It was the usual stuff, familiar to anyone who's been married for more than five minutes — or at least familiar to anyone who's been married to me. And though the battle had cooled somewhat (as it often does) by the time we'd both had our second coffee — allowing us to actually get into the car, pull into the sunshine and aim the nose west without incident — we decided, halfway up the mountain, that German food is not exactly conducive to wedded bliss. German food, if conducive to anything, encourages only gas, a certain kind of chilly Teutonic sullenness and fantasies of invading Poland. And considering our moods, neither of us thought that sitting in a dark, mostly empty dining room with a hausfrau hovering over our table, avoiding the watery stares of the elderly day-trippers and pensioners, eating baby cow with mustard and charred potato pancakes while sipping the hefeweisen, sounded like a good idea. Lars Von Trier is less heavy-handed in his symbolism, Bergman more subtle with the visual cues of a relationship occasionally on the rocks.
Laura is the love of my life. Me, she tolerates with sometimes remarkable aplomb. But that doesn't mean we always like each other, and on those days when tolerance gives way to discord, major or minor, we've always found that dollar tacos, domestic beers and cheeseburgers — simple foods — seem to calm and center us.
So halfway up the mountain, we turned off. We went to Evergreen, because Laura likes to watch the creek run and I like the pok pok pok sound of my boots on the worn slats of the boardwalk — so very Outlaw Josey Wales. Laura picked her spot by the water in the sun, then told me to go find food because that's what I'm good at. And I am: Somehow, I stumbled across Tin Star Cafe & Donuts.
Tin Star is a small storefront cafe mixed in among all the other small storefront cafes, bars, art galleries and purveyors of knickknackery that shoulder up along Evergreen's high street. It's a nondescript space — except that, in concept, it is the perfect restaurant. Tin Star does only two things: barbecue and doughnuts. And therefore this combination barbecue shack/doughnut shop comes very close to my idea of how heaven might smell.
When it opened three years ago, Tin Star took over a spot that had been a doughnut shop since the 1970s. For almost a year, it continued to operate as a doughnut shop, then a doughnut shop and deli, then a doughnut shop with sandwiches. But two years ago, owner Andrew Schutt hit on the magical combination of doughnuts and barbecue, and knew he had a winner. His is the only restaurant of its kind in the country — the only place where a man in need can get a pound of smoked pork and an apple fritter as big as a cat. And the miracle is that Schutt does both really well.
But maybe that's not surprising, considering his background. Like so many chefs, Schutt started by studying communications in college, and actually got a journalism degree. When he realized he couldn't make the sheepskin pay, he found his way into kitchens — doing culinary school on the West Coast and some time in Napa, then working for Dave Query, with Tyler Wiard and Goose Sorensen and Cory Treadway. And like so many of Denver's best chefs, he's a veteran of Mel's, having done two tours on that tiny line before bailing out and getting into catering and cooking at farmers' markets prior to opening Tin Star. The very place where I ended up three years later on my bad afternoon, standing goggle-eyed and drooling before his counter, under the gaze of the antelope head mounted on the wall, looking at the racks of doughnuts, the pork shoulders resting in the bottom of the upright cooler and thinking to myself, Why in the hell didn't I think of doing this?
Schutt makes everything at Tin Star by hand, from scratch. He smokes over mesquite chips; has his own, secret dry rub recipe; has more secret recipes for Tin Star's standard 'cue sauce (a combination K.C.-Carolina tomato-and-vinegar concoction) and a spicy Colorado version (jacked up with smoky chipotles and hot as it can possibly be without shading over into chile-head masochism). He puts together great barbecue sandwiches — shredded pork shoulder piled onto a squishy bun and topped with crunchy red cabbage, slabs of Texas-style brisket, picked chicken. But the purest and most divine embodiment of Schutt's gift to the world is a pound of slow-smoked and peppery pork shoulder accompanied by two of his giant apple fritters — fried crisp on the outside, puffy as a croissant within, glazed in sugar, spiked with cinnamon and studded with sweet little cubes of apple.