You just want to grab a good slab of ribs for dinner tonight. Well, hold yer horses, Jethro: Barbecue in Denver is a battleground, where endless skirmishes are waged over where to get the good stuff — and some don't bother to fight at all. Given barbecue's history as the unpretentious food of the common man, I had my doubts that any of Denver's Ten Best Barbecue Joints offered an afternoon happy hour. When given the choice between sipping wine while nibbling small plates or dragging home a giant bag of sticky animal products, most BBQ fans would quickly choose the latter. But as it turns out, Russell's Smokehouse, beneath Larimer Square, has the smoke, the booze and the prices to transform barbecue into fine happy-hour dining.
Practically underneath another excellent Larimer Square happy-hour destination, Bistro Vendôme, Russell's twists the speakeasy concept of Green Russell next door to its breaking point. If Green Russell is the hideout for refined bootleggers and Wednesday's Pie is the family-friendly false front, then Russell's Smokehouse is the neighborhood rib joint with a friendly air and a secret bottle of booze behind the counter. Even though the bar here doesn't have the showy mixologists of its neighbor, you're still poured a fine traditional cocktail for $5 at happy hour, served from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 p.m. to close every night.
I forgot to ask what bourbon was in the cheap Old-Old Fashioned, but it was a good example of the form, with perhaps a grain too much sugar. The bar taps were pouring plenty of beer from Odell (after a GABF-week tap takeover), and several of the brewery's non-experimental brews were only $3 a glass. These prices are only offered in the bar area, which leads to my biggest problem with Russell's: The area is kind of ugly. There's a turn-of-the-century-saloon vibe being striven for, but it's brought down by harsh lighting and indifferent decor. The dining room in back is a bit better, but the space is anemic next to the pitch-perfect ambience of Green Russell.
But all you need for barbecue is a hand and a paper plate, so I can ignore the lack of interior charm. Russell's pledges no allegiance to any regional style of 'cue, but is simply pursuing owner Frank Bonanno's vision of urban meat. There's plenty of smoke, sauce on the side and cuts from Bershire pork to duck. The happy-hour menu offers ribs, sliders, BBQ nachos and a $10 sandwich combo that includes a draft beer and a side of coleslaw or fries.
Now, I defer to the words of Justice Potter Stewart — "I know it when I see it" — when it comes to good barbecue, or I consult a better-traveled colleague. But there's no doubt that what's served at Russell's is the real deal. Despite my lack of experience with brisket, the unconventional toppings on the brisket slider ($2) had me salivating. Gorgonzola aioli, fried shallots and sharp shavings of Manchego all blended nicely with the tender beef. It don't seem natural, but it do feel good. With nothing on it but some mild coleslaw, the pulled-pork slider was the only thing I tried that needed a dollop of sauce, in this case an orange Carolina-style brew with the ideal mix of vinegar and mustard.
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"Make that...one rib to go." Chris Rock would love Russell's, as you can get a single rib from a rack of beef ($2), pork, ($2) or baby back ($1). These steal the show by a mile, served dry but infused with fumigated flavor. The pork boasts a crispy coating of spice rub and an excellent balance of fat to flesh. The meat on the baby back ribs aren't just falling off the bone; they act like bones slapped their mama. That leaves you free to snap up every single scrap of meat and appreciate the delicacy of the rub. The loaded chips ($6) have been around in some form since the early days of Green Russell, but they're a bit disappointing. The pulled pork isn't improved when basted in a cloying, ketchupy sauce, and the Gorgonzola sauce can't counteract it, even though the potato chips are addictive and the pickled peppers add some tang.
Nothing about Russell's Smokehouse will stop purists from scoffing at its highfalutin ways — or its relatively high prices. But happy hour slashes your buy-in by at least half, and the meat of the matter is that this is good stuff. Lay down your arms and pick up your bibs.
Perfect For: As long as you're not entertaining a visitor from a barbecue stronghold south of the Mason-Dixon, the Smokehouse would be a fine place to take wide-eyed tourists. Just make sure you stop by Green Russell afterward to really blow their minds.
Don't Miss: My experience tells me that the brisket sandwich ($13) would be the best bet — the ideal blend between the craft of barbecue and the sexy ingredients of modern cuisine. But I'm fascinated by the kitchen's array of starter plates, which must be the most eclectic collection of dishes at any BBQ joint in the state. Do I sample the housemade sausage with pickled vegetables and chutney ($15), or dig into the country/rock n' roll of hush puppies and grilled octopus ($15)?