Good barbecue needs smoke, but billowing clouds of it don't make many neighbors happy — even when that smoke carries the aroma of roasting meats. As a result, the industrial areas or outskirts of towns are often the best places to find pit masters and their smokehouses, trailers and shacks.
Here are three barbecue joints doing a smokin' business off the beaten path in metro Denver.
7190 Kipling Street in Arvada, and coming soon to Wheat Ridge
Akaska native Ryan Smith learned his craft in Austin, where he attended the Texas Culinary Academy while learning the finer points of smoking from the city's many famous barbecue joints. After he moved to Colorado, friends and neighbors began demanding Smith's presence at every backyard party and celebration. "I fell into this almost by accident," he says of his decision to go from amateur status to pro barbecue cook.
Smith started Pepperbelly Barbecue in a trailer that eventually found a semi-permanent location in the parking lot of Malara Gardens at 7190 Kipling Street in Arvada. Smith specializes in beef brisket, but also smokes sausage links, turkey and pork shoulder and ribs. The demands of the catering business make regular hours tough, but Pepperbelly has amassed a small cadre of aficionados who keep an eye on Smith's Instagram (@pepperbellybarbecue) and Facebook feeds to find out which Saturdays and Sundays he'll be setting up shop. We suggest you do the same, if you want to taste some of the city's most succulent brisket, barely contained by a wrapping of butcher paper and sided with traditional but tasty potato salad, coleslaw and charro beans.
Come next month, Pepperbelly should have a new home. Ellen Daehnick, owner of Helliemae's, a confectionery at 6195 West 44th Avenue in Wheat Ridge, had been running a weekend sandwich shop called Post Oak Hall next door to her caramel kitchen, but she hasn't been selling her Houston-style po'boys there since this past spring. Smith plans to take over the spot the first weekend of October, and he hopes to be there regularly from then on. Plan on showing up early: While Pepperbelly is still relatively unknown, fans tend to line up fast at the order window, and meats generally sell out within a couple of hours.
Update — 12:45 p.m., Tuesday, September 11: Pepperbelly is now aiming for October 13 for the first pop-up at Post Oak Hall. Check the barbecue company's social media for up-to-date announcements.
Sticky Fingers House of Smoke
5495 Marshall Street, Arvada
Tim Gangestad says he's been around barbecue all his life, and got serious about perfecting his own recipes eight years ago. You can taste the results in the rich, toothsome pulled pork and other creations that he serves from a walk-up counter in an industrial Arvada neighborhood. He opened Sticky Fingers three months ago in a brick shack that previously held Jordan's Time to Eat. There's only room for a kitchen inside, but customers can make themselves at home on the spacious backyard patio or on one of several picnic benches out front.
Gangestad hails from Chicago, where folks are particular about their barbecue, even if "Chicago-style" lacks the barbecue cachet of the styles unique to St. Louis, Memphis, Austin and other notable regions. Pork and chicken are popular in the Windy City, the pit master explains, so those are his specialty, too. He started out with a large, two-barreled Traeger smoker, but didn't like the way the smoke flowed or the fat dripped, so he modified it using some spare Harley-Davidson pipes he had in his garage.
The pulled pork alone justifies the effort of finding Sticky Fingers (Marshall Street isn't exactly the next RiNo); Gangestad also does smoked pork loin, sausages (hot links or Polish-style) and chicken thighs. He's got a knack for outlandish combinations, too, so check the specials board for the noodle nachos, a mound of mac and cheese piled with pulled pork, chili and jalapeños, or the Three Little Pigs sandwich, loaded with pork loin, pulled pork, bacon, queso and jalapeños. The Carolina mustard sauce is made in-house, while the other concoctions come courtesy of Redlaw Sauce in Golden. Sticky Fingers is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and just applied for a liquor license, so you'll soon be able to grab a drink with your ’cue.
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Wortlewood's Smoke Pit
6200 East 64th Avenue, Commerce City
David and Nora Warstler are Colorado natives who ran a smokehouse in tiny Collinsville, Illinois (much closer to St. Louis than Chicago), for thirteen years. Now they're in Commerce City, serving country-style barbecue at a small roadhouse far from the major thoroughfares. To reach Wortlewood's Smoke Pit, head east on East 64th Avenue past what might be the largest abandoned parking lot in the state to the bright-orange hut on the south side of the road.
Inside, you'll find what looks like a cross between Grandma's country kitchen and a small-town diner, where David takes orders at the counter amid a menagerie of porcine figurines, and Nora hustles out plates of sauce-drenched barbecue and sweet desserts, an irresistible peach cobbler among them. All the usual suspects are on the menu — ribs, brisket, chicken, sausage and sides — but come on a Wednesday for dollar sliders so you can sample everything for just a few bucks.
Wortlewood's isn't fancy or modern, but the Warstlers serve barbecue the way your grandma and grandpa would, in big portions with simple sides. Everything's listed on a schoolhouse blackboard on the wall, so pull up a stool, make your picks (don't miss the smoked hamburger) and get ready to enjoy some back-road comfort. Wortlewood's is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Sunday.