The enticing smell of wood smoke alerted me to the proximity of barbecuing meats about a half-block before I spotted the open-sided trailer at the corner of East 23rd Avenue and Emerson Street. A thin plume of smoke rose from a stovepipe chimney attached to a barrel smoker on the trailer. This was what I was looking for: a mobile barbecue kitchen called Burgers & Bones that a friend had alerted me to.
Before I made the drive to that quiet northeast Denver neighborhood, I did a quick online search to see if Burgers & Bones had a menu or phone number. Along with a Facebook page that hadn't seen any activity since June, I found a Westword story dated February 1995 in which our then-restaurant critic Kyle Wagner raved about the pork ribs from a Five Points joint called Brown Sugar's Burgers & Bones, owned by George and Bonita Brown. Could there be a connection, or was it just a coincidence, an echo repeated across the chasm of 25 years?
I parked and walked over to the trailer, where a woman was tending a warmer filled with smoked meats and two men sat on a retaining wall on the opposite side of the sidewalk. The woman greeted me and asked for my order, while one of the men told me that the Texas hot links on the menu hanging from the trailer actually come from Texas; he travels there regularly to purchase the sausages. The man was Lawrence Miles, who owns the trailer with his wife, Tekesha, who was at the warmer; the other man, a customer, enjoyed a plate of meat and sides while we all chatted.
Tekesha offered a sample of the Texas hot link; it was soft-textured and juicy, with a little heat and a robust, smoky flavor from its time in the pit. Lawrence pointed out that he also carries Denver's own Gold Star hot links. "I won't argue about which is better, Texas or Colorado, but if you like a spicy hot link, you should get the Gold Star," he suggested. "It's a twelve-inch link, and people really like it if they like heat."
So that's what I ordered, along with pulled pork and some stewed green beans that were among the day's sides.
While I waited for my food, I asked Lawrence if there was any connection between his Burgers & Bones and the one that had sold smoked meats in the neighborhood a quarter-century before. "That was run by Cheesy George," he replied, confirming my suspicion, since Wagner had mentioned that the old joint's signature burger was called the Cheesy George.
"We'd call it Cheesy George's, or Brown Sugar's, or Burgers & Bones — it was all the same place," Lawrence continued. "He was over by Manual High School and then moved a few blocks away, and then eventually moved over to First and Havana. When I was just a kid — sixteen or seventeen — I would go there every day for lunch. He would feed me if I didn't have money, he would mentor me. He was just a great man all around. I went over to his place on Havana a few times, but I wish I knew what happened to him after that."
Now in his early forties, Lawrence still has such strong memories of his former mentor and provider of lunches that he and Tekesha named their business Brown Sugar's Burgers & Bones II in honor of Cheesy George Brown. That was last May, but it only lasted about a month, because the trailer wasn't fully licensed and the couple got shut down by the city. They kept at it, though, getting all the proper inspections and licenses, then returning to 23rd and Emerson about a month ago as Burgers & Bones, a short and easy name to remember.
Lawrence was born in Texas and split his early years between Amarillo and Denver. "I've been cooking my whole life; it's a family tradition," he told me over the phone as I sat at my desk later, dipping the last of my pulled pork in Tekesha's homemade sauce. "I idolized my father, so I always was beside him when he was cooking."
The neighborhood where Burgers & Bones now draws people out of their houses and apartments with the smell of cooking is much different from the days when Lawrence attended Manual High School. "That era with drugs and gangbanging, that was my era," he recalled. "But [George] steered me away from all that. It was hard, but things have changed tremendously since then."
The couple has three children, two of whom are now in college. Their middle son just went off to Adams State University this year; he likes to cook with his dad. Back when the kids were younger, in 2008, Lawrence and Tekesha had tried to launch a barbecue trailer, but that venture was short-lived because they couldn't dedicate themselves to it full-time.
Now that the children are older and more independent, the time seems right. "My wife and I — it's our passion," Lawrence noted.
The barbecue itself is definitely Texas-style "with a twist of Colorado," with brisket cooked for fifteen hours and those hot links as the biggest stars. "I've been to quite a few places and I'm a barbecue connoisseur, so it's my own style, too," Lawrence said. "I've been blessed to talk to a lot of people and learn from them."
The menu at the trailer is currently small: brisket, pulled pork and chicken, pork ribs, two kinds of sausage and sides such as potato salad, baked beans and corn on the cob. But the trailer has its own deep fryer and griddle, so Lawrence and Tekesha plan to add fried and grilled fish, more sides and even some vegan tacos and burritos — and, of course, burgers. "It's been beautiful so far; the community has really embraced us," Lawrence concluded. "But it only gets better from here."
Burgers & Bones recently landed a spot at Mile High Station, 2027 West Colfax Avenue, which is hosting live music and food vendors from 6 to 10 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through the end of October. Otherwise, you can just follow the smoke to the northwest corner of 23rd and Emerson for lunch and dinner the rest of the week. Call 720-409-9436 to find out what's on the menu and place orders in advance.