The State of Denver’s BBQ Scene 2016

We've come far, but there's still room for improvement
August 1, 2016
by Ruth Tobias

By the standards of a city long maligned for its mediocre barbecue, 2015 was a banner year — serious smokehouses opened left and right. But to say Denver finally has some real-deal barbecue is not to say Denver's now a real-deal barbecue town. How do local experts evaluate our current scene and its potential for the future? We asked; they answered.

The bad news
For the most part,” Coy Webb of Roaming Buffalo Bar-B-Que argues, “barbecue is a culture, not a food.” And that, according to Globe Hall’s Jeff Cornelius, is the biggest strike against Denver as a prospective destination. “Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas — those are the barbecue cultures," he explains. "I think it would be pretty hard for any other region to create a style that rivals ones that have been around for 100 years,” preserved by what certified barbecue judge (and James Beard Award-winning food historian) Adrian Miller calls “those multigenerational places that all legit barbecue towns have.”

Without a homegrown tradition to preserve, the specter of culinary dilettantism looms large. Miller observes cooks who adopt an “eclectic” approach often “appropriate a regional style or item, but don’t stay true to how it’s prepared. They’re making different sauces for the exact same meats. They’re using a vinegary sauce for the meat and calling it ‘North Carolina style,’ but they’re not serving it with white coleslaw or odd-shaped hush puppies that look like fingerlings.” In other words, “We don’t have many restaurants that are putting it all together; they’re just doing elements.”

Adam Larkey

The good news
Granted, the so-called eclectic approach has its advantages too. GQue Championship BBQ’s Jason Ganahl, himself a certified judge and competition-circuit star, argues that until very recently, “nobody thought of New York as a barbecue town. But now there are awesome joints all across the city. With people coming to Denver from all over, I think we can be that place too — a melting pot where we can have a little bit of everything without having to create our own style.” In fact, he adds, “there are five or six spots here I’d put up against anywhere else.” Miller, for his part, heaps liberal praise on GQue (pictured above) as well as Southern-leaning mainstay Boney’s BBQ downtown and the Texas-centric Owlbear Barbecue: “Their brisket is next-level. It’s thick, it’s got a nice bark, even the lean meat is moist and it crumbles the way I like."

Then there’s the trend Miller notes toward “chef-driven” barbecue, which has had room to flourish in the absence of long-preserved customs. As Cornelius sees it, chefs entering the smoked-meat market nowadays “are too sophisticated” to privilege rules over creativity anyway: “They’re gonna do their own thing.”

Ruth Tobias

The even-better news
Which brings us full-circle to Colorado’s past — and Denver’s future. The surprising truth, according to Miller, is that “historically, we did have our own style,” however rudimentary, based on bison and other wild game and domesticated sheep. Herd decimation and the rise of the cattle industry effectively squelched its development, but “even today, if you go to a butcher and ask for a rack of Denver ribs, they’re gonna give you lamb. If we can come up with signature dishes based on our traditional meats, that’s how you get to a regional style.”

And that, says Coy Webb, is just “what I’m trying to do!” In fact, he’s made quite the splash since opening Roaming Buffalo with his pulled lamb shoulder, bison short ribs and the venison sausage pictured above (made in homage to Memphis’s smoked bologna), as well as sides like green chile-white cheddar potato chips. But “bringing back what had already been established and putting your own spin on it takes time.”

Meanwhile, Miller notes, “The other thing that’s just waiting for Colorado to capture it, given our reputation for being healthier, is vegetarian barbecue. If someone could find a way to consistently smoke vegetables or proteins like tofu and seitan, that’s forever.” Enter Bob Sargent of The Ghost BBQ + Spirits in Boulder, whose smoked jackfruit makes for a fine start.

For that matter, we could represent by introducing hops (or even cannabis) into the smoking process. Who knows — 10 years from now, true Mile High 'cue just may be a reality.

adrian miller
smoked meat
game meat