Did you ever get in trouble as a kid — not for something small, like tracking mud through the kitchen, but for something really big, when your mom's brain would freeze and she'd rattle off the names of all your siblings and pets before finally calling yours — (both first and middle) and telling you to get over here this instant?
Of course not. Neither did I. But your brother or sister probably did, so you know how names can trip you up. Names do that at Tin Star Smokehouse, too, though happily not in an "Uh-oh, I'm going to get it" sort of way.
The confusion starts when you see the sign on the storefront, the one down from the laundromat and the 7-Eleven. If you're from Texas, you might assume, as a friend did, that this Tin Star is an offshoot of the taco-slinging Tin Star popular in Dallas. It isn't. Or if you've been in Denver a while, you might wonder if the Tin Star that fizzled out in the Tech Center nearly a decade ago has been resurrected in Golden. No again.
Slideshow: A Closer Look at Tin Star Smokehouse
But this Tin Star does bear a family resemblance to the Tin Star Cafe & Donut Haus in Evergreen. That's because it was launched in March by Paul Schutt, a thirty-year industry veteran who most recently was executive chef of Work Options for Women. The Tin Star in Evergreen was founded years ago by his brother, who can frequently be spotted in the kitchen of the newest Tin Star, where he consulted on the menu. "I wanted to build off my brother's brand," explains Paul. "It was always my dream to open a barbecue joint."
Beyond the names and family ties, though, these two restaurants have little in common besides smoked meats and a trio of barbecue sandwiches. At the Golden spot, they're part of a lineup billed as "Colorado Bar-B-Que." This is confusing, too: Last I checked, Colorado doesn't have a style — at least not one that other regions would recognize the way we associate sweet, ketchupy sauces with Kansas City, or mustardy, vinegary ones with the Carolinas. The menu, tossed on the counter where you order, doesn't elaborate. But it's clear that Tin Star is a barbecue joint, not a place for deconstructed small plates, much less a date. You roll up your sleeves and wash your hands at the sink by the drink station before you eat; this is an eat-with-your-fingers, wipe-your-hands-on-paper-towels kind of place (a roll is kept on each table). When you're done, and the paper-lined platter that doubles as your plate is nothing but a pile of bones, you'll visit the sink again, and maybe get a refill of sweet tea or lemonade while you're at it.
Between visits to that sink, your food arrives quickly. That's good, because the smell that hangs in the air — the one from the restaurant's smokers, which run much of the day and hold up to 600 pounds of meat apiece — is a major appetite stimulant. At lunch, most people fall for the Pig Pile. Made from meat that spends eighteen hours over a mix of applewood and mesquite, the pulled-pork sandwich is smokier than a '70s lounge. Condiments come on the side, but take a bite before you pick up the red and yellow squirt bottles full of barbecue sauce. You might decide, as I did, that the tang from the vinegary slaw is accent enough for the full-flavored meat. The brisket in the Big Tex sandwich is so tender it may not need sauce, either. But a squirt or two certainly helps the Cluck, since the chicken thighs in it soak up less smoke. (Those sauces might seem more appealing after Schutt tweaks the two currently available — the hot is now just a smidge above mild — and adds a more peppery third.)
If you can't decide among the meats, try the BBQ plate, which offers a choice of two plus two sides (housemade chips, slaw, beans or hush puppies) and Texas toast. One side also comes with the sandwiches, and if you're smart, you'll make it the hush puppies, which are as close to doughnuts as this location gets. Made from cornmeal, flour, buttermilk, sugar and eggs, these deep-fried balls are nearly as sweet — and just as addictive — as the doughnut holes they resemble. Pork, chicken and brisket can also be ordered by the pound, which in terms of deals is just one step down from the purchase of Alaska for two cents an acre. While the Pig Pile brings a quarter-pound of meat and one side for $6.95, a full pound of pork runs just $10.95.
There are other sandwiches on this compact menu, including a smoked-salmon roll, made with lemon mayonnaise, lettuce and a generous helping of house-smoked salmon, and a two-patty burger with a slab of garlic butter that melts over the meat as you eat it. They're billed as specialty sandwiches, but the burger doesn't deserve the title, given how overcooked mine was one night; they seem more like options for the barbecue-averse.
The true specialty here is the ribs. Those ribs fly out the door at dinner, when more people order takeout than grab a stool by the window for their meal. Ribs come in two styles: St. Louis, which can be ordered by the bone, rack or any fraction thereof, and baby back, sold only by the rack. Here again, names can be confusing. The St. Louis label on one set of ribs refers not to saucy, St. Louis-style barbecue, but the cut: trimmed spare ribs from the belly. The baby backs have smaller bones and are cut from the back (though not from baby, or suckling, pigs). Although the St. Louis ribs tend to be meatier, there's something about the leaner baby backs that I can't resist. Both kinds are smoked for eight hours and served dry, with nothing on them but a rub of garlic, onion, salt, sugar, cumin and coriander — but it's the smoke that grabs your attention.
When that smoke finally clears, you won't find much in the way of dessert. Sadly, the apple fritters that have won so many fans in Evergreen aren't one of the things the two Tin Stars have in common. Schutt says he's experimenting with housemade desserts like double-fudge cream-cheese brownies, but on my visits, the only options were peach, cherry and blueberry pies baked off-site, with soft crusts that tasted vaguely like the plastic the pastries were wrapped in. For now, your best bet to finish off your meal might be a Slurpee from the nearby 7-Eleven.
Slideshow: A Closer Look at Tin Star Smokehouse