4601 Harlan Street, Wheat Ridge
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 BBQ
The 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. Still, our first meal got off to an inauspicious start: The steak fries were just regular fries, not fat wedges, simultaneously limp, oily, and in many places as burnt as toast. Next came macaroni and cheese that might have been good when first made, but was so dried out by the time it was scooped into our dish, it had all the appeal of reheated leftovers. The beans, though housemade, weren't much more than pork and beans. Collards cooked Southern style, until even the center stems gave way, were a definite improvement: not too vinegary, not too sweet.
Then the brisket arrived, and things really started looking up. That dish was love spelled m-e-a-t, with the chewy black edges called bark, the telltale pink smoke ring, and chunks of beef so tender, even a baby could've gummed them. Given Johnson's Texas upbringing, I'd expected the thin slices that are traditional in both Texas and Oklahoma. But his food-truck customers kept asking him to chop the beef into smaller pieces, and he listened. (Such liberties might explain why he calls his barbecue "Southern style" rather than "Texas style" or anything else.) I ate my brisket mostly unsauced, dipping a bite every now and then into one of Kings' three reddish-brown sauces, all thick, spicy and sweet in the manner of Kansas City-style barbecue, the hot being hotter and the sweet being sweeter, containing both brown sugar and molasses.
I've tried the brisket sandwich, too, served on a sesame-seed roll that stands up better to sauce (if you must have it) than old-school white bread, but I prefer brisket on a plate -- the fewer distractions the better. That's not the case with the pulled pork, which can be had as a sandwich, by the half or full pound, or as a combo plate, with a side plus drink, for an additional $2. On our first visit we had the plate of pulled pork, but my heart is with the sandwich, using crunchy, mayonnaise-y coleslaw and a wisely timed, self-controlled dollop of sauce to accent, not drown, the smokiness that the wood took so long to impart in the meat. Whether on its own or between bread, the best bites featured chopped-up, flavor-crusted edges. With pulled pork, the more texture the better, which is why many joints stack the deck with cracklings, or crispy bits of pork skin, added in.
We saved the ribs for another visit. But when we arrived, the ribs -- all St. Louis style, as Kings doesn't offer baby backs -- weren't ready, even though it was close to noon. And when they did arrive, it seemed they could've used another hour or two in the smoker to help render the fat and tenderize the meat: The lightly rubbed ribs were on the far side of toothy, meaning you really had to sink your teeth into them to separate meat from bone. They were also very smoky -- but that can be either good or bad, depending on what kind of barbecue you like.
Since we'd definitely liked the brisket and pulled pork at our first meal, we went with another round of those, too. We also tried the hot wings, dredged in seasoned flour and fried until crisp. Paired with a saucier, creamier macaroni and cheese, classic deli-style potato salad and more of those collards, the chicken-fried wings satisfied our yearning for homestyle Southern fare. So did the jalapeño-cheddar cornbread, shaped like a muffin top and not burned.
I wanted to cap off the meal with a classic Southern dish like chess pie or sweet-potato pie, but Kings doesn't offer dessert yet, so we contented ourselves with refills on tea and lemonade, which we mixed at the table into ad hoc Arnold Palmers. Johnson says he has plans to add scratch-made cake, peach cobbler and sweet-potato pie to the menu; he's also working on finishing the front and back patios, which right now feel more like fenced-off parts of the parking lot than places where I'd want to hang out.
And I'd like to hang out at Kings BBQ again. This place may not be It, but it's definitely a welcome addition to Denver's barbecue scene.
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Select menu items at Kings BBQ: Brisket, ½ pound $7.50 Brisket sandwich $8 Pulled pork, ½ pound $7 Hot wings, 6 pc. $7.25 Full rack ribs $22 Jalapeño-cheddar cornbread $.75 Steak fries $2.75 Southern smoked beans $2.75 Collard greens $2.75 Mac and cheese $2.75
Kings BBQ is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at 720-287-4554.