When I pulled up in front of Kings BBQ, I thought this might be it. You know, It. The place we've been looking for to raise barbecue in this town to smokin' new heights. And by "we," I mean not just me, a girl who grew up eating fine Oklahoma barbecue, but 'cue lovers of all stripes, including the hundred-plus commenters who offered meaty thoughts on Denver's sorry barbecue scene on Cafe Society last month.
See also: A Closer Look at Kings BBQThe four-month-old Kings, which I learned of through a restaurant-industry veteran, had plenty of promise. It's not in trendy RiNo or Ballpark or Baker, but across from a Walmart on the backside of Lakeside -- a good sign, because the best barbecue has a way of taking you off your beaten path. It's not fancy -- a handful of tables lined up in a row, a couple of beer signs on the walls and windows, and rolls of paper towels with which to wipe your greasy hands when you push back the plates and call it quits. And the menu, written on a chalkboard above the counter where you order, is just brisket, chicken, pulled pork, wings and ribs (sadly, no rib tips and burnt ends), plus the usual sides.
But there's no denying the smells coming from the smoker, partially hidden behind weathered, rough-cut planks on one side of the small parking lot. As I made my way to Kings' glass door (the kind you'd find at a gas station or convenience store), I peeked through cracks in the fence and saw enough wood to heat a cabin -- piles and piles of smaller limbs and split fruit wood that look like any other logs...until they burn and infuse their aromatic magic.
"Have you been here before?" asked the girl at the counter, who was sporting jeans and a retro T-shirt. We shook our heads. "Then I'm going to tell you something that's not very helpful: Everything is good." When pressed, she singled out the brisket, so I started there. My husband added a half-pound of pulled pork, and then we turned our attention to sides, piling them onto our order with the snowballing enthusiasm of hungry people who didn't get enough lunch. Coleslaw. Beans. Collards. Steak fries. Doesn't the mac and cheese sound good? Let's try some. Do you have cornbread? It was burned today? How about a roll, then, with butter, please.Of course we over-ordered, but the smoky smells had us primed for a feast. Good thing Kings' prices are reasonable, because nothing puts the brakes on fun like a big-ticket tab. As it was, the only slowdown came in the way of drinks: A liquor license is pending, so we had to content ourselves with iced tea and lemonade (not the hard kind). Walking past a dad and his daughter, several guys in boots and baseball caps, and a family whose table was as full of plates and red paper-lined baskets as ours soon would be, we found two red-vinyl-topped chairs and sat down to wait. A TV was on, but you could only see it from the counter. So we passed the time rehashing our day, until I realized that without even knowing it, I'd been tapping my fingers, grooving to KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way (I Like It)." R&B hits followed -- loud, but not overly so, just enough to keep conversations private and augment the good-natured vibe in this no-frills space. That vibe emanates from chef-owner CJ Johnson, a Texan with roots in Louisiana and Alabama. Unlike classic 'cue masters in Kansas City or North Carolina who took over the trade from their father or grandfather, Johnson is relatively new to the field, having worked in restaurants on and off but never in barbecue joints; he left a career as a radiologic technologist to launch a food truck. "It was a passion to follow my heart," he says. He parked the truck to open Kings, and when he's not walking around the place asking how things are, he's overseeing the kitchen. "It'll be just a minute," he promised as we waited. "We fire it all fresh." Keep reading for more on Kings BBQ.