Barbecue is getting big in Denver. While we suffered many lean years with very little in the way of great barbecue, the past few years have seen an explosion of smokehouses throughout the city, with newcomers settling into fancy hotels, suburban strip malls, quiet neighborhoods and hip market halls. But a few of our old favorites continue to smoke it up, too. Here are the ten best places for barbecue in Denver, in alphabetical order:
AJ's Pit Bar-B-Q
2180 South Delaware Street
Chef Jared Leonard made a name for himself in Chicago with fried-chicken sandwiches and Texas-style barbecue before taking aim at Denver. Not content to simply lease restaurant space and serve food traditionally in a new city, Leonard first unveiled Au Feu, a lunch and dinner counter dishing up Montreal-style brisket sandwiches and poutine inside Zeppelin Station. Then he launched the Budlong Hot Chicken, a mobile kitchen that just found a new roost at Zep Station too. But AJ's is his most unusual venture: It's a smokehouse in an industrial neighborhood across from the railroad tracks serving meats slow-roasted in a smoker bolted onto the back of an old farm truck. The dining room is bare-bones, with enough dining space for long rows of tables, but there's beer on tap and plenty of whiskey to accompany platters served from 11 a.m. to whenever the food runs out.
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. Just be sure to make it a picnic with Boney's home-style side.
GQue Championship Barbecue
5160 120th Avenue, Westminster, 303-379-9205
8433 Park Meadows Center Drive, Lone Tree, 303-729-2506
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. 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.
Piggin' Out Smokehouse
9987 Morrison Road, Lakewood
One look behind the country-style shack that houses Piggin' Out Bar-B-Que in almost-rural Lakewood will let you know that the owners understand what smoking meat means. There you'll find a big steel smoker on a trailer that's stained in streaked shades of bronze from smoke and fat. A recent expansion gives loyal customers a place to sit inside, and outside there's a back patio under shady trees. There's chicken and turkey on the menu along with standard sides, but the best bets are the pulled pork, the pork ribs, the chopped brisket and two kinds of sausage. Sauces are honest, Kansas City-style, and come either rich and sweet or as a spicy version of the same.
Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
The last few 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. New every Wednesday are smokehouse tamales served during lunch until they run out — which is often quicker than the meats themselves.
Rolling Smoke Bar-B-Que
2501 Dallas Street, Aurora. 720-573-4142
7470 South University Boulevard, Centennial, 303-221-4093
Visitors to Stanley Marketplace may drive up expecting to shop for housewares or trinkets, but one whiff of the smoke coming from Terry Walsh's outdoor cookers is enough to quickly derail those plans. The brick-and-mortar offshoot of Walsh's Rolling Smoke food truck opened in 2017, offering all the classics (brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, ribs and sausage) and luring diners with what is undoubtedly the best marketing scheme in the mall: the aroma of tender meat smoked over pecan wood for at least eight hours. The sides (which can be purchased by the pint or the quart) are just as good, with smoked mac and cheese and collard greens the perfect accompaniment to the all-American main course.
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 you'll get your 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. 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.
3330 Brighton Boulevard
Barbecue is an unexpected find at one of the city's most cutting-edge hotel and dining destinations, but chef/owner Bill Espiricueta wants to do more than host backyard-style cookouts. Drawing from his childhood memories growing up in Kansas City and Austin, and adding his experience as a professional chef at high-end restaurants, he turns out deeply smoked brisket, rich pork belly and spare ribs good enough to suck the bones. The sides here are some of the best in town, too, especially the creamed corn and corn bread. You can grab a cold beer with your ’cue, but better still, sample some boozy slushies from the bar, all balanced to bring out the best in the meats.
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Smokin Yard's BBQ
900 West First Avenue
At Smokin Yard's BBQ, the Yard family (which also runs the original Smokin Yard's in Idaho Springs) cranks up the Ole Hickory smoker for a taste of Southern goodness that doesn't necessarily conform to any one region. The Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwich is mounded with juicy hunks of pork, spicy coleslaw and mustard-based sauce, while the burnt-end sandwich is served unadorned, letting the smoky, black-edged brisket speak for itself. You can reach for one of three barbecue sauces or help yourself to sliced purple onions, pickles and jalapeños to doctor up your picks, of course, but these meats don't need much of a supporting cast. Oh, and if you're so inclined, there are also complimentary boiled peanuts on the condiment bar — a real Southern treat, and something for those who have never ventured into the heart of Dixie to try at least once.
Wayne's Smoke Shack
11406 Center Drive, Superior
Texas doesn't get much love from Coloradans, but Wayne's was one of the first in metro Denver to help change 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. An expansion last year added more space and smoking capacity to keep hungry fans happy.
Update — Thursday, March 7, 2019: James Diaz, owner of TRU Colotexmex Bar-B-Que & Catering, confirmed that he's pulling up stakes and moving to Oklahoma, so his smoker and trailer in the parking lot of Pyramid Liquor at 599 West Littleton Boulevard is now closed. Our loss is Oklahoma's gain.