Two for the Road
We saw Hog Heaven Bar-B-Que coming from a distance. Laura and I had been out wandering -- ostensibly making a quick, up-and-back run over Guanella Pass to see the aspens changing like good Coloradans, to ooh and aah over the foliage along with several thousand other day-tripping yuppies in their SUVs. But what I was really after was some back-road jerky, some street-side stand offering homebrew lemonade and root-beer candies. And barbecue, of course.
Whenever I escape the pull of Denver's strong urban gravity, I start thinking about barbecue. My antennae go up, the radar switches on. I develop an extra two or three preternatural senses finely tuned to the odor of hickory and mesquite smoke, the ethereal vibrations given off by pit men working their smokers. I've been known to sense barbecue from miles away, like a shark scenting blood in the water, feeling it as a tightening in my chest and a tingling in my extremities. Laura tells me these are actually the signs of an impending stroke or heart attack -- no doubt brought on by an annual consumption of barbecue on par with that of entire towns south of the Mason-Dixon -- but I know better. These are my Spidey Senses going into overdrive -- not much good for fighting crime, but ideally suited for hunting down the purveyors of smoked meats, baked beans and peach cobbler, the people I consider this world's true superheroes.
Coming down off the pass, we'd passed a spot where there'd been barbecue a few days previous. I knew with the surety of an Indian tracker that we'd missed something good, because I could still see the indentation of trailer wheels in the packed dust of a pull-off, the deep pile of wood ash, the casual detritus of a party gone by: crushed beer cans, dirty paper napkins stuck in the brush, a couple of broken-backed styros. Further down, I'd waved Laura past another pull-off where cardboard arrows marked "BBQ" pointed the way to a dusty stretch of side road where three big trailer smokers were set up, tended by two biker-looking fellows. Several cars and trucks had pulled in, and a few people were tailgating it with ribs in their hands -- but I just didn't get the vibe from these folks. So we kept on moving.
I was getting a little worried by the time we'd made our way back to Highway 285: I knew there was good barbecue out there, but I hadn't found it. And then, just over the crest of Crow Hill in Bailey, we spotted Hog Heaven, set back off the blacktop on a frontage road with a parking lot overflowing with cars and white smoke coiling up from an outdoor smoker. One double-lane drift and a rooster tail of gravel dust later, we came to a rocking stop in front. We piled out, anticipating greatness.
Yes, greatness. Every time I happen on one of these places -- a small-town barbecue shack, trailer operation or outdoor grill covered with brats and burgers and foil-wrapped bundles of ribs or brisket -- I expect something wonderful. I walk in looking for the Holy Grail of meat, and I've found it often enough that I'm thinking of buying a helmet and a pair of stainless-steel underpants and changing my name to Gawain. I'm not just hoping for these kitchens, these pit men, these enablers of my last, best addiction, to do well; I believe they will. Every one. Every time. Like a die-hard Red Sox fan, a lifelong believer in the imminent arrival of UFOs or a Christian anxiously awaiting the Rapture, I approach each door with an innocent's unshakable faith.
As Laura and I stepped up to Hog Heaven, I was almost knocked back by the smell of barbecued ribs and chopped pork and smoked links and the greasy slickness of fried chicken. The crowds were spilling out into the dusty parking lot, perching at picnic tables set in the shade of an awning or wandering around by a barbecue trailer -- done in the shape of a caboose with a rack smoker glommed onto the side -- that looked like it hadn't moved in several seasons.
For five years, that trailer was the original home of Hog Heaven. Owner and pit man Rod Ashby -- a former truck-drivin' man who got his taste for 'cue on the road -- has had the standing location for another six. Inside was a small dining room bedecked with piggy paraphernalia, set with a half-dozen tables curled around the counter, which was manned by Ashby. The tables were full, and a dozen more parties were waiting for orders; a half-dozen more were waiting in line to place an order.
We waited, we ordered, we waited some more. And when the girl behind the counter finally shouted my name, I loaded my pockets with napkins and wet wipes and forks, and we took our bounty outside to dine al fresco, with a view of the parking lot, the highway berm and cars zipping by on their way down the mountain.
Hog Heaven's barbecue is a mutt, Kansas-gone-Southern style with a little coastal twist. The ribs were big, deeply smoked, almost black at the edges and pink at the bone; the beef brisket was sliced and served wet. The chopped pork shoulder was a standout, combining the tender inside bits with beautiful, chewy-crackly shreds of outside meat -- the stuff that had been closest to the heat, exposed to the brunt of the smoke and turned brownish-black like old teak with caramelized sugars and rub. Those edges are the best part of a chopped shoulder portion, and while I'm driven nearly to tears when I see a place scraping them off to the side as though they weren't fit for serving, Hog Heaven doesn't waste a scrap. Unfortunately, my pork came drowned in a flood of sweet-hot, molasses-colored "Nectar of the Gods" that, while a good freehand version of a KC mop, had a flavor so overpowering that I could barely taste the meat. I learned the hard way that at Hog Heaven, you need to order your meat sauce-on-side. Most good pit men do this without question, since they see sauce as nothing more than something that gets in the way of the meat.
Hog Heaven offers its barbecue in endless plates, platters and combos with sides and cornbread or white bread. In addition to beef and pork, there are Polish and hot link sausages and Southern-style fried chicken, as well as a Texas-y kind of smoked chicken that takes to the hardwood very nicely. The catfish is the exception to the sauce-on-side rule; it comes with tartar sauce or a spicy vinegar dressing that's very close to the tidewater 'cue sauce I've been searching for since time out of mind. The mashed potatoes were out of a box, but the fresh-cut sweet-potato fries were unbelievably crispy, salty and delicious; the honey-orange carrots were pure steam table, but the fried okra was wonderful. And the chocolate dream cake and peach cobbler -- peach slices and sugar syrup over angel food cake -- were as simple and comforting as dessert gets.
Hog Heaven wasn't the barbecue of my dreams, but it made for a fine road-trip stop.
Back in the city, I was ready to resume the hunt the next night. And my patience was rewarded at Chapter One BBQ and Grill, a cramped storefront on the backside of a two-deck strip mall set with a few tables and no air-conditioning. I could smell the place working from the street -- and the street is not all that close by. It immediately reminded me of every long-lost shack and hole-in-the-wall I'd visited while drifting through the heart of BBQ country a few years back -- although unlike those spots in Georgia, Florida, Kansas and the Carolinas, Chapter One shares a parking lot with a Mexican bakery and a porn store. God bless America.
The owner of the joint, Jerome Sims, was sitting outside when I rolled in -- just kicked back in his chair, greeting regulars by name. He asked if it was my first time, and I said, yessir, it was. He asked me how I'd found the spot, and I told him I'd just followed the smell. He laughed -- a big, booming thing -- and slapped his hands down on his thighs. That's another thing I'll always love about barbecue: It doesn't take much to make friends.
And Chapter One has plenty: It packs in the crowds right up 'til closing time, with some spilling out onto the sidewalk to escape the heat. Inside, they jam around the sway-backed counter and a mishmash collection of coolers, watching the antiquated TV in the corner cabinet still set with rabbit ears and showing a fuzzy version of Monday Night Football.
Jerome is also Chapter One's pit man. He and his sister, Bonnie, opened the place about a year ago. They come from Louisiana, a state that produces more barbecue geniuses per capita than any other state in the union (except maybe the Carolinas, if you count them as one), and he does his work in a converted travel trailer that slumps off to the side of the main building. That's where the smokers are, as well as the wood pile -- visible from the parking lot, because a good barbecue man knows that's the first thing a purist will look for. Inside the kitchen, Bonnie handles the lesser duties -- making potato salad and coleslaw, grilling hot dogs, cooking up pots of wonderful, sweet, brown-sugar-baked beans in a sauce thick as tar and black as death.
Chapter One makes beautiful ribs -- heavy and tender, juicy, infused with smoke all the way to the bone, shining like shellacked hardwood. The brisket is rough-cut (which I love): sometimes sliced, sometimes just hacked into big, fatty chunks. The chickens are smoked whole, served warm and damp, the meat just begging to be sucked right off the bone. The style is pure Southern, which is a benefit when it comes to rib tips, racks, catfish, smoked turkey and chicken. And pork.
A flawless pulled- (or chopped-) pork barbecue sandwich is a thing of beauty, a work of art -- and making that ideal pork sandwich requires a level of dedication and obsession similar to that expressed by the old French masters, or devotees of Edo-style sushi. The process starts with the meat (three or four hours in the smoke at Chapter One) and heat (low and slow) and pressure -- knowing precisely when a shoulder is done, knowing just when it needs to rest. Time and heat and pressure: the same process that forms diamonds. Chapter One handled the meat expertly, with the strong flavors of smoke and the gentle touch of sauce and rub coming through in perfect balance.
I don't care if the meat in my sandwich is chopped or shredded, but I do care about what's added to it. Personally, I prefer nothing but pig -- and maybe a little pickle juice if I'm feeling frisky. I skip the sauce, which at Chapter One was a thin, sweetish, straight Southern concoction, more wash than sauce. The kitchen here also offered pickles and onions and tomatoes and all sorts of nonsense like that, but was wise enough to keep it well away from the sandwich, pushed far to the edge of the plate. I appreciated the suspicion with which the kitchen approached anything green.
I didn't appreciate the kitchen's choice of bread -- in this case, a seeded hamburger bun. A plain bun -- preferably left to sweat in its grocery-store plastic bag for a few hours until it became sponge-like and squashed -- would have been fine. Plain white bread would have been even finer. But a seeded bun? No way. It's little things like this that drive me nuts -- tiny missteps, minuscule failings on the drive toward that idyllic sandwich of my dreams.
Chapter One was good, but not perfect. Although I'll certainly return -- how could I not go back to such a friendly barbecue shack with good ribs, situated just a hundred feet from a porn store? -- my quest for the ultimate sandwich will continue. I have faith that there's something even better out there.
And who knows? It could be the very next spot I try.
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