out — to put it mildly — and the thought of wandering the streets of Denver, shoving my face full of wieners from every cart, hut and trailer I could find, did not fill me with joy.
Which isn't to say I didn't do it anyway. There are plenty of weeks when I've had my fill of something but, owing to the rigorous demands of my chosen profession, have had to keep right on eating the falafel, pigs' ears, sea urchin or goose liver that has become my obsession de la semaine. And this week was no different. But while trying to find a profusion of dog stands against which to test my appetite, I ran smack into the second problem: There just ain't that many purveyors of the tubesteak in this town.
Now, I'm not saying there are none, just that there aren't enough — "enough" being defined as at least one cart within one block's walk of wherever I am when I get an urge for a hot dog. Laugh all you want, but there are cities and neighborhoods in this fine country with precisely that distribution of dirty-water carts. Chicago, Manhattan at lunchtime, the beaches of South Florida: places where, if I timed it just right, I could walk from one end of a neighborhood to the other without ever being dog-less, coming upon a new cart at the precise moment that I'm finishing my last dog and need a replacement.
Not so Denver. But what bothers me most here is not the relative dearth of hot dog vendors and the extreme geographic isolation of the few that exist (all downtown, most within a block or two of the 16th Street Mall), but the fact that they are pretty much interchangeable. Personally, I like the cart that operates just across the street from my office at 10th and Broadway. The dogs are cheap, the hot dog guy is fast and, most important, his cart is convenient. I don't know that I'd walk more than a couple of blocks for one of these dogs — but the great thing is, I never have to.
Still, if I'm anywhere near the 16th Street Mall, I'm going to head to Biker Jim's cart. Owner Jim Pittenger and I do not see eye-to-eye on the construction and consumption of the perfect dog. He goes a little crazy with the toppings, for example, and I am a purist. He has threatened to punch anyone (like me) who says that boiled dogs are better than grill-charred ones, whereas I have threatened to punch anyone who claims a dog can be improved by the addition of ketchup. Other than this, though, we get on famously, linked by the one clear trait we have in common: obsession.
"Man, look at this," he said last week when I approached his super-deluxe cart at 16th and Arapahoe, a mammoth kitchen on wheels from behind which he commands an entire, heavily trafficked corner. He gestured at the crowds — the ones waiting for the dogs already charring on his grill, the ones being drawn in like gravity to the weight of customers already waiting. "It's a good thing my shipment is on the way. Two hundred fifty pounds of reindeer sausage. It was supposed to go out on Monday, but just left Anchorage airport at midnight today."
Biker Jim does not just do hot dogs. I mean, he does do hot dogs — Louisiana red hots with cream cheese and Hebrew National kosher all-beefs — but what he got famous for (and the man is duly famous, having been written about far and wide, in publications ranging from the Toronto Star to Food & Wine) is the weird stuff. He grills reindeer sausage that he gets flown in from Alaska. He does a lot of German white-veal brats and (one of my favorites) wild-boar sausage spiked with peppers and hit with a shot of sriracha. On Wednesdays, he pulls out the stops and cooks pheasant, French boudin (which he sometimes has kicking around on other days, too), steak sausages and Guinness beer brats. And every single one of them is good. There are some folks who might argue (wrongly) that they're better after Jim pulls out the industrial caulking gun and hits 'em with a shot of cream cheese and caramelized sweet onions, but I disagree. If I'm coming down for a Southwest buffalo dog, what I want to taste is the dog — a little mustard, a seeded bun, nothing else.
But hey, to each his own, right? I'm not here to pick a fight (this time...). And the reason I keep going back to Jim's is the fact that he's just as crazy for dogs, as crazy for ingredients, as stubborn about the canonical rightness of his preparation, as I am.
Now, though, I have another reason for heading down to Skyline Park: Biker Jim's Freakishly Small Concession Stand — which, in all its freakishly small glory, operates just behind the information booth — and, in particular, the Jittershake mixed up there. A Jittershake is one scoop of vanilla ice cream, one scoop of Costa Rican coffee ice cream (both from Ice Cream Alchemy in Boulder) and a long pour of Venetian cream blended together into a caffeinated milkshake that is damn near the best morning wake-up I've ever had. Even more powerful is the Jitterquake — the same as the Jittershake, but with a shot of fresh espresso. As if this weren't enough, the cart opens at 7 a.m. in order to serve breakfast burritos made with Jim's sausages, as well as Kaladi Brothers coffee, and then stays open all day to provide ice cream, cool drinks and Biker Jim's Gourmet Cheesecakes to the masses.
"My plan for world domination is under way," Jim told me as I was getting ready to leave. "I control this block now."
When I asked him what was next, without hesitating he barked out, "Hot dog restaurant, man. You'll see." And sure, he laughed when he said it. He had a whole bunch of crazy in his eyes (as well as a dozen-odd dogs stacked up on his grill). But you know what? I don't doubt him for a second.
Oh, by the way: That ice cream company Jim uses at his concession stand, Ice Cream Alchemy? They make bacon ice cream.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it: Bacon ice cream.
Also, Guinness ice cream, foie gras ice cream, curry ice cream, port-wine, tequila, bourbon-marshmallow and gingered-peach ice cream. But most important, they do bacon ice cream and, frankly, I can't believe that I'm sitting here writing about it rather than jumping in the car, driving to Boulder and buying myself enough to bathe in.
Unfortunately, Ice Cream Alchemy doesn't have a brick-and-mortar store of its own, but it does provide ice cream to about fifty different restaurants in Colorado (none, to my knowledge, are serving the bacon variety). So as soon as I'm able, I'm going to call them up and try to wrangle myself a sit-down to see what else they can do.
Green-chile ice cream, anyone?
On the prowl: While I was downtown checking out Biker Jim's wieners (ha!), I stumbled across another place just ripe for the double entendres: Boney's Smokehouse. Situated right on the corner of 16th and Lawrence (in Writer's Square) and just a quick jog from Biker Jim's (as if I've ever jogged anywhere), Boney's is a tiny, cramped, almost minuscule hut set right in the middle of the cross-square traffic flow that, like Jim's, does a hot dog, does a little Louisiana sausage, but also does barbecue.
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There are ribs — big ones, gleaming in the hot box beside the order windows — and turkey legs, as well as beef brisket and pulled pork. And it's pretty damn good barbecue, too. I had an excellent pulled pork sandwich on a plain hamburger bun (as is only proper) with plenty of meat, just enough sweet sauce to stick it all together, and a lightly smoky flavor. I can say with confidence that it was the best barbecue sandwich I've ever gotten from a place small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck with room to spare.
Small as it is, Boney's had three people inside when I looped back around for a second lunch: one on the register, two on the grills. And while (obviously) everything is getting smoked off-campus, as it were, it's a credit to this joint that they're actually putting the heat to the meat for every single order that goes out through the window.
So while Denver might not be the best city in the world for hot dog carts, we do have walk-up barbecue huts right in the middle of downtown. And that's something to be proud of.