Imagine that you're a restaurateur who's just been handed a million dollars. A little more than that, actually, but for the sake of nice, round numbers, I'll call it a million. You've got a big, fat check in your hand, ink still wet on all those zeros. What do you do with that kind of green? How do you spend it?
Go ahead and think about it for a minute. I'll wait...
So what did you come up with? Something good, I hope. In a market like Denver's, a million bucks is still a powerful chunk of change. Not quite enough to put you in the stratosphere, but an admirable number. Brasserie Rouge, Indigo and Vega, fine houses all, came in under seven figures. Adega got open with resources in that vicinity. And while it took quite a bit more to outfit Zengo, New York money was involved there, and in New York, they're used to playing with really big bills. The way things stand in town right now, with a million bucks, a smart fella could lease, stock, outfit and open a restaurant in just about any neighborhood, buy himself a flash Ferrari to get to and from work, and still have enough left over for the kitchen to garnish plates with crisp tens and twenties.
M 11 a.m.- 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Small ends: $13.69
Fried shrimp: $11.59
Peach cobbler: $3.79
Pound cake: $3.79
So when I heard that Mack and Daisy Shead had gotten a million-dollar loan from the city just for renovations (fiscal as well as physical) to their 26-year-old rib joint, my first thought was that M&D's Cafe had better reopen with gold-plated toilets and wallpaper made from thousand-dollar bills -- because otherwise, where would the money go? With that kind of cabbage, I figured, they could knock down the old place, build a whole new restaurant on the ashes of the first, knock that one down just for fun, then build another and still come in with cash to spare.
But after talking with Bill Lysaught at the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, the agency empowered to loan such big whacks of federal loot to businesses, like M&D's, that operate in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, I had another thought. I realized that if barbecue is what you do, and if you've got someone willing to pony up the pesos, why not build the city's most expensive rib shack? The idea of it appealed to the excessive sensualist in me, whetting my appetite, and I couldn't wait to taste what that sort of investment would buy.
But, of course, then I had to wait. And wait some more. M&D's was locked up tight for months while all those digits were transmogrified into a new kitchen, a new patio, a new dining room, a new expansion, a new everything. I had to bide my time while that money worked its transformative will on the space, wrapping a modern restaurant around the venerable bones of the old.
M&D's finally debuted the result last fall. And what did the city get for its investment? Exactly what it had, only more. The new M&D's is the Lee-goddamn-Majors of the smoked-meat set: bigger, better, stronger and faster than it was before. It's the home of the million-dollar barbecue.
Among Denver's restaurant elite, there are only two places that require a gentleman to wear a jacket to dine: the Russian Palace and the Palace Arms at the Brown. But these days, a jacket wouldn't seem out of place at M&D's, either. When I rolled in on a Friday night in my best blue jeans and Tijuana party shirt, I felt somewhat underdressed next to the guy in the black silk button-down, custom-tailored electric-lime sport coat and the stack-heeled green-and-orange-snakeskin rodeo kicks. He had his best girl with him, looking catwalk-poised in a juke-joint dress and dancing shoes. This was a couple ready for a night out, and I watched as they devoured barbecued chicken, hot links and baked beans without getting a drop on their clothes. Me? I ran through a whole stack of napkins and still ended up with barbecue sauce in my hair.
The entire place -- tight-packed dining room with its high-backed booths, the crowded waiting area, the bar (lemonade, but no liquor) and the front room -- had a vibe like midnight at a fashion-show after-party. Everything was smiles and great music, with P-Funk and Stevie Wonder filling the space with memories of the days when M&D's had the best jukebox in town and the staff flowing between tables and customers like water.
And the smell? Nothing on earth has a smell like a barbecue joint going full-out on a busy night. Indian restaurants smell exotic, Italian kitchens like hunger. To me, French restaurants and bakeries smell like home. But no other smell carries with it such a freight of comfort and joy as this dirty-clean odor of sweet heat and wood smoke, peppery sighs, perfume, tomatoes and meat. There's the dank stink of fryer oil and fish, low notes like peat and bogwater, and if you close your eyes, it wraps around you like brown-sugar kisses and a smothering embrace. I know why they call this stuff soul food: There's life in just a breath of it.
And barbecue ain't easy. When I was working in Florida, I knew a guy who loved two things: spaceships and pork ribs. He was a rocket scientist -- an actual rocket scientist who'd been with NASA -- and in his retirement, he did little else but drink beer, smoke meats in his back yard and try to get his friends to eat them. Thing is, the guy could never get it right. He had a hundred books on the subject of grilling, smoking, mopping and marinating. He had a collection of instructional videotapes, lists of the places he'd eaten great barbecue, a top-of-the-line backyard smoker and every barbecue-related gadget on the market. He had a second fridge in his garage filled with sauces and meat, and a dedication to the art of barbecue that -- as with any obsession that requires a refrigerator full of meat -- bordered on creepy. But while in his time he'd shot things into space and seen them home safe, getting the right balance of heat and sweet and smoke and spice into a ten-pound brisket was simply beyond him.
Part of the problem was that he was relying too much on money and technology than on gut instinct and history. Great pit men -- the best of the best of the barbecue class -- are born, not bought. They learn at the hip of those who came before them, work their nitty-gritty alchemy by touch and smell and feel, and get results that are as unique as fingerprints. Great 'cue has genetics. It's a family thing.
At M&D's, they're now into a third generation of smokers and fryers, with the skills and tastes and secrets passed down through Daisy's half of the family, the Holiday line. The M&D flavor is particular and strong, layered with all those elements that make up the smell of the place on a good night, but concentrated and focused. A naked piece of pork rib, sans sauce, is still dark and heavy with the tang of hickory and mesquite, sharp with black pepper, infused with a bittersweet saltiness all the way to the bone. Turn a rib on its side and you can see a pinkish line, fading to bruised purple near the tips, that runs the length of the bone just beneath the blackened surface. That line is evidence of a chemical reaction between heat and meat and smoke, as time and pressure forced the fumes of burning wood deep into the muscle. That line is pure gold in the ethereal realms of the professional pit-smoker, proof positive that your system -- whatever it is -- works. My buddy in Florida never saw such a line in his barbecuing life.
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Beyond the flavor, beyond that line, the texture of the meat is critical. You know those ads for rib joints that promise meat "so tender it falls right off the bone" or that "you don't need no teef to eat our beef"? You know what those slogans really mean? That the smoked meats and barbecue they're touting have been done wrong. Good ribs, ribs like the ones at M&D's, have some brawn, a solidity brought by slow, patient cooking over low heat that dries the meat but retains the tenderness of the fat. Done right, smoked ribs should come easy off the bone, sure, but they should come off in solid, tender pieces. That butter-soft junk that falls apart as soon as you pick it up? Trash. Overcooked, over-marinated and ruined by inexpert handling. At M&D's, the spare ribs are big, meaty and firm, the small ends juicier, fattier and more tender (think loin as opposed to strip), but not as powerfully flavored. And the full rack is enough to send three people to heaven, easy.
After the meat and smoke, the most important key to 'cue is the sauce. Forget the sweet tar of a Kansas City mop or the thin vinegar juice used in Carolina's tidewater shacks: M&D's offers a Southern-style pepper sauce for which the Shead family has become justifiably famous in at least three states. The mild is spicy, the medium hot, and the hot is just plain brutal, but everything on the menu is keyed to play against this mounting scale -- from the Mason jars full of sweet-tart homemade lemonade to the corn and beans and collard greens, to the hot pickles in the big jug behind the counter and the puckering (if a little dry) lemon-frosted pound cake on the dessert menu. After tearing into a plate of smoked beef brisket swimming in M&D's medium-hot sauce, I needed a mouthful of cold macaroni salad to chase it, needed something as sweet as that lemonade to wash it down. I wasn't crazy about the spiced corn or potato salad, and the yams were hard, fibrous and undercooked. But the baked beans were great charged up with a little extra sauce, and the mac and cheese was family-picnic-style comforting alongside a basket of mild rib tips.
Across from the meat on M&D's menu is fish. Catfish come in nuggets as appetizers, or from the fryers whole and flat, fins and tails attached, the firm flesh sweet and flaky beneath a grayish-blond cornmeal crust. You can also get soft, greasy whiting, delicate ocean perch, buffalo and snapper. I inhaled an order of shrimp, big and butterflied, battered in breadcrumbs, fried brown and crisp.
Smoking and frying are related but very divergent arts. You tend to find them practiced together more often than not -- usually by crews barely capable of handling one skill, let alone juggling two, so I generally expect only a fish restaurant to do good fish and a barbecue joint to make good 'cue. M&D's, though, does both with a surprising show of balance, cranking out those perfect meats while serving up fresh fish that have been treated with admirable delicacy. Top either of these with a slice of homemade sweet-potato pie and some gooey, mushy, sweet and sugary peach cobbler, and you've got yourself a Southern-fried feast. No matter what it's like outside, inside M&D's it's pure summer. And if that's what a million bucks buys, it's worth every cent.