Karl Fallenius says he was working hundred-hour weeks in the period leading up to the closing of his Owlbear Barbecue stand at Finn's Manor at 2927 Larimer Street. Shutting the place down at the height of its popularity turned out to be the right move, though, as he's now nearly as busy; he's a new dad trying to open a brick-and-mortar version of Owlbear at 2826 Larimer Street.
Fallenius learned the ropes of smoking meats in Austin, Texas while working at Franklin's Barbecue (among others) before opening Owlbear in 2015. Brisket is his claim to fame, but the pit master also does ribs, pulled pork and occasional specials like smoked pork loin, pastrami and house-cured bacon. And while he had a good run at Finn's, Fallenius is ready to take the next step.
"Great barbecue boils down to maximizing control, and we'll definitely have more control in our new setting," he explains.
Owlbear's homemade offset barrel smoker (made from a 500-gallon propane tank) will still be an outdoor rig, but a new indoor kitchen and small dining room (with room for 18 or so customers) will give employees and guests a little something beyond picnic tables for enjoying the barbecue and sides. Fallenius hopes to open in August, operating Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to whenever the meats sell out. A liquor license is also part of the plan, but that may not happen right away. And eventually Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be added to the schedule.
So what else will be new with the new location? "Owlbear is going to have sauce for the first time," Fallenius states. That will come in the form of an Alabama-style white sauce, which he says will be more like a "redneck tzatziki"; something umami-laden and inspired by Japanese ingredients; a version of the honey-chipotle-tomato sauce he uses on his pork ribs; and a spicy vinegar-based sauce.
Colorado zoning and food safety laws are just different enough from those in Texas to make getting everything right a little tricky for a restaurant that does most of its cooking outdoors in a trailer-mounted smoker. "I can cook barbecue, but I'm not so good at navigating beaurocracy," Fallenius admits.
So he's taking his time and making sure the city knows exactly what he's planning. "The build-out will be really simple, but we just want to make sure the zoning and permitting are handled properly," he adds.
A big part of why Fallenius is being so cautious and transparent with city officials is because of the way things ended at Finn's Manor. The Owlbear setup operated in a gray area in between a food truck and a permanent kitchen, so the outdoor smoker and small prep area inside a shack-like structure were a bit of a mystery to health inspectors. In fact, Fallenius says inspectors from the Denver Department of Environmental Health had never paid a visit to the Finn's Manor outdoor food court while he was operating there — until they visited in March and told Fallenius he couldn't stay open unless he moved a hand sink from just outside the food prep area to just inside. Realizing that the hand-sink issue might be just the tip of the iceberg, he decided to close permanently because of the potential cost of other changes.
Fallenius says he's happy to work with the city to come up with solutions to a somewhat unique (at least to Denver) restaurant setup, since it all means he's one step closer to firing up his smokers. While he just catered a wedding and participated in Top Taco (beating out national competition for the top prize in the VIP barbecue taco category), he says he hasn't been cooking enough this summer. He's even looking into the idea of building a new 1,000-gallon rig, noting that "being able to double our capacity while still using one fire would be a big advantage," although Denver's cold winters could affect how efficiently such a big smoker might operate.
We'll be among the first in line to taste the results.
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