The current address for Pepperbelly Barbecue is in suburban hell, the kind of place where all the streets have the same name with different endings (Canyon Way, Canyon Drive, Canyon Circle, etc.) and where you could easily stumble into the wrong house if you've had too many beverages. I wonder if my intel was off...but then as I turn into the circle, there they are: not one, but two sixteen-foot smokers.
They’re the creation of barbecue royalty: John Lewis, today the owner/pitmaster of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina. Lewis’s roots are in Austin, Texas, though, where in 2015 he and his father opened Austin Smoke Works, which makes smokers for some of the best barbecue joints in the country.
Despite the presence of two Austin smokers, I still feel like I might be in the wrong spot as I rap on the door. But it’s opened by pitmaster Ryan Smith, who puts out a big, meaty paw and leads me into his kitchen with a toothy grin. “Do you want a cold one?” he asks, already elbow-deep in the fridge, pulling out a cold Coors Light.
Along with one of Smith’s buddies and another barbecue fan, I listen as Smith talks serious ’cue, from types of wood to smoking temp and time. His confidence and passion for the craft are evident. After a few minutes of conversation, he disappears into his meat cave (garage) and emerges with butcher paper-wrapped packages.
Smith came to Colorado via Alaska and Austin, where he studied the glorious art of smoking meats, especially brisket, under some of the masters and graduated from the Texas Culinary Academy. Shortly after moving to the Denver suburbs in 2014, he made his barbecue debut at a local block party, and soon quit his day job to focus on it full-time.
Setting the package on the cutting board, he slowly peels back the paper on one package to reveal a perfectly smoked brisket. It has an ideal wobble; a deep, peppery bark; and supple fat that gilds the edges. Smith slices the brisket like a sushi master breaking down a tuna, then hands me a small piece. As the meat dissolves in my mouth and the fat runs down my chin, I let out an audible sigh of pure barbecue bliss.
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Next on the board are his ribs. These have a beautiful crusty bark, too, but with decidedly less shimmer than the brisket. He cuts one and hands to it me. The rib is fall-off-the-bone tender — a little too tender, if you ask me. I like the meat to stay on the bone, but this slides right off. It’s good, but not as good as the brisket. The same goes for the pork butt, hot links and turkey: They’re all fine, but nothing you couldn’t find in an actual barbecue restaurant. Smith also offers charro beans —think baked beans with a brightness from cilantro and serrano peppers — as well as potato salad and a rotating slaw. While these sides are by no means an afterthought, they’re not show-stoppers.
While his meats are so ridiculously moist they don’t need barbecue sauce, Ryan makes a mean, pepper-heavy version. He’s been experimenting with other toppings; one time he prepared a Hatch chile chimichurri. Spread on the brisket, it created a tasty collision of Colorado and Texas, cutting the fat in a magical way and adding just the right amount of heat.
Smith's black-market operation is coming to an end. He's opening a barbecue restaurant in Golden and shooting for March; before that, he plans to sling brisket from a trailer parked in front of the eatery. But for now, you have to travel to suburban hell for a slice of heaven.
Call Ryan Smith at 720-234-7399 to ask what he's smoking. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook for updates on his brick-and-mortar location.