Barbecue joints have been springing up around town nearly as often as apartment owners have raised their rents. With so many new choices and so many good pit masters moving to Colorado from the South's prime barbecue regions, it's no surprise that our barbecue choices have never been better. While Denver may not have a distinctive style for newcomers to use as a measuring stick, following tradition will only get a 'cue shop so far. Sometimes being the best means having the best Kansas City-style ribs in town, but sometimes it just means offering the full flavor of good meat cooked over wood, regardless of the origin of the dry rub, sauce or technique.
Because of all the changes, we've been out eating barbecue — and the result is our updated list of the ten best barbecue eateries in town, in alphabetical order, with this year's Best of Denver winner in the number-one slot. And because "authenticity" is a word thrown around so much these days (even if nobody knows for sure what it means), we've included an authentic-o-meter to gauge just how real-deal these ten places are, as compared to the best barbecue from that one guy on the side of the road where we once stood in the dust and rolled our eyes in delight, not only because of the meat itself, but because we were there first. We'd tell you where it was, but the food really went downhill after the guy bought his first restaurant.
10) Big Country's Bar-B-Que
4044 Tejon Street
Authentic-o-meter: Extra points because of owner Darren "Big Country" Byrd's nickname and ever-present cowboy hat.
Big Country's Bar-B-Que has only been open in Sunnyside for four months, but Texan Darren Byrd has been smoking brisket, sausage and pork professionally for years, first in Keystone and then on Denver's streets for the past couple of years. Byrd makes his own sausage and also serves up brisket burnt ends, true to his Texas roots. The sides are all homey and packed with flavor, particularly the smokey mac-n-cheese and the savory collards. The house sauce is slick with drippings, but is neither sweet, tangy nor fiery; instead, it multiplies the meaty, smoky essence of the brisket. Service can sometimes lean toward casual (read: there may be some hollerin' between the counter and the kitchen), but the laid-back attitude only adds to the atmosphere.
9) Boney's Smokehouse BBQ
1543 Champa Street
Authentic-o-meter: The red-and-white checked tablecloths and plastic cafeteria trays don't lie. If that's not authentic enough, just inhale the aroma of wood smoke that escapes the basement kitchen and perfumes the sidewalk outside.
Boney's is one of the few joints that can do the culinary bus tour of the country's top barbecue regions without falling flat on any one item. Juicy pulled pork splashed with vinegar-based sauce brings North Carolina to mind, while ribs backed by something a little sweeter and more tomatoey veers in the direction of Memphis. The mix-and-match approach might frustrate purists, but the key is to sample the sauces first and then decide what suits your fancy. Whatever you order, though, the flavors of the meats definitely stand on their own, so going naked is always an option.
8) Brooks Smokehouse & Catering
800 Oakland Street, Aurora
Authentic-o-meter: The word "authentic" was invented to describe the Brooks experience, from the charming hospitality down to the pink and smoky pork ribs.
While Ronald Brooks has scaled back his mobile barbecue trailer substantially in the last year or so, he and his wife, Louella, are still serving up Louisiana-style comfort and cordiality from their converted home in Aurora every day but Monday. The ribs shine like lacquer and almost pop like sausage with each bite, and the pork and beef sport the telltale pink ring of slow cooking over wood smoke. There's always something special cooking, so be sure to ask — but Brooks will probably beat you to it and offer you a taste of something new. In addition to barbecue, Ronald and Louella cook up some top-notch Bayou fare, with smoky maque choux (like kicked-up creamed corn), dirty rice, etouffee and gumbo. And if you're offered barbecued alligator legs, trust us and just say yes.
7) Brewshine BBQ & Taphouse
3109 Federal Boulevard
Authentic-o-meter: So maybe there's no such thing as Federal Boulevard-style 'cue, but the smoke signals from Brewshine's outdoor rig could change that.
Brewshine wasn't the first barbecue on Federal Boulevard; Hong Kong Barbecue took that award years ago. But when it comes to Southern-style smoked meats, Kristen and David Lewis definitely brought something new and needed to the street. Ribs and wings are the top offerings on the menu, but the brisket and pork are moist and tender, too, with gentle smoke flavor and a light touch with seasonings. The sides are more than an afterthought, with crunchy fried okra and a surprisingly accurate take on Polish dill and cucumber salad. What makes it all just a little better is the long bar stocked with moonshine and a deep list of draft beers. The corner of Federal and Speer Boulevard is a tough spot for restaurants, but the wafting smoke is all the advertising this place needs.
6) Cub's Q Barbeque
368 South Broadway
Authentic-o-meter: If you like KC-style barbecue, this is one of the best bets in town.
This is the only mobile unit on our list — not because there aren't plenty of worthy food trucks on the streets, but because they can often be tough to track down for a second bite. But Cub's is as close to stationary as a rig with wheels can get; it's been in the same parking lot on South Broadway for the better part of a year. Owners Greg and Linda McCubbin hail from Kansas City, and they've brought a taste of their home town to Denver with spot-on ribs and some delicious brisket and pulled pork, too. Go for lunch — Cub's generally sells out well before dinner — or call ahead for a tailgate special. For a triple dose of smoke, order the Papa Bear, a meaty sandwich stuffed with brisket, pork and smoked provolone: This is one of the few times you'll see us recommending barbecue served with cheese.
5) Ragin' Hog BBQ
4361 Lowell Boulevard
Authenic-o-meter: We've never been to Arkansas, but this is a true mom-and-pop shop where every bite is made with love.
The seasoning on the ribs and pulled pork at Ragin' Hog is a little on the sweet side, oddly so. A barbecue connoisseur's first bite may yield a puzzled frown more than a satisfied smile, but beneath the sweet, there's real smoke flavor and toothsome meat that invites a second bite. From that point on, you're hooked: The combination of flavors sticks in the back of your mind and causes random thoughts of returning to the quaint little north Denver dining room again and again. And if for some reason the pork doesn't beguile you, the country-style hospitality will. That and a blissful wedge of buttermilk pie.
4) Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que
2387 South Downing Street
Authentic-o-meter: We can say without hesitation that Roaming Buffalo serves the most authentic barbecued bison ribs and lamb shank we've ever had.
Texas pit man Coy Webb has a way with brisket, but he's been in Colorado so long that he's drawn to other, more local meats, too. At the always-bustling Roaming Buffalo on South Downing Street, bison and lamb are as likely to spill their juices onto your butcher-paper-lined tray as beef or pork, all of which emerge from the smoker with a bark as dark as coffee and a simple rub that lets the meat speak for itself. Webb and his wife, Rachael, start fresh every morning and sell out early — often before the dinner rush is over. Head over before the daily stampede if you're craving bison short rib, lamb shank or house-made jalapeño-cheddar sausage. Just be sure to save room for a cup of banana pudding, also made in-house.
3) Russell's Smokehouse
1422 Larimer Street
Authentic-o-meter: A basement restaurant in a heavily regulated downtown restaurant district can only crank up the smoke so much, but Russell's makes up for that by serving high-quality meats treated right.
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Restaurateur Frank Bonanno's underground smokehouse, next door to his speakeasy, Green Russell, doesn't seem like the right kind of place to find good barbecue. Despite the hush-hush secrecy of the entrance and Bonanno's reputation for great Italian (he also runs Luca and Osteria Marco), the barbecue at Russell's surprises with complex flavors and mouthwatering tenderness. Beef ribs, a rarity outside of Texas, steal the show, but the kitchen shows expertise with baby back ribs and — gulp — chicken, too. Prices lean toward fine dining, but portions are gut-busting, so guests get their money's worth. If you're all-in for a meat-heavy night, start with a sausage sampler for some of the best charcuterie (don't say that south of the Mason-Dixon, though) in town.
2) Sons of Scullery
2620 Walnut Street
Authentic-o-meter: While we'd prefer it if the sauce came on the side instead of squirt-bottled on top...oh, just shut up and eat it.
The Sons of Scullery set up shop inside Casselman's in RiNo earlier this year, serving to a sporadic music crowd in a venue that hasn't been known for its food. Despite an unpredictable customer base, the Sons have figured out how to keep up quality even when there's no long line clamoring for barbecue. Authenticity here takes a back seat to just plain good, with juicy shredded brisket (yes, we know, it's not sliced), succulent ribs with meat that slides off the bone, and curiously mustardy pulled pork that gets its inspiration from South Carolina. Sides range from well-made classics to enticing stoner food, but all are given equal respect and attention. When it comes to defying convention, the barbecue at Sons of Scullery scores high for sheer enjoyability, even if the toes of a few aficionados might get stepped on.
1) Wayne's Smoke Shack
11406 Center Drive, Superior
Authentic-o-meter: Owner Wayne Shelnutt is from Texas. Indoor cabinet smokers aside, the finish, flavor and juiciness of his slow-smoked meats are 100 percent Texas, too.
Texas doesn't get much love from Coloradans, but the barbecue at Wayne's Smoke Shack in Superior is changing that. Owner and pit master Wayne Shelnutt brings the flavors and techniques of Texas Hill Country — the post-oak-and-brisket holy land with Austin at its center — to Denver's north suburbs, where Lone Star State expats and Front Range natives alike line up for a taste of juicy beef with the coffee-black bark and deep, smoky flavor that can only come from time, patience and love. Pork lovers have plenty to be thankful for, too; Wayne's ribs and pork shoulder sing with the same slow-cooked and savory alchemy that arises when fat and dry rub combine with smoke to coax magic from meat. Lunch is your best bet; by dinner, the best might already be gone.