Smoking Is Good for You

It's good to be at the top of the food chain.
I get letters all the time from diehard vegetarians who don't want to see animals killed for meat--but who delight in describing my impending demise in less than humane ways. And some of these letter-writers are quite articulate, such as the guy who recently wrote, "You're always eating the mothers and fathers of tomorrow."

Still, more catchy sayings have been created in defense of meat-eating than in favor of vegetarianism. Even Gandhi once wrote, "I have known many meat eaters to be far more non-violent than vegetarians." Then there's my personal favorite, the author of which was no doubt a devout carnivore: "If God wanted us to be vegetarians, then why did he make animals out of meat?"

And why did he make the meat taste so good?
Surely there must have been some divine intervention leading to the heavenly bones at Smokey's Bar-B-Que. This is a way-out-of-the-way spot to the west of Pecos on 64th Avenue, in a sparsely occupied residential area that doesn't look like it could possibly be home to a barbecue joint.

In fact, Smokey's occupies one of those houses, which used to be the owners' home. After years of weekend family barbecues, Kansas-born Ron Hein, who at the time worked for Coors Brewing Company, and his wife, Ida, a Denver native, decided to open their own barbecue place in 1969. The original Smokey's was in the garage, but the family soon moved out and turned the entire house over to the business. Now it has a comfy outdoor deck, a fifty-seat dining room open at lunch, and a thriving take-out area that's open all day. (Smokey's is closed on weekends, and be warned: No credit cards or checks are accepted, and only 3.2 beer is available.) Through the late Eighties, the family also franchised the Smokey's concept, so there were outposts in Greeley and Arvada, along with several in Denver. "But those people didn't take care of their businesses the way we do," says Ron and Ida's daughter Sharon. "They all closed one by one, so now there's just this one." The Heins have retired, and Sharon runs the business along with her sister, Sharlene Higgins, and their cousin Duane ("Just Duane," he says).

But the next generation has retained the Heins' tried-and-true recipes. Smokey's secret barbecue sauce is a thick concoction that's more heat than sweet, although the intensity varies depending on when a batch was made, since the fire burns out a bit after a few days. On our first visit, that sauce soaked almost to the bone of the whole smoked chicken ($16.95), sixteen pieces of chicken whose crisp skin carried the flavor of hickory chips. "We just use a commercial smoker," Sharon says. "The open pit takes too much monitoring of the temperature and too much work to keep it going."

The smoker obviously works just fine. The beef ribs ($7.95 for a three-piece dinner with one side and a roll, or $28.80 for twelve bones) were moist and appropriately chewy, with charred ends and a dearth of fat. And we pigged out on the pork spare ribs ($7.95 for a four-piece dinner with one side and a roll, or $28.80 for twenty bones). Although a few of the bones had some dry sides, the fatty ends more than made up for that, and the little end ribs were even better, all fat and greasy juice.

For really, really tender pieces of meat, the sandwiches are the way to go. We chowed down on the pulled pork ($2.95 for a small) and the turkey ($3.75 for a large), each bite dripping with that spicy sauce. Like the dinners, the sandwiches came with piles of excellent baked beans--which sported translucent bubbles of pork and more evidence of Smokey's remarkable balance between sweet and spicy--and sides of decent potato salad, the only thing the family doesn't make from scratch.

The Heins even make their own beef jerky (prices vary according to size). It's terrific, like a chewy, salty all-day sucker, pungent with smokiness. In fact, everything I sampled at Smokey's was so good that I've vowed to return for the whole smoked suckling pig; if it's anything like Sharon described it, hog heaven awaits a mere 64 blocks from downtown.

Or maybe it's over in Aurora, at We're Smokin' Barbecue. This no-frills eatery at the end of a strip mall also hickory-smokes its meats, then slathers them with either a killer hot-hot sauce or a well-balanced sweet-and-heat sauce. That gentler creation is a blend of owner Bob Hovenden's college days--when he worked with his roommate's father, a pitmaster, at a St. Louis barbecue joint--and a little bit of his wife's San Antonio heritage.

Three years ago Hovenden gave up a 26-year career as a counselor to start a mobile rib joint in Conifer. But after two years of that, he decided to put down some roots. "There was another guy doing a mobile unit up there," he explains. "And he had them twenty or thirty deep lining up to get his ribs. And his ribs were terrible. Every time I saw that, I kept thinking, 'I could do that, and I could do it better.'"

Well, I don't know anything about that other guy's ribs, but I know Hovenden's are damned good. The beef (three ribs for $5, or $6 for a combo with two sides and a drink) were unusually moist and tender; Hovenden says he and his pitmaster, Dave Ruud (formerly of Happy Herb's BBQ in Aurora), have some "tricks" that keep them that way. The ribs were also more intensely smoky than any bones I can remember encountering before, with an even smoke flavor across the bone and caramelized tips. "We get people from Kansas City in here all the time, and they want burnt ends," Hovenden says. "But with a smoker like ours, you just don't get those black ends."

We're Smokin' uses a Southern Pride smoker, which Hovenden says he balked at initially. "It turns out that the gas flame has a lot of advantages," he says. "It's even because of the fan inside, and the rotisserie style means the trays are always moving." It's also less likely to dry out the meat, which is why the baby back pork ribs ($7 a half-rack, or $6 for the combo) were so delectable, with the meat doing that cliched "dripping off the bones" and mingling juices with the sweeter of the sauces (the extra dabbing of molasses didn't hurt, either).

The same sauce was perfect for the beef brisket sandwich ($4) and the shredded-pork sandwich ($4), both excellent examples of meat cooked until it nearly liquefied. The sandwiches came with baked beans in a spicier sauce, and while they leaned more toward dry than runny, they had a good, soft texture. It was obvious that Hovenden makes his own potato salad, because the spuds weren't squished together in even little cubes as they are in commercial brands. The fact that the potato salad didn't taste like the waxy insides of a cardboard carton was another giveaway.

Hovenden also bakes his own cornbread and cookies, nice touches that made We're Smokin's fast-food-like atmosphere a little more homey. But then, most people who want to settle in for some big-time bone-chewing aren't concerned with their surroundings, anyway. A roof overhead, a napkin and a beer (We're Smokin' offers it in bottles) are optional--and you can forget that veggie stuff altogether. For a true carnivore to reach heaven, the only real requirement is lots and lots of animal parts fresh from a smoker.

Prepare to meat your maker.

Smokey's Bar-B-Que, 1961 West 64th Avenue, 429-9542. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

We're Smokin' Barbecue, 2680 South Havana, Aurora, 751-7079. Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday.


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