Only in America
Americans like to take credit for things -- but culinarily, we're screwed.
Almost everything we eat, good or bad, comes from somewhere else. What's worse, most of the great things we eat come from the Europeans (the French, in particular) and we'd much rather blame the Europeans (and the French, in particular) for something than give them credit for anything. Runway couture, soccer, international fascism, Gérard Depardieu -- all that can be blamed on Europe and the Europeans. But to be fair, if it weren't for the long and (mostly) civilized history of dining across the pond, we wouldn't have cream sauces, $300 degustation menus, gnocchi, bangers and mash, blue-footed Bresse chickens, duck confit or wine without screw-tops, either. And foie gras. If it weren't for the French, geese would have overrun the planet by now and would be well on their way to figuring out how to hold pistols so they could usurp us as the dominant species, force us into confinement pens, and stuff us with Whoppers and milkshakes until our livers became all fat and glossy and perfect for eating with a little sour cherry glaze and a nice glass of port.
There's just not much we shove in our pie holes that we Americans can claim a clear title to. Sandwiches? British and, concurrently, Russian. French fries? Belgian (but see how tricky those Frogs are?). Meatloaf? French, though they'd call it something like le galantine de boeuf and probably wouldn't have a problem ceding that one to Betty Crocker, anyhow. Even breakfast cereal comes from somewhere else -- probably Scotland -- although it did take an American to come up with frosted SpongeBob Squarepants fortified oat cereal with Plankton-shaped mini-marshmallows.
And thank God for that.
So what does that leave us? There's the so-called New American cuisine, a logical and intellectualized deconstruction of those dishes native to American culture that covers everything from restaurants that serve 1950s-style TV dinners to customers sitting in thrift-store recliners to $15 grilled cheese cocktail sandwiches served with tomato foam. There's California cuisine -- granola and cocaine. And there's now a movement toward the glorification of American regional cuisine, but no one outside Buffalo seems all that interested in eating beef-on-weck sandwiches, and scrapple hasn't yet become a staple outside of Pennsylvania, where it was invented.
Still, we Americans do have one food that's all ours, which crosses all socioeconomic boundaries and is eaten everywhere: Barbecue. When done properly, it's stamped with the true mark of obsessive American ingenuity we're so proud of. And it's done properly in the most modest and unlikely places, like the garage space at 2856 Fairfax Street, which happens to be the address of Ronald and Louella Brooks and their restaurant, Brooks Smokehouse Bar-B-Que.
"Hey, how y'all doin'?"
That was Ronald, coming out to greet us when Laura and I arrived for our first taste of Brooks barbecue. We'd parked on the street and approached tentatively, not sure whether the place was open. We knew we were in the right spot, because there was a big sign out front and a colorful gators-and-crawdads mural painted along one side of the building, but walking right into someone's yard in search of barbecue and cornbread felt a little strange. Like a very foodie Halloween, when our our plastic pumpkins would be filled with pork sandwiches and ribs, rather than candy corn and Mallomars.
"You comin' in to sit?" Ronald asked, and I looked at Laura, and Laura looked at me. We weren't sure if we were there for takeout or lunch or dinner or what; we only knew that there was barbecue inside and that we were hungry. We could smell the food from the sidewalk.
"Well, come on into the dining room," Ronald said, helping us make up our minds. "Come on and have a look."
So we did. Brooks's setup starts with a narrow hallway -- clean and tidy, with a register off to one side and a sign that says CASH ONLY -- leading to a left-hand turn. We made the turn, and suddenly it seemed like we were in a very nicely appointed Baptist church basement just in time for the weekly potluck. Which was weird, because we knew there was no church there -- from the outside, we'd seen a building that looked like a large detached garage. Yet inside, there was this open, windowless space filled with mismatched chairs, tables covered in maroon floral-print cloths, eclectic silverware combinations, a large flat-screen TV (off when we arrived, but later turned on so Ronald could watch football while he cleaned up), and a dozen beautifully dressed black ladies working their way through the tail end of a big buffet lunch and complimenting each other on their hats.
I loved it immediately and without reservation. This was exactly the sort of spot where real American food should be served. It was homey (which only made sense, seeing as it was in the back yard of someone's home) and comfortable; as plain as a tall glass of milk and just as wholesome, with stacks of paper napkins on all of the tables, garage-sale art on the walls and zero ostentation (my guess is that the Brookses couldn't afford any, so they bought the TV instead). Louella called me "honey" and worked the floor like she was in her own kitchen. And when she pointed out the short, paper menus set at each place, I immediately wanted one of everything and two of most.
Ronald and Louella came to Denver from Louisiana, which explains why their barbecue joint also serves frog legs, alligator, boudin sausage and okra gumbo. Ronald was a carpet installer for years, working with a crew and getting his culinary training by cooking for them. He cooked on weekends. He cooked on holidays. He cooked for everyone he knew. He would do barbecue, smoke turkeys, bring macaroni and cheese (the best macaroni and cheese I've had in town) and butter beans and pots of gumbo for the guys. And while that old saw about the restaurant business -- the one in which someone is a real good home cook, lets his friends talk him into opening a restaurant, then goes broke fast after he realizes that cooking for a party once in a while and actually cooking for paying crowds every night are two very different things -- generally ends tragically, the story of Brooks Smokehouse may yet be the exception to the rule. Ronald and Louella have been operating their place for about six months, and Louella told me they're doing fine. Ronald told me he's thinking of expanding. They'd already sold out of a few things -- the rice dressing, the potato salad -- when Laura and I showed up, and while Ronald might have been the greatest carpet installer Denver ever saw, that no longer matters. Because he's a better cook and pit man. A genius. A maestro of meat, smoke and fire.
Even though Laura isn't quite as nuts for barbecue as I am, I married her anyway, because she has other charms. She's pretty, for starters (which I am not), she's smarter than me, and she was once thrown out of Tijuana for creating a public disturbance, which -- if you know anything about Tijuana -- is no small feat. But our differences of opinion on barbecue are actually fortunate, because when I drag her along to joints like Brooks, I don't have to share. Matter of fact, I can make an impressive display of gentlemanly conduct just by offering her the first bite of the biggest, juiciest rib on the plate, knowing full well that she will turn it down, leaving me to tear into it myself like a total pig and her feeling included in my life.
Manners. That's what keeps marriages together, folks.
Laura ordered a hamburger plate this time -- six bucks for a burger served (properly) on a grocery-store bun with all the necessary fixings (mustard, onions and pickles), plus a side of mixed veggies out of a can and a piece of macaroni-and-cheese casserole that was dense and cheesy and perfect. It had been cut out of the pan in a lovely little square, and even though it was still warm from the oven, you could pick the whole thing up with your fingers and take a bite.
Rather, you could do that if you're an uncultured boob who's best not brought out in public, even to a restaurant in someone's garage -- which is what I am when under the influence of good barbecue. And anyway, all my silverware was otherwise occupied. I had my fork stuck in a bowl of brown-sugar-sweet baked beans studded with chewy bits of pork fat and big pieces of crunchy, thick-cut bacon; my spoon in another bowl of white rice that Louella had brought to go along with my spicy, red-crawfish étouffée, and Laura's spoon in the étouffée itself, which was hot and packed with big chunks of real crawfish and stewed tomatoes. My knife I was keeping close at hand, in case anyone snuck in and tried to touch my barbecue.
Over the course of my visits to Brooks, I ate every variety of barbecue offered except the beef -- which, for my own reasons, I think of as less a necessary barbecue meat than something you turn to when you've eaten all the pigs. I had sliced, smoked pork that was a little dry on its own, but excellent when dipped in the Brooks family's own secret-recipe, sweet-sweet Southern-style barbecue sauce (available for purchase if you ask nice) and drippy, gooey and delicious when chopped up for a pork barbecue sandwich. (Ronald serves everything off the smoker save the barbecue sandwiches with sauce on the side, which is the due conceit of a master pit-man who knows that his smoked meats are so good on their own that a sauce can only detract from their naked wonderfulness.) I had chicken legs and chicken breasts, both served on the bone, in the skin, and so deeply smoked that the meat had turned almost purple and the skin tasted like a mouthful of Boy Scout campfire. The barbecued link sausage was good but not great, and frankly, a waste of valuable digestive real estate when put up against the ribs.
Because the ribs were sublime. Meaty, fatty, dark pork ribs, smoked forever over enchanted wood, spice-rubbed with what I can only guess was salt, pepper and magical pit-man pixie dust, and so juicy that when I squeezed them, juice ran out. I had my first taste of these ribs on our initial visit, ordered more to go when we were done, ate them again the next time I was at Brooks, ordered another batch to go, and long after those were gone, my refrigerator still smelled like wood smoke. Three days after I'd picked up my last order, Laura found me sitting in front of the open fridge in the middle of the night holding an empty Styrofoam box in my lap and weeping quietly to myself because there were no more ribs, and Brooks was closed the next day.
Every time I went to Brooks, Ronald or Louella (or both) slipped a little something extra either onto the table or into my bag of leftovers -- a side of rice, an extra rib, a big scoop of summery, mustardy, church-picnic potato salad, a glass of homemade strawberry fruit punch thick with mashed berries and sweet as all get-out. In Louisiana, that's what they call a lagniappe -- a little something extra. The fact that the Brookses give you a little something extra without ever calling attention to it just proves they're good people. And great cooks.
Unlike Emeril Lagasse -- who's a few lagniappes short to start with and, despite all those years at the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, still can't do an étouffée as good as the one here -- the Brookses know instinctively what American food is supposed to look and smell and taste like. They know it's supposed to come from the heart, not the wallet or the boardroom or a focus group. And they understand that sometimes -- okay, most of the time -- people will be happier with wonderful food and friendly service in a garage than with mediocre food and stuffy help in a room fit for Louis the XIV.
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