This isn’t a barbecue town. But while we may not have a nationally recognized style, Denver diners have strong opinions about the ’cue they do find here. Carolina transplants grumble about ketchupy sauces. Uprooted Texans mutter about any kind of sauce, ketchupy or otherwise, poured over their brisket. Barbecue lovers of all backgrounds reminisce about the places they came from, where ’cue cultures go back generations and pit masters guard recipes like national secrets. But finally, Denverites have something they can come together over: the high-quality meats coming out of Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que, which opened this winter in a converted burger joint on South Downing Street.
The tiny, homespun restaurant — with license plates, cowboy art and metal roofing on the walls, handmade benches pulled up to a handful of tables and meat piled on paper-lined sheet pans — doesn’t serve classic Carolina-, Memphis- or Kansas City-style barbecue. It doesn’t even specialize in Texas-style ’cue, despite the fact that chef Coy Webb grew up in Texas, smoking meats in his back yard and competing in barbecue contests. Rather, Coy and his wife, Rachael Webb, who co-own Roaming Buffalo, dish up what they call Colorado craft barbecue, with local lamb and bison smoked alongside the more traditional pork, chicken and beef.
Meats are sold by the pound, but until you’ve sampled your way through the menu and are ready to commit to just one, you’ll want to experiment with the three-meat plate. Just come early, because when the meat’s gone, it’s gone. The neon “Sold Out” sign in the window usually lights up by early evening, but I’ve ordered dishes at lunch and come up short, a sorrow I would have drowned with a beer, if Roaming Buffalo had any. Instead, I had to content myself with weaker stuff; the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license.
My first meal here started with the meats that give the restaurant its niche: bison short ribs and lamb. The squat ribs boasted an intensely smoky flavor and a tender, pull-apart texture reminiscent of pot roast. Pulled lamb shoulder had none of the gaminess sometimes associated with lamb and needed only a light rub and a long stint on the smoker to become a standout.
In addition to these more unusual offerings, Roaming Buffalo offers pork spare ribs, with the fatty profile that pork fans love and a honey rub lending a hint of sweetness. I prefer baby backs, but those aren’t on the menu; according to Coy, a Cordon Bleu graduate who’s spent eighteen years in professional kitchens, they’re just too much work in a small operation like this. Chicken wings are bigger than the ubiquitous Buffalo-style version, with plenty of flavor under the heavily rubbed skin. Pork is treated to the same hefty rub as the chicken, a wise move considering the mild flavor of the other white meat. The pork is served chopped, and if you sit inside rather than on the patio, you’ll hear a near-constant thunk-thunking of knives against the butcher block to keep up with orders.
No matter what other meats you go for, make sure to try the brisket, which has a chewy black edge of concentrated flavor that gradually gives way to the browner, fork-tender inside. Served sliced or chopped, fatty or lean, this brisket proves that the best barbecue is indeed magic, with alchemy and a long exposure to smoke turning the meat into something spectacularly more than itself. True to his roots, Coy treats the brisket with the respect it deserves, letting a simple rub take a back seat to the meat. “A buddy of mine asked how many ingredients are in the rub, and I told him I’ve got four, and he said, ‘I’ve got twenty,’” says Coy. “That’s just a waste of time.”
What isn’t a waste of time is the sauce, even though it’s not necessary for these meats, which are smoked over a blend of pecan and oak for a more subtle flavor than meats smoked over hickory. Coy makes two kinds of sauce: spicy, with plenty of vinegar, mustard and chile powder; and a sweeter version, with cumin and just enough molasses and brown sugar to tame the heat without tipping the scales remotely close to sugary. Both are served on the side, so you can control the amount of smoke that comes through by adding more or less sauce — or none at all.
In addition to plates, which come with a cornbread muffin and one side, and meats by the pound, Roaming Buffalo serves a handful of sandwiches. As a general rule, I’d rather have a plate than a sandwich, since bread tends to distract from the pure pleasure of the meat. But I found two exceptions here: a $3 sandwich served only on the weekends, with a small white bun and a mix of meats in a sweet sauce that reminded me of a sloppy joe, and the Real McCoy, packed with enough brisket, pork and housemade jalapeño-cheddar sausage for two sandwiches. Coy knew what he was doing when he built this one, upping the smokiness with a thin layer of smoked Gouda and balancing the heat from the jalapeño sausage and additional pickled jalapeños with the sweetness of a whole-wheat bun.
Side dishes are gussied-up standards, and several are very successful. Coleslaw is riddled with cilantro and lime and mixed to order for a salad that’s bright and crisp. Macaroni and cheese is made with cheddar Mornay dotted with smoky poblanos. Cowboy beans are flecked with coffee grounds and spiked with coffee in homage to red-eye gravy. But other sides could use more love. Southwest potato salad was mealy, like mashed potatoes gone cold. A salad of cucumbers and tomatoes with sour cream cried out for salt. More than once, the house-fried chips dusted with green chile and white cheddar tasted stale. And the cornbread muffins were often overcooked, though the scratch strawberry-jalapeño jelly on the table camouflaged the dryness. What couldn’t be camouflaged were our messy fingers, which needed wet wipes stashed in the car, not just the paper towels on the table, to get fully clean after a meal here.
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People are inclined to favor whatever style of barbecue they grew up with; such is the power of childhood associations. But if you come to Roaming Buffalo with an open mind, you might be surprised by what you find — and the Webbs know this better than anybody. “Coy always said, ‘I’d never trust someone from the front of the house,’” jokes Rachael, “and I always said I’d never trust a chef.” But they put their preconceived notions behind them, and look what happened: They ended up married, with a restaurant and a newborn baby, to boot. Your open-mindedness won’t get you all that at Roaming Buffalo — but it will get you knockout plates of food, not to mention a new style of barbecue.
Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
Bison short ribs $16/lb
Pulled lamb shoulder $18/lb
Beef brisket $17/lb
Pork spare ribs $2.50 each
Chopped pork $12/lb
Chicken wings $1.50 each
Three-meat plate $18.50
The Real McCoy $14
Sides, individual $1.85
Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que is open 11 a.m.-sold out, Tuesday-Sunday. Learn more at roamingbuffalobbq.com.