Denver is definitely in need of more good barbecue, so I was eager to visit Southern Hospitality BBQ, the upscale barbecue restaurant that opened last October in the very renovated old St. Elmo Hotel building. This joint came with a smoking back-story: The original was opened in Manhattan in 2007 by none other than Justin Timberlake (among others), and One Republic lead singer Ryan Tedder and his father, Gary, bought the rights to franchise the concept through Southern Hospitality Franchisee Holding Corp. in up to thirty locations, including LoDo.
See also: -Ryan Tedder's father weighs in on beer, barbecue and Southern Hospitality -One Republic's Ryan Tedder could bring Memphis-style BBQ to Denver and beyond -Reader: Southern Hospitality looks like a hip Cracker Barrel
I stopped in at 7:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight. When the deal was announced, Gary Tedder said he wanted the restaurant to have "a nostalgic yet modern feel," which is a respectable-enough aspiration -- but the faux-rustic brick walls, reclaimed wood, track lighting, modern-artsy prints and fake-to-look-real flickering candles on the tables made the place look like a gentrified, yuppie stop-in rather than any kind of nostalgic barbecue joint. There were only a few tables occupied on the first floor, and the downstairs area was a ghost town. This usually means that service will be attentive -- but mine was nothing more than passable. When I asked if I could order the Memphis BBQ Mary off the brunch menu -- the house spicy BBQ bloody mix garnished with celery, pickle, olive, lime, bacon, salt, dry rub, deviled egg and a spare rib, with a beer chaser -- my server said yes, but then brought me a regular Bloody Mary with a small glass of warm, flat lager and explained that the bar didn't "have the stuff to make it."
The replacement cocktail was lousy by even no-frills Bloody Mary standards, with so much celery salt that the watery mix was bitter and warm. (I suspect the drink may not have started out warm and watered, but got that way while waiting to be delivered.) I'd wanted to try the house deviled eggs; there weren't any -- not for bloodies, not for apps. So I settled for an order or the fried green tomatoes ($8), the Rocky Mountain Combo ($27) and the dessert banana pudding ($5); with my drink added in, my bill hit $50 even before a tip.
I did get an accidental, free plate of fried pickles that I hadn't ordered, but the male server who dropped that off was gone before I had a chance to tell him he'd made a mistake. My server brought the correct appetizer, but it was a seriously flavorless disappointment. The fried green tomato slices were dry to the point of being dehydrated on the inside, and the breading was thick, crusty and uneven -- just globs of fried, mealy batter clinging to emaciated rounds of cold meh. I was so desperate I tried one of the pickles, and it had the same shabby crust and chilly temperature.
At least the barbeque plate had some hot food: Memphis-style spare ribs, hand-sliced brisket and Southern fried chicken with a side of plank-style fries that took up half the plate. There were just two and a half ribs almost buried by those fries; I grabbed one, gnawed on it, tried using my knife to dislodge a bit of meat from the bone, and finally broke down and started chewing on the end. It was clear that this meat had not been cooked "low and slow" but high and fast, because there were no relaxed meat fibers.
I gave up and went to the brisket, a personal favorite. Usually. The portion (three slices) was close to half-fat, which was problematic enough, but the strips of meat flanking the fat were so rigid the connective tissue wasn't letting me pull off a piece without a major fight.
At least the sauce was fine. Memphis-style barbeque is pork-forward, dry-rubbed with spices or wet (with sauce), and slow-cooked. The sauce is traditionally sweet and tomato-based, and this was on par with my expectations medium-thick with tomato sweetness, a bit of vinegar tang on the back end, and very lightly smoky. But there just wasn't much meat to put it on.
Finally, I turned to the fried chicken: a bit of breast and a tiny wing. But the bird was just as implacable as the ribs and brisket, coming off the bone -- but only with some tugging -- in desiccated strands. Under the light batter, the flesh had zero flavor. No salt, no pepper, no paprika, nothing: Luke's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru were probably better seasoned than this when they were fried.
The menu at Southern Hospitality was created by Vic Matthews, a North Carolina native who cooked in New Orleans kitchens, including Emeril Lagasse's -- did he miss the "Kick it up a notch!" advice, or are the cooks at the Denver location rushing through a slow process to get food to the table faster?
I finally admitted meat defeat (the barbecue was just as bad on a repeat visit) and concentrated on the pudding, which was by far the best thing I shoved into my cake-shaker that night. It was fresh, sweet custard layered with white cake and fresh banana slices and topped with perfectly bruleed banana slices.
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Austin and Nashville are reportedly the next two locations for Southern Hospitality franchise expansion, but the Tedders may want to stay out of those towns for now. People there are raised on really good, really cheap barbeque -- and even in a town like Denver that's starved for good barbecue, this doesn't qualify. Not yet. Heat up the pickles and tomatoes, cook that meat right and put Justin Timberlake in the booth next to me, though, and I'll be ready to give it another chance.