As the smell of barbecue wafted through the South, it began drawing crowds off the roads and into roadhouses that specialized in smoky, flavorful meat and killer sauces. To this day, you'll find beat-up old houses off Route 66 with hand-painted signs advertising their superior barbecue. These are the types of places where you can still take an empty milk jug and get it filled with sauce for two bucks, where diners line up along picnic tables covered with newspaper, and where the napkins are so thin and cheap you need thirty of them to get the sticky stuff off of your face.
At Colorado O'Willy's, a newfangled roadhouse on East Arapahoe Road, the napkins are cloth--environmentally correct, perhaps, but when you're pigging out on ribs, all the clean spots quickly disappear. Although our waiter hurried to bring us spares, we didn't really mind: O'Willy's does such a fine job with its barbecue that we would have gladly wiped our hands on our clothes.
O'Willy's features other modern amenities, too. The picnic tables out on the brown lawn have given way to comfortable wooden booths, a snazzy bar (made with hand-hewn logs) and Native American and Western paraphernalia littering the walls. And these days, the sauce comes in fancy, prepackaged bottles. But the time-honored spirit--and flavor--is still intact. Owner Gary Bridges, a native Coloradan who owned restaurants in Orlando, Florida, and Telluride before coming here, hickory-smokes a mean pile of bones and makes his own sauces.
The first we tried was his Colorado Courage sauce (note the commercial-ready name), which came with the Buzzard Banquet ($6.59), an appetizer sampler of chicken wings, onion rings, stuffed jalapenos and smoked sausage. The sauce was wonderfully hot: Bridges uses six types of peppers, cayenne and crushed red chiles among them. But the heat was also on in the other dipping liquid, a cayenne-laced ranch dressing. Normally, ranch helps cool things off, but this dressing just fueled the fire. And since everything on the platter carried some kind of kick, we found ourselves relying heavily on the contents of our beer mugs (maybe that's the idea here). The stuffed jalapenos--two red chiles filled with cream cheese and lightly covered with breadcrumbs--were the most incendiary of the offerings. The pair of chicken wings were considerably less spicy and also rather dry--the victims of a too-heavy coating. Fortunately, the onion rings had been spared a similar fate. This was largely due to their unusual preparation: A whole onion had been cooked "cactus-blossom-style" (one companion said it looked like an upside-down spider), covered with only a thin layer of breadcrumbs and spices light enough to let the onion exude its mouth-watering perfumes, then fried until it was flaccid, easy to pull apart and deliciously greasy. But even that masterpiece paled beside the succulent sausage, so well-spiced and tender that we felt cheated by our two, two-inch-long chunks. Our enthusiasm was so obvious--and so vocal--that the waiter proudly declared, "The owner makes them himself."
Indeed, Bridges created most of the dishes on his varied menu. But the self-proclaimed jokester (he's been known to announce "Elway, party of four" over the loudspeaker on crowded Friday nights just so he can watch everyone crane their necks to catch a glimpse of No. 7) is quick to share the credit with his staff. "I'm just the old man back there," he says. "They do 90 percent of the work. I mostly do prep and make sure everyone's following the recipes."
Keeping people in line is a good idea, because these recipes are worth following. Bridges says the idea for his superb Brunswick stew ($5.99) came from a place in Brunswick, Georgia. The huge mess of beef leftovers, chicken, pork, corn, tomatoes and spice-sponging potatoes had a slow-cooked quality that manifested itself best in the flavor-ridden tubers that nearly disintegrated in our mouths. Hot pepper perked up the liquid in the bottom of the big bowl, and a thick slice of bread covered crust-to-crust with melted cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses took off some of the heat.
Good as that dish was, we were there for the ribs--and ribs we had. If I could eat only one type of ribs for the rest of my life, it would be O'Willy's lamb ($9.99 for a half rack). Lamb ribs may lack the exquisite greasiness inherent to good barbecued anything, but their dearth of fat means you can eat more of them. And surprisingly, no fat didn't translate into no flavor: These tasty, albeit tiny, bones were covered with tender, juicy meat. The Danish--yes, there are pigs in Denmark--baby backs ($10.99) were also smallish, but there was plenty of pork clinging to the ribs. Least appealing of the trio we tried were the baby-back beef ribs ($9.99); they were on the dry side and fairly fatty. But since each set of ribs came with two fabulous sauces--Colorado Courage and a mild, toothsomely sweet barbecue sauce heavy with brown sugar--we were able to drown the beef ribs until their dryness didn't matter.
Each plate of ribs also came with cole slaw, a simple blend of cabbage, carrots and mayonnaise that had been sweetened but wasn't sugary. The other side, watery baked beans, seemed to be missing something--like flavor. There wasn't much garlic to the garlic toast, either, but the big, buttered bread slice was crispy and added a nice touch nonetheless.
Somehow we managed to save room for dessert. Bridges's relatives are responsible for several of these concoctions. For example, his cousin's wife's Cajun grandmother passed along the secret for the bread pudding ($2.25) swimming in a Cripple Creek whiskey sauce touched up with raspberries, a dressed-up version of a traditional New Orleans dessert. The pudding was almost too dense, rife with raisins and alarmingly filling, but the sauce was outstanding--although the whiskey had been cooked off, it still hit our noses. Bridges's mother-in-law provided the recipe for the pecan pie ($2.25); our large wedge was filled with minced pecans and a not-too-sugary base. But O'Willy's owner can take all the credit for the comforting mudslide ($1.95), a warm, brownielike cake spiked with Amaretto and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream as well as two kinds of chocolate (one of them Hershey's).
With food so indecently good--and at decent prices--it's no wonder this place packs them in. The deal gets even better with kids: The children's menu features three-dollar meals, including drink and dessert, and on Sunday kids eat free. We didn't have reservations one recent Friday night, and we waited forty minutes--in a lobby littered with families--for our table.
And we waited happily. Because at O'Willy's, the party's just beginning.