In Memoriam: Mack Shead Sr. (1934-2019)
When Mack Shead Sr. died on November 22, Denver lost a fine man, a beloved husband and a father whose sharp wit endeared him to many, especially the young people who loved to talk to him. Most in the Mile High City will remember how he fed us.
After retiring from the Air Force, Shead and his wife, Daisy, moved their family to Denver in the 1970s to join a slew of relatives already living here. Looking for something to do, the Sheads opened M&D's Barbecue and Fish Palace in northeast Denver on October 6, 1977.
For more than three decades, people from all races and walks of life got their grub on in this intimate restaurant with the majestic name on the corner of 28th Avenue and Race Street: athletes, attorneys, blue-collar workers, politicians, Sunday churchgoers needing an after-service meal and white-collar professionals. Like many black-owned restaurants across the country, M&D's was part restaurant, part country club, part barbecue shack and part soul food joint. For friends, family, neighborhood residents and out-of-town visitors, M&D's gave diners a much-welcomed and reliable taste of home.
Even though I grew up in Denver, I didn't frequent M&D's until I returned home in the 1990s after attending an out-of-state college and law school. I was drawn to four menu items. Most often, I got the magnificent barbecued pork spareribs I was intrigued by what the menu called "the small end." This was the first time my spareribs had a specific location. When looking at an intact set of spareribs, these were the smaller bones at the opposite end from the larger, meatier bones. M&D's menu described them as "the filet mignon of ribs. Tender, juicy, and definitely a mouth full of goodness." After getting my fill, I saw no lies in what the menu claimed. Former Denver mayor Federico Peña was a regular customer. He loved the ribs so much that he once had an order shipped to Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, when he became the Secretary of Transportation in the Clinton Administration.
As is the case with most black barbecue joints, M&D's took pride in its sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce. It came in three spice levels: mild, medium and hot. Until I asked for the "hot" barbecue sauce at M&D's, I had never been in a restaurant where my server actually discouraged me from ordering something on the menu. I didn't relent, and my ribs arrived smothered in that infernal sauce. Needless to say, I ordered the "medium" version from then on.
M&D's also served up plenty of fish. The most popular was catfish, but unlike at many places, diners could get it bone-in here. I share the opinion of those who believe the bones bring more flavor. M&D's was also one of the few places where you could get buffalo fish — a very bony, freshwater fish that tastes a lot like catfish. Whatever fish you got, it was dusted with seasoned, yellow cornmeal and fried until delightfully crispy.
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When the meal was almost done, then came the desserts. I'd wager that most people still daydream about M&D's peach cobbler that came with a scoop of ice cream if you desired. Yes, the fruit filling was sweet and full of plump peaches, but I always coveted the nutmeg-dusted crust. Former Denver Broncos linebacker Simon Fletcher ordered the cobbler by the bowl, just like everyone else except for one difference: The typical bowl ordered by mere mortals was too small, so he got the biggest bowl possible. In time, M&D's upped its game by adding blackberry cobbler, and it was glorious.
By the early 2000s, Mack and Daisy Shead had renovated the restaurant and transitioned its day-to-day operations to their children. Though the restaurant, renamed M & D's Cafe after the 2004 rebuild, ultimately closed in 2011, several of the Sheads' children remain in the food business. Of particular note is "Two Sistah's Eats ’n' Treats," a catering business run by Debra, Kenny and Rena Shead. Though barbecue is not their forte, their soul food items will surely evoke memories of the old joint. Rena Shead hopes that her father's legacy will be "how, with M&D's, he served good food and touched the community of people as a whole."
Indeed. So we say farewell and give thanks to Mack Shead Sr. for nourishing us, and for a life lived well and soulfully.