I played a lot of hooky in high school. Especially during sixth period, an unpalatable world geography lesson that started, somewhat inconveniently, right around noon. So I frequently used this 47-minute time slot for an entirely different kind of geographical education: exploring the culinary landscape of the Denver Tech Center. And whenever the weather was nice, I undertook an in-depth study of northern Louisiana cooking at Jabo's Bar-Be-Q, which has likely served me much better than an ability to point out Kazakhstan on a map.
At that point, Jabo's was a cart operation based in a vacant lot near the Yosemite/I-25 overpass, a mobile vendor years before mobile vending became trendy. Jabo Lawson ran a portable smoker that operated on hickory wood and cooked ribs so succulent the meat fell off the bone if you even looked at it funny. He also sold sandwiches of hot links, brisket and pulled pork on buttery buns, and he smothered everything with a thick, lip-smacking homemade sauce.
I would join the line of people snaking its way to the front of the cart, where Lawson, with his lyrical Southern accent and mellow good nature, would make them feel like the most important thing they could do that day was really enjoy lunch. Afterward, I'd grudgingly go back to seventh-period biology at Cherry Creek High School — fending off a food coma, reeking of pit smoke and fooling absolutely no one as to my extracurricular activities.
By the time I graduated, Jabo's had already moved on — to a brick-and-mortar establishment in a strip-mall complex on Arapahoe Road. "I'd still be out there if I could," he told me when I stopped by his place a few weeks ago and mentioned that I'd frequented his roadside stand. "I used to do 250 lunches in three hours." A native of Oklahoma, Lawson had worked in several barbecue houses in Five Points, but when he struck out on his own, he imported a family sauce recipe from Shreveport – an area flavored more by the Creole influence than the Cajun overtones so prominent in southern Louisiana. The strip of land where he started cooking in 1996 belonged to the Church of God, and a generous minister allowed him to operate on the property. But in late 2002, the church sold the land to the city, and the bureaucrats forced the mobile vendor to move. "Greenwood Village has a lot of rules," he said simply.
Lawson quickly found a new spot, a former Heavenly Hams franchise, and did a fast makeover, cramming overstuffed booths – golden bolts securing the fake red upholstery in place — into the dining room above a black-and-white-tiled floor. He kept a few of the Heavenly Hams features, including coolers that still line the wall behind the back counter, where Lawson and his one waiter take to-go orders and pour iced tea. Blessed with a large kitchen, Lawson traded in his little outdoor barbecue pit – the same type that masters in southern Texas and Louisiana use — for a custom-built, in-house smoker, where he can cook 700 pounds of meat at once. That development prompted him to expand the menu, adding sides and dinners to his sandwich list. His sauce offerings grew, too: Today he keeps about six in rotation out of 125 variations, available at different levels of spiciness.
Lawson doesn't deal in Tabasco-style hot sauce — "We cook with less heat" in northern Louisiana, he explained — but he offers a couple of versions that are so hot, a dab from the end of a toothpick is enough to turn you red and make you sputter while tears stream down your face. "Capsaicin," he explained with a belly chuckle when I tried that dab. "They take the seeds and veins of the habanero pepper and turn them into an oil. One drop'll make you scream."
After I'd downed about a gallon of water, he brought me a taste of the medium-hot original — which is thick and dark, equal parts honey-sweet and savory with a kiss of tartness, a nip of smoke and its own considerable bite of heat. When I begged for the ingredients, he laughed again. "Now, I can't tell you those secrets," he cautioned, and refused to even name any of the spices, which he gets from a local producer who ships them within seven days of grinding them so they don't lose their oils while sitting on some warehouse shelf. But Lawson did divulge that since the old masters never made sauce with honey, molasses or corn syrup, he doesn't use them, either, although he will add some jalapeño or habanero.
Once I finished grilling Lawson, he left me to listen to the restaurant's loud soul soundtrack while he went back to the kitchen to make my dinner. Soon after, the waiter delivered my plate, which was divided into sections and held a rib-and-hot-link combo with that original sauce, as well as a side of baked beans. The pork rib was better than my memories: two inches thick, layered with opaque fat, deeply infused with throat-stinging smoke and so tender it practically melted into a puddle in my mouth. Shamelessly, I picked at the bone until I'd found every morsel of meat. The fiery, coarsely ground, housemade sausages in their taut casings that had made such a good sandwich in high school were just as good on their own. I chased down every chunk, adding them to bites of the sweet, bacony beans in a stew-thick sauce. Lawson isn't shy about using honey in that side; he told me he keeps a pail of the natural sugar, straight from the beehive, in back. The beans are supplemented with maple syrup and hickory-smoked bacon.
I washed dinner down with a Coke — Lawson may have a permanent space for Jabo's, but he doesn't have a liquor license — and, side-splittingly full, promised to come back soon.
A few days later, I returned with a carnivorous friend, and we ate our way through thick slabs of fork-tender beef brisket doused in a thick, fruity mango sauce, and pulled pork in a racy hickory mustard piled on a softball-sized challah bun. We supplemented that feast with fries: beer-battered, hand-cut slices of potato fried extra-crispy, along with slim strips of restaurant-cut sweet potato that were slightly smoky and caramelized and made me think of marshmallows in a cup of hot cocoa. But Jabo's now offers something even sweeter: Utah scones, from a family recipe provided by Lawson's wife, Susan. The airy puffs of bread dough have deep-fried, golden-brown crusts painted with a smear of sticky homemade honey butter.
"More like a sconut," my friend said after her first bite. Exactly: I could eat these for breakfast, and I wish a bakery existed that made that possible.
Like any person with a proper reverence for the memories of childhood, I still miss that vacant lot. But Jabo Lawson's barbecue lost nothing in the move indoors. And he still makes you feel like there's nothing more important than thoroughly enjoying a meal.