Denver doesn't have much of a reputation as a barbecue city -- which makes sense, since the distinct styles of American barbecue evolved in other states; any methods or meat cuts specific to Colorado (lamb or bison, for example) disappeared decades ago. Slow cooking over hardwood coals is a skill acquired over many years -- a skill that few have the patience to master unless they're in a family business or are just crazy-passionate about pork and beef and smoke. But this city's restaurant scene has been growing exponentially in recent years, and the number of barbecue joints has risen at a similar rate. Which means that while just three years ago we could only come up with five favorites, we're now confident that it will take two hands to tally the places we really, really like.
The key is knowing what to order at each restaurant. "My main quibble with many of Denver's barbecue joints is that they often present an eclectic barbecue menu that picks and chooses items from different regions in the country," says Adrian Miller, author, Southern-food expert and certified barbecue judge. Many of Denver's best smokehouse dishes come from restaurants that offer preparations and sauces not just from Kansas City, but from St. Louis, Memphis, the Carolinas and Texas. But even at these jack-of-all-trades setups, great barbecue can still be found. And at those regional specialists, there's almost always something worth going back for. Here's our list of the ten best barbecue joints in the Denver area, presented in no particular order.
10) Moe's Original Barbecue 530 Broadway, 303-630-1980 2727 South Parker Road, Aurora, 720-306-6979 3295 South Broadway, Englewood, 303-781-0414 Moe's first hit Denver in 2008, after years of building a following in Vail. Owners Mike Fernandez, Ben Gilbert and Jeff Kennedy learned their 'cue craft while in college in Alabama, so the style doesn't stray far from its Deep South origins. Fruit wood is the secret to the smoky flavors at the three Denver outposts of the chain that's grown beyond Colorado borders. While you can't go wrong with the pulled pork or ribs, Moe's does one thing that singles it out among the BBQ crowd: smoked tofu.
9) Jabo's Bar-Be-Q 9682 East Arapahoe Road, Englewood, 303-799-4432 Jabo Lawson -- a veteran of the Denver barbecue scene -- dazzles with sauces customized to your liking, with five heat levels and flavors like smoky cherry and hickory mustard. If you're a first-time customer, Lawson will offer you an ice-cube tray filled with sauce samples. Still, as at all barbecue joints, the meat comes first. Jabo's ribs are the eatery's calling card, but the pulled pork -- by the pound or on a sandwich -- offers juicy shreds of porky goodness without much interference from heavy rubs or marinades.
Keep reading for eight more of the best barbecue joints...
8) Brooks Smokehouse and Catering 800 Oakland Street, Aurora, 720-949-0581 Like Jabo Lawson, Ron Brooks gets his barbecue chops from Louisiana, but at Brooks Smokehouse, you'll find Cajun specialties in addition to slow-cooked meats. Brooks's best barbecue may be the pork ribs, cut long and smoked to a mahogany hue with a skin, rather than a bark, that bursts with flavor as soon as you bite into it. The sides, including corn maque choux -- a Cajun creamed corn with heat and a touch of its own smoke -- may be the best in town. If you really want to dive into Louisiana barbecue, try the smoked alligator "wings": delicate gator legs, moister and richer than the standard chicken variety. Brooks and his wife, Louella. run the restaurant out of their home, so it's only open weekends, but the mobile trailer can be found around town (at places like Strange Craft Beer or Chain Reaction Brewing) on weekdays.
7) Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q 24153 East Prospect Avenue, Aurora, 720-274-5300 8264 East 49th Avenue, 303-371-1566 Jim 'n Nick's is the only national chain on our list, but it's a small chain centered mostly in Georgia and Alabama; the Denver-area pair are the only locations west of the Mississippi or north of the Mason-Dixon line. So props to Jim 'n Nick's for bringing to Colorado its brand of Deep South cooking that originated in the first store in Birmingham, Alabama. Say what you will about chain restaurants -- sure, the interior is a little cookie-cutter and the locations tend to be bland and suburban -- but this chain uses its network of cooks and trainers to put out a consistent, and consistently good, selection of pulled pork, ribs, sausage, chicken and brisket. That said, the pulled pork is the definite standout on a menu that also covers Gulf Coast favorites like shrimp and fried catfish.
6) Piggin' Out Bar-B-Que 9987 Morrison Road, Lakewood, 303-988-2749 One look behind the country-style shack that houses Piggin' Out Bar-B-Que in almost-rural Lakewood will let you know that the owners understand what smoking meat means. There you'll find a big steel smoker on a trailer that's stained in streaked shades of bronze from smoke and fat. The interior of Piggin' Out isn't much to look at -- it's mostly a takeout joint, with no indoor seating and just a menu board, an order counter and a few pig figurines to remind you of what you're about to eat. There's chicken and turkey on the menu along with standard sides, but the best bets are the pulled pork, the pork ribs and the chopped brisket. Sauces are honest, Kansas City-style concoctions and come either rich and sweet or as a spicy version of the same. Keep reading for five more of the best barbecue joints...
5) Yazoo Barbecue Company 2150 Broadway, 303-296-3334 9555 E. Arapahoe Road, Englewood,303-792-9500 Yazoo has two locations, but we prefer the original downtown spot -- it just feels more like a barbecue joint. Both offer a range of pork, beef, chicken and sausage, but the ribs -- especially the cheaper but meatier rib tips -- take the prize. Or if you're bored of the same meat cuts you find at every smokehouse, Yazoo presents the Bob: smoked chunks of chicken breast wrapped in jalapeno and bacon. For sides, you can't go wrong with the fried pickle chips and hush puppies.
4) Boney's Smokehouse BBQ 1543 Champa Street, 303-825-9900 Yes, Boney's menu is of the catch-all, multi-regional breed of barbecue offerings. And, yes, the sauce selections range from molasses-tinged Kansas City style, to a hot and tangy North Carolina blend, to a surprisingly tasty South Carolina mustard-based mix. Put the mustard sauce on a pulled-pork sandwich or dip the ribs in the thicker, tomato-based options, and you'll have a winner. But the best on the list may be the rib tips -- more pork goodness than the standard bones, if you don't mind a little extra cartilage.
3) Russell's Smokehouse 1422 Larimer Street, 720-524-8050 Maybe upscale and barbecue don't belong together in the same sentence, but if you can ignore the fact that the food at Russell's comes on actual plates instead of in plastic baskets or on butcher paper, the flavors are as down-home and classic as at any rib shack in town. The prices may seem a little steep, but the portions are ample, and the sides have a restaurant-kitchen polish, thanks to owner Frank Bonanno's attention to detail. Of particular note are the beef ribs, a rarity among Denver eateries. They're moist and fatty (slow cooking melts that fat into the meat rather than leaving it in gelatinous globs), and the mild smoke lets the beef and peppery dry rub do most of the talking. If you can't handle the idea of beef ribs, the pork spare ribs and baby backs are just as good. Keep reading for two more of the best barbecue joints in Denver.
2) Country Time BBQ 2504 West Hampden Avenue, Englewood, 720-404-1916 Country Time is a takeout-only shack overlooking a stretch of West Hampden Avenue. Even if you miss the sign, you'll know exactly where to stop from the smell of wood smoke emanating from the outdoor barbecue pit. Don't look around too much at the order counter (is that an eel in the murky aquarium on the far end?) -- just ask for what's best that day and head home, or wolf down your meal while sitting in your car in the parking lot. Pork shoulder and ribs come out almost black on the outside, but the meat is so infused with smoke and flavor that you won't need sauce. Try it anyway; there's only one kind, and it's a family recipe from Mississippi.
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1) Wayne's Smoke Shack 406 Center Drive, Superior, 303-554-5319 Wayne's sticks to one thing -- Texas-style barbecue -- and gets that one thing right. After all, Texas is where owner Wayne Shelnutt is from; he takes his inspiration from Hill Country meat markets that smoke brisket, sausage and other delights daily and sell out everything they have before shutting down. And while everything here is touched with smoke from post oak (as it is around Austin), the beef brisket stands out. With a coffee-hued bark from a simple dry rub and hours over coals, the brisket stays tender, juicy and, most of all, beefy. And don't be afraid: Ask for cuts from the fatty end.