Today is National Barbecue Day, and if you’re like us, the mere mention of the word "barbecue" triggers drooling. Fortunately, Denver’s barbecue scene has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, so there’s a little something for everyone when you're hunting for smokehouse favorites. But there have been some shakeups in recent months, and we've had to say goodbye to some of our personal best: For starters, Owlbear Barbecue closed its original location at Finn’s Manor earlier this spring, but will almost certainly return to our list once it reopens at 2826 Larimer Street later this year. And Globe Hall changed ownership in February, losing its original pit master and driving force. With those changes in mind, here are the ten best barbecue spots in metro Denver (in alphabetical order), and what you should order when you get there.
Boney's Smokehouse BBQ
1543 Champa Street
Boney's is one of the few joints that can do the culinary bus tour of the country's top barbecue regions without falling flat on any one item. Juicy pulled pork splashed with vinegar-based sauce brings North Carolina to mind, while ribs backed by something a little sweeter and more tomatoey veers in the direction of Memphis. The mix-and-match approach might frustrate purists, but the key is to sample the sauces first and then decide what suits your fancy. Whatever you order, though, the flavors of the meats definitely stand on their own, so going naked is always an option.
What you should order: The Pig-a-Dilly sandwich, with pulled pork, fried pickles and coleslaw. Ask for it "Whole Hog" style, which piles on slices of spicy hot link for an extra buck.
Burnt End BBQ
5332 DTC Boulevard, Greenwood Village
Natives of Kansas City take barbecue seriously, so when a new KC-style barbecue joint opens, aficionados notice. Burnt End first stoked its fires a year ago, just as a wave of new smokehouses was descending upon the city. The counter-service operation is the product of PB&J Restaurants, which also runs Ya Ya’s Euro Bistro, just up the road in the Tech Center. But while this Burnt End is not an original, it is a Kansas City (or, more accurately, Overland Park, Kansas) import, and the executive chef goes by the name Smokey (Stephen “Smokey” Schwartz), so that’s a plus. And as his name suggests, Schwartz’s recipes and techniques result in good, smoky meat.
What you should order: Burnt ends, of course — a Kansas City specialty served as addictive, charry chunks of beef brisket point, which cooks longer than the leaner flat.
Georgia Boys BBQ
237 Collyer Street, Longmont, 720-999-4099
141 Fifth Street, Frederick, 303-833-3140
Depending on where you live in the metro area, the two Georgia Boys locations can be either a quick jaunt or a full-on day trip. Consider, though, that many of the finest pit masters in the country ply their trade in rural areas; just think of it as a quest for something rare and wonderful – like unicorns, leprechauns or perfect brisket glistening with fat. The Southern charm at either location runs thick, as do the daily specials, so keep an eye out for occasional etouffee, sweet potato casserole and homey side dishes around the holidays.
What you should order: Georgia barbecue is big on pig, so you can’t go wrong with the pulled pork. But make sure you save some room for a side dish of a real Georgia specialty: Brunswick stew. It’s like a meaty cross between chili, succotash and leftover barbecue.
GQue Championship Barbecue
5160 120th Avenue, Westminster
GQue owner Jason Ganahl competed on the competitive barbecue circuit for years, earning the Rocky Mountain BBQ Association’s Team of the Year award and placing high in several of the top national competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. His recipes translate well to a restaurant setting, and his meats are among the most consistent across the board, whether ribs, brisket, wings, sausage or turkey. And sides are done right, too, with smoky beans, tangy slaw with a sweet hint of apple, and kettle chips meant for munching.
What you should order: Do yourself a favor and get a sampler platter of everything GQue smokes; your belt may complain, but you won't regret it. Ganahl's time on the competitive circuit taught him to aim for big flavors over regional specificity, so every bite is bold and beautiful.
Kitchen Table BBQ & Comfort Food
1426 East 22nd Avenue
Dave Kilroy’s little kitchen that could keeps on chugging in its hidden location on East 22nd Avenue. Despite being off the beaten path, the Kitchen Table has gained a loyal cadre of Midwesterners and barbecue fans who keep the place busy, buying up every last scrap of meat – brisket, ribs, pulled pork, chicken and sausage — that comes out of the restaurant’s smoker. During the right time of year, you can even score a smoked brisket pot pie, and the sides alone are worth a stop.
What you should order: Kilroy’s output is consistent and even-handed, so you can’t go wrong with anything you order, but the burnt ends are somehow just a little homier, a little more Kansas, making each bite nostalgic as well as damned good.
Keep reading for more great barbecue...
Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
The last two years have been big for barbecue in Denver, with a whole new crew of pit masters smoking up ribs, shoulder and brisket in nearly every Southern style. Roaming Buffalo was an early addition to the 2015 smokehouse scene, opening near the University of Denver and holding our attention with what can only be called Colorado-style barbecue, featuring lamb shoulder and bison back ribs in addition to housemade jalapeño-cheddar sausage. You'll also find the usual suspects — beef brisket, chicken wings and pork ribs — seasoned lightly and smoked gently so that the meaty flavors come to the forefront. Sides are worth celebrating, too, with kicked-up versions of classics, like honey-lime slaw and poblano mac and cheese. And a feast wouldn't be complete without a cup of the kitchen's luscious caramelized banana pudding.
What you should order: Follow your nose and check the specials board for the occasional barbecue tacos, smoked beef ribs or a meat-loaded baked potato. Roaming Buffalo won our award for Best Barbecue Restaurant this year, so you can't miss with whatever calls your name. On Friday and Saturday nights, stop in for a smoked prime rib supper, one of the most exquisite cuts of meat in town.
1422 Larimer Street
A basement restaurant in a heavily regulated downtown restaurant district can only crank up the smoke so much, but Russell's makes up for that by serving high-quality meats treated right. Restaurateur Frank Bonanno's underground smokehouse, next door to his speakeasy, Green Russell, doesn't seem like the right kind of place to find good barbecue. Despite the hush-hush secrecy of the entrance and Bonanno's reputation for great Italian (he also runs Luca and Osteria Marco), the barbecue at Russell's surprises with complex flavors and mouthwatering tenderness. Prices lean toward fine dining, but portions are gut-busting, so guests get their money's worth. If you're all in for a meat-heavy night, start with a sausage sampler for some of the best charcuterie in town.
What you should order: Beef ribs, a rarity outside of Texas, steal the show, but the kitchen shows expertise with baby back ribs and — dare we mention it? — chicken. And if you’re feeling adventurous, go for the smoked carpaccio platter: paper-thin slices of kangaroo, elk and water buffalo smoked over Leopold Bros. whiskey-barrel staves.
Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ
1551 Cortez Street
There was a time when you had to plan a trip to Estes Park if you wanted a taste of Smokin’ Dave’s grub. But owner Dave Oehlman has slowly spread the smoke southward over the years – into Lyons and Longmont first, and finally into north Denver as of March. Perched on a hilltop overlooking Highway 36, the newest member of the family boasts a big menu of all the standards, plus some Southern favorites like fried catfish, chicken-fried steak and meatloaf made with pork, beef and Italian sausage.
What you should order: Bite into the Pitmaster sandwich, a trainwreck of Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket and housemade cheddar-jalapeño sausage. But if for some strange reason you’re not feeling smoky, Oehlman was once a steakhouse chef before turning to barbecue, so the twelve-ounce ribeye is a sure thing.
Wayne's Smoke Shack
11406 Center Drive, Superior
Texas doesn't get much love from Coloradans, but the barbecue at Wayne's is changing that. Owner Wayne Shelnutt is from Texas — and the finish, flavor and juiciness of his slow-smoked meats are 100 percent Texas, too. The pit master brings the flavors and techniques of Texas Hill Country — the post-oak-and-brisket holy land with Austin at its center — to Denver's north suburbs, where Lone Star State expats and Front Range natives alike line up for a taste of juicy beef with a coffee-black bark and deep, smoky flavor that can only come from time, patience and love. Pork lovers have plenty to be thankful for, too: Wayne's ribs and pork shoulder sing with the same slow-cooked and savory alchemy that arises when fat and dry rub combine with smoke to coax magic from meat. Lunch is your best bet; by dinner, the best might already be gone.
What you should order: Brisket, brisket...and more brisket. You'll get your choice of fat or lean; ask for a little (or a lot) of each.
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Yazoo Barbeque Company
2150 Broadway, 303-296-3334
9555 East Arapahoe Road, Englewood, 303-792-9500
"Sauce is a condiment. In my opinion, it's optional." So says Don Hines, who owns Yazoo Barbeque Company. He came by his opinion in Memphis, where he worked on a number of barbecue teams. Instead of sauce, the pit master uses a Memphis-style dry rub on his ribs, pork shoulder and brisket to lock in flavor, then smokes those meats over pecan wood. After moving to Denver, he first gained fans with his little storefront on the edge of downtown, which has grown over the years and now sports a great rooftop patio — and it's still our favorite of the two Yazoo locations. And despite his opinion that sauce is optional, he puts bottles of his own homemade version out on every table — but he insists that he learned to make that sauce here in Denver, not in Memphis.
What you should order: Yazoo rings in as one of the best barbecue bargains in town, and if you want to keep things even cheaper, opt for the rib tips. You'll get the same great flavor as the pricier St. Louis-style rib racks, but for only $6.50 for a full pound. The tips are mostly meat, too, for a porkier bite, if you don't mind eating around a little cartilage.