Formulaic, oft-repeated recipes are not going to produce the kind of barbecue you buy from a dim, smoke-sputtering cart on the street, or the kind you eat at a charmingly tattered mom-and-pop barbecue joint. But if you want fast, moderately priced chicken, brisket and pork, accompanied by fixins with all the best parts left out, Famous Dave's is pleased to meat you.
Dave Anderson founded Famous Dave's in Wisconsin in 1994; by 2011, there were 191 Famous Dave's locations in the U.S. and Canada -- and three of those are in metro Denver. Needing a meat fix, I headed over to the Famous Dave's in Stapleton, which was smacked by a snow plow last winter.
As with most barbecue joints, chain or not, this Famous Dave's exuded smoke that I could smell from the street. But as I opened the door, I got hit not with more delicious odors, but loud-ass Southern-fried rock music -- and the assault continued in the form of terrible hunting-lodge decor. I was seated directly beneath a fake mounted deer head and a shelf filled with wooden mallards; a phony deer-antler chandelier lit the room.
Eager to get to the eating part of the visit, I ordered the appetizer smoked-salmon dip, Down Home Banana Pudding, Dave's Famous Bread Pudding and two two-meat barbecue combos -- the first with barbecued chicken, Georgia chopped pork, garlic red-skin mashed potatoes and collard greens, the second with Texas beef brisket, country-roasted chicken, Firecracker green beans and Drunkin' apples; both came with cornbread muffins.
While I waited for my food, I explored the five sauces displayed in a holder on the table, ranging from hot to not. Rich & Sassy had some sweet tomato and tang, Sweet & Zesty had a bit more of that, Texas Pit was all smoke and onion, and Georgia Mustard was my favorite: vinegar-based with no sweetness. But I was disappointed in the Devil's Spit, since anything called Devil's anything should leave you hot and bothered -- and this sauce had barely medium heat, with no real burn. The smoked-salmon spread came first, and it was weird. Not bad, just odd. It was chunky, really smoky, and was accompanied by soft pita chips sporting grill marks. I soon pushed it aside in favor of meat.
I'm picky as hell about brisket, because I can be -- I've been cooking beef since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and I've done brisket every way imaginable, including home-smoked. The brisket at Famous Dave's was surprisingly good -- tender, with a weak sauce that was too tomatoey, but still all right. But while the Georgia chopped pork was falling-apart tender, it had been salted to a gag level.
The barbecued chicken looked fine -- it had the requisite dark, charred skin of char-grilled chicken -- but it was missing that moist, fall-off-the-bone flesh that comes from slowly, carefully prepared chicken. I yanked at it a bit, then gave up. The country-roasted version -- prepared by roasting, then char-grilling -- was much the same, except it sported a deathly salty rub. The kitchen needs to ditch that rub and tweak its timing. Although chicken is common at barbecue restaurants, that's no excuse for not cooking it right. In fact, chicken is a good litmus test for how the rest of the meat, and the food in general, is handled, and this chicken was rushed when it should have been given more cooking time.
So now I pushed the meat aside and focused on the sides: The cornbread muffins were honey-sweet and cake-like in consistency, and the mashed potatoes were fine. But the collard greens were a tad undercooked and waaaay too salty for comfort. The Firecracker green beans were also undercooked, studded with greasy bacon globs and displaying none of the promised flavors of onion, garlic and red pepper. They had plenty of salt, though.
The apples supposedly had been simmered with Amaretto, but they didn't have any distinguishable almond flavor.
Fortunately, the desserts were amazing. I've never been the biggest fan of bread pudding, but I keep trying it to see if the dish will grow on me. This Famous Dave's pudding came out steaming hot, a little wiggly, and bathed in a deep brown, sugary pecan praline sauce, with a healthy scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream on top. And the Down Home Banana Pudding was a thing of beauty and taste. Made with layers of creamy banana pudding as well as whipped cream, banana slices and those little vanilla wafers, it took me back to past potlucks and backyard barbecues, where I used to find this stuff in a giant, worn Tupperware bowl on a folding table.
I was packing up my leftovers when the manager came by to ask how everything was. I pointed at the deer head and asked if he thought it was real. He knew it wasn't; all of the animal decor comes pre-ordered and shipped from a company warehouse.
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Which might as well be shipping the barbecue, too.