American barbecue encompasses many regional variations, but even so, the confines of tradition make for a fairly narrow range of choices, especially in Denver’s smokehouses. Here, styles tend to be blurred, sides conform to picnicky favorites, and sauces are mostly of the tangy-sweet kind with varying levels of heat. But slow cooking over wood is the defining element of barbecue, and that’s something that can’t be confined to our preconceived notions or even strict geographic boundaries. And in the far reaches of Denver’s suburbs, two outliers are doing barbecue their own way — one with a Tex-Mex influence, and the other with distinct Mexican flavors from Guadalajara.
James Diaz owns TRU Colotexmex Bar-B-Que & Catering, a semi-permanent trailer and outdoor smoker set up in the parking lot of Pyramid Liquors at 599 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton. Diaz unveiled his trailer just a month ago, but he’s been catering for six years. He hails from Austin, where his family has lived for generations (back before Texas was admitted to the Union), and he calls his cooking Tex-Mex because it differs from the better-known Hill Country style developed by the German immigrants who ran butcher shops and smoked sausages and other cuts that didn’t sell over the counter. As kids, Diaz and his brother would get money for lunch at Whataburger from their mom. When they got sick of burgers, they’d hit the local HEB supermarket for meat to take home and cook over wood, so Diaz learned smoking at an early age. He honed his cooking skills at Serranos, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin that specializes in mesquite-grilled fajitas.
What makes Diaz’s barbecue different? First, like Serranos, he uses mesquite instead of post oak, so his brisket, ribs, chicken and other cuts have a much bolder, more pronounced smoke flavor than meat from Central Texas oak specialists like Franklin Barbecue. But Diaz isn’t content to accept whatever wood is available on the Denver market; instead, he makes regular trips to Texas to gather mesquite, bringing back thousands of pounds each year. “You don’t want to buy mesquite filled with pesticides and chemicals and combust it and then feed that to your family and friends,” he explains. The simplicity of the dry rub is a major factor in Texas-style barbecue, and it’s a big part of Diaz’s version, too: Meat, fat and smoke are the most important flavor elements.
Diaz doesn’t skimp on the salt, so a dainty nibble on the bark might come across as a little over-salted, but a hearty bite of meat gives the appropriate ratio, and the amount of rub is definitely adjusted to fit the meat being smoked. Brisket gets a thicker coating than TRU’s more delicate pork loin, a cut that’s more common in Texas than Colorado. Diaz also smokes bone-in chicken thighs, St. Louis-cut pork ribs, sausage (right now he uses Polidori, but he hopes to soon start making his own) and beef tri-tip.
The brisket is the star, though: Diaz insists on using only Prime Angus, which accounts for only 2 percent of all beef sold in the United States. The finished product isn’t cheap — it’s $30 a pound or $17 for a platter with sides — but this is some of the best brisket you’ll find in town, and it’s unequaled for those who prefer bolder smoke and the rich, melty fat of the brisket point.
Other unique menu items at Diaz’s place are the Tex-Mex charro beans and TRU’s mesquite-grilled fajitas served on the flour tortillas he makes fresh daily. The fajitas aren’t always on the menu, so check the Facebook page (facebook.com/colotexmex) for daily updates.
The logo on the TRU trailer also bears the name “Diaz & Son,” in honor of J.J. (short for James Junior), the owner’s son, who was born with hydrocephalus and loves to hang out when his dad is cooking. “It’s life — it’s what we grew up with,” Diaz says of their shared love of barbecue. “Barbecue brings families together because it takes a long time to cook, so the kids all hang out and wait.”
On the opposite end of the metro area, Gustavo Aguilera-Torres and his wife, Kat, are serving up something entirely different at Gustavo’s BBQ Latin American Cuisine. A friend and fellow barbecue hunter first turned us on to Gustavo’s, describing it as “Mexican barbecue” and noting that the flavors had almost nothing in common with their counterparts from the American South, even if the words on the menu look familiar. She was right. As you walk in, the subtle aroma of smoke greets you, and the menu promises brisket, pork ribs, turkey legs, pulled pork, pulled chicken and lamb along with such comforting sides as potato salad and coleslaw. But the sandwiches are built on telera bread, and the sauces — roasted tomato, tomatillo and chipotle — would be perfectly at home atop tacos. Each meat carries a different seasoning, Aguilera-Torres explains, but they all have a distinct Mexican flair. The pulled pork, for example, is seasoned with a blend of seven chiles; it’s served juicy and tender but not mushy.
This unique barbecue derives in part from the owner’s upbringing in Guadalajara, where his family owned an eatery called Restaurant El Texcocano. “It was my job to cook the lamb — kill it, butcher it and cook it,” he recalls. “Cooking became my obsession.”
The lamb at his family’s restaurant was wrapped in agave peel and cooked traditionally in a pit, but Gustavo’s uses a more modern smoker. The result is lightly smoked meats with deep chile flavors. The pork ribs, unlike Kansas City-style ribs with a chewy bark and dry texture, are moist and soft; the meat separates from the bone before you can even sink your teeth all the way in. “We’re not doing it like anyone else, and nobody else is doing what we do,” Aguilera-Torres promises.
Since opening his restaurant three months ago, Aguilera-Torres has greeted every customer with a hug (from the left side, where the heart is) and has sold out of smoked meats for more than 47 days in a row. Broomfield neighbors have definitely found a new favorite in the somewhat cluttered (but clean) barbecue joint, which also offers a few Mexican breakfast items and serves sides and sauces from an ice-filled salsa cart in the manner of the finest taquerias.
In the Deep South, great barbecue can be found in unlikely locations, from roadside stands to gas stations to underground alleyway restaurants. In Denver, you might have to drive a few miles and comb the strip malls and parking lots to locate great barbecue, but TRU and Gustavo’s are out there. Just follow the smoke.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.