Sometimes food doesn't take much thought -- most of the time, in fact. Sometimes you just know what you want and you go and get it, and it's good. Barbecue should be that way. There should be no long lines where jockeying with out-of-towners, food bloggers and aficionados is part of the routine of getting lunch or dinner. After all, barbecue is nothing more than meat cooked the way it's been cooked for millennia -- wood coals and a little seasoning and enough time to break down the chewy bits. In some barbecue capitals, though, barbecue has become almost a religion, with strong opinions, right and wrong ideas, and heaven or hell seemingly at stake. But in Denver, barbecue is an import, a nice-to-have treat that folks don't get too crazy about. That's why you can drop in to a country-style shack like Piggin' Out Bar-B-Que at 9987 Morrison Road in almost-rural Lakewood an hour before closing and still get succulent pork and beef by the pound without worry.
That's always the goal, anyway, even if some people seem to take pride in the length of time they've stood in line for a taste of the best barbecue in whatever town they happen to think originated the best barbecue. But one look out back at Piggin' Out will let you know that they understand what smoking meat means, even if you have your regional preferences or favorite sauce styles. There's a big steel smoker on a trailer that's stained in streaked shades of bronze from smoke and fat. It's got a rusty metal hatch that looks like it could have come from a navy salvage yard and chimneys that serve to alert the neighborhood to the presence of barbecue through the public address system of wood smoke alone. The interior of Piggin' Out isn't much to look at -- just a menu board and an order counter and a few pig figurines to remind you of what you're about to eat. It's mostly a takeout joint, with a few picnic tables under an enormous elm in the gravel parking lot and a concrete slab in the front with a few more chairs under a folding canopy. This corner of Morrison Road and Kipling slopes south and west, giving a much more open and rural view than you would guess based on the smokehouse's suburban location. It seems built for late summer, with a little shelter from passing storms and open air all the way to the foothills, broken only by back-lit cottonwood fluff and telephone wires.
There's chicken and turkey on the menu, along with standard sides, but the best bets are pulled pork, pork ribs, chopped brisket and two kinds of sausage. The sauces -- a thick and sweet molasses-based original and a spicier version of the same -- don't try to be all things to all barbecue lovers. They are honest Kansas City-style sauces with a grainy thickness from pureed onions and garlic, even if the cashier says the pit master is from Ohio. I'm more interested in the flavor of the finished product than the pedigree of the cooks, and I think anyone -- from any state -- can make good barbecue, as long as they don't try to cover too much ground.
The brisket and the pork shoulder both display bits of darkened bark and pink smoke ring, although neither are sliced to show off these attributes. Served in chopped piles on aluminum foil, both pull apart easily but have enough chew to steer clear of dreaded mushiness. The brisket is a little moister, a little fattier than the pork, but a quick stir of the mound of shredded pork adds the drippings back into the meat. The smoke, from whole cord wood (not pellets or wood chips), is distinct and deep. You can order sandwiches, but bread just gets in the way. A side of mac and cheese, sunflower yellow from processed cheese, adds a nice tangy and creamy counterpoint to the main attraction. My one mistake in ordering was not specifying hot links when I ordered sausage; what I got was more like bratwurst -- just fine, but not the pink and juicy smoked Polish-style links more typical of barbecue, regardless of region. Keep reading for more on Piggin' Out Bar-B-Que. Ohio, especially near the Kentucky border, may be more on the Southern barbecue circuit than Colorado could ever hope to be. If Buckeye State transplants make it to the Front Range and set up shop smoking meats, they stand just as much chance of impressing Coloradans as anyone else. Out here, where "BBQ" on the menu often means a tangy red sauce mixed in with shredded pork or chicken on a grocery-store hamburger bun, we're fortunate to have dedicated traditionalists who choose a style and stick with it, mastering it just by tending the coals, standing in the smoke and letting the pork and beef do the talking. Good barbecue is not about recipes or fancy cuts or setting the timer on an automated smoker where the meats come out the same every time. It's about time and patience and continuing to learn through practice and observation and trial and error.
Piggin' Out may not be the Platonic ideal of pit smoking, but in the hills of Lakewood on a warm summer night, it's as close as it needs to be.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.