Maybe it's because I grew up in Denver rather than St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis or Texas, but I've always been vaguely amused by "best barbecue" claims that are staked to a particular regional style. After all, "barbecue" really just refers to the process of cooking meat over fire, which leaves a lot of room for variation. I don't care if that meat is brisket, hot links or burnt ends, whether it's dry-rubbed, heavily sauced or smoked over pecan wood, whether it's served with a Texas twang or a Carolina drawl. As long as the 'cue is done well, I'm going to be a fan.
Thanks to Denver's proximity to Kansas City, our barbecue is heavily flavored by that town, where meat is pit-smoked and then coated with a sweet, almost candy-like tomato-and-molasses-based sauce. But few barbecue joints are loyal; they mix and match Texas-style brisket in hot sauce with hot links from Louisiana and Carolina pork shoulder in mustard- or vinegar-based sauce — and do mediocre versions of all of them. Adrian Miller is an expert on Kansas City 'cue, a Denver resident certified by the Kansas City Barbecue Society to judge that group's contests. He's not just interested in that particular region, though; he plans to write a book about barbecue traditions, including Colorado's. Turns out this state once had its own barbecue tradition, which got its start with wild game, bison and beef cooked over campfires and eventually came to focus on lamb, pit-roasted at feasts featuring other Colorado staples. But that practice faded about sixty years ago, leaving us to fill the void with barbecue styles from other parts of the country.
And not well.
Miller is always searching for joints that feature well-smoked meat that can stand alone without sauce. He put me on to Country Time BBQ, one of his three favorite joints in the area and one that "isn't trying to be everything to everybody," he says. And owners Lawrence and Jennifer Barkers, no longer wed but still in business together, confirm that they're true to just one style: their own.
"Lawrence used to barbecue all the time for his friends," Jennifer explains. "He made up his recipes; he mixed and matched." Barbecue was his hobby when they were both Kirby vacuum-cleaner representatives, and he started investing in cooking equipment so that he could host big parties and feed the players at Pee Wee football games.
Friends told him over and over again that he should run a barbecue restaurant. And five years ago, after Lawrence nailed his smoking technique — he uses two kinds of wood, but he won't even tell Jennifer what they are — the pair opened up shop in a red-roofed shack in Sheridan. Jennifer contributed a barbecue sauce recipe from her grandmother, who comes from Mississippi, and they started building a takeout and catering business. Last December, Lawrence started hauling his mobile smoker to a spot across from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Golden, where every day he offers everything that Country Time does except for items that need to go in the deep fryer — which, as far as I can tell, just means he can't offer fries there.
On Miller's recommendation, a few weeks ago I stopped by the original shack, which sits under a peeling Country Time BBQ billboard in a weathered strip mall anchored by a liquor store. As I parked, I took in the milk truck full of wood and the black smokers in the lot (a sedan the color of a flamingo was the only other car), and the lingering smell of pit smoke in the air. As I pushed through the door, I was greeted by the sound of a blaring TV. The woman behind the counter — Jennifer, it turned out — smiled and said hello but made no move to adjust the volume, so I shouted my order over it.
As she got to work in the partially visible kitchen, I looked around the red-walled room. There wasn't a chair in the place, although a massive fish tank on one side of the space held one tiny yellow fish, and a counter on the other side looked like it might once have been fronted by stools. It now held a posterboard sign listing "Frequently Asked Questions" along with completely unhelpful answers. "What kind of wood do we use?" "Cooking wood." "How big is a slab of ribs?" "Depends on how big the pig is." "Where are you from?" "The United States."
After a few minutes, Jennifer handed me a Styrofoam container and I headed out to my car parked in the middle of an empty parking lot in the United States to eat my dinner. As I opened the box, I fleetingly wondered if I'd ever be able to get the smell of smoke out of the upholstery — but that thought passed the second I put a bite of brisket in my mouth. The slices of beef had rosy ribbons along the crusted edges and were tender, peppery and deeply infused with throat-stinging smoke. The meat did indeed stand alone, but I don't suffer from sauce snobbery, like Miller. I dipped a hunk of brisket in the thick, tangy, fiery, tomato-y paste that Jennifer had spooned into a cup and was totally addicted — even if I knew I'd pay later with heartburn. (Country Time also makes a mild version of the sauce, which replaces the heat with earthiness.)
I chased bites of brisket with cowboy beans, a dish reminiscent of chili, and generic potato salad that was indistinguishable from what you'd find in the grocery store. I eventually abandoned both in order to concentrate on more meat.
I soon returned to Country Time with friends, ready to set up a smokin' outdoor feast.
The meal got off to a disappointing start with the pork sandwich, though. The shreds of meat carried the flavor of the pit, but they were dried out, and the sandwich was little more than a vehicle for barbecue sauce. The smoked half-chicken, with its dark, caramelized skin, was better: supple and tender throughout, juicy even in the white-meat portions, and, again, completely imbued with that seductive smokiness. Best yet were the ribs: The pork was streaked with fat, smoky down to the bone, the most succulent meat I'd ever put in my mouth. Now I understood why Miller was hesitant about using sauce: I felt guilty adulterating such perfect pieces of pig. No matter how big this slab was, I could have polished off half of it by myself — even though I might have had to curl up on the pavement and sleep for about four hours afterward.
But first we wanted something sweet to finish off the meal. Country Time was out of both the advertised peach cobbler and banana pudding. (Jennifer says she only makes them on Thursday and then sells them through the weekend.) Fortunately, the cornbread did the trick: sweet and practically oozing butter, these muffins were more like dessert than bread, and bits of jalapeño added a kick.
When I was finally capable of movement, I called Miller to thank him for his recommendation. It doesn't take a certificate in barbecue judging to recognize that the Barkerses make some exemplary 'cue.