The ABCs of BBQ (Denver-Style)

Denver barbecue history, our go-to joints, and the makings of a perfectly messy meal.
June 2008

Want to make BBQ at home? Click here for recipes from some of our favorite restaurants. Prefer to go out? Read certified BBQ judge Adrian Miller’s guide to the city’s best BBQ restaurants.

In case you haven't noticed, Denver is enjoying a surge in barbecue restaurants. Unlike Kansas City and Memphis, which are known for certain barbecue specialties and styles, in the Mile-High City we tend to mix everything together on one eclectic menu. And given our long—albeit largely unknown—history with barbecue, it comes as no surprise that we're a true melting pit. As with most food history in the United States, it begins with the Native Americans. Those who inhabited the Great Plains—including what we now call Colorado—regularly smoked strips of bison and venison, and stored the meat for use during lean times. Today, we call this extreme form of barbecue "jerky." So, barbecue, as a cooking method, was well established by the time the European explorers, fur traders, and gold-seekers entered the Rocky Mountain region. Denver's barbecue larder changed forever with the Gold Rush of the late 1850s. Pioneers and settlers brought with them cattle, pigs, and sheep. And as the livestock-raising—and later slaughterhouse—industry thrived, these same animals got equal time in the barbecue pits.By the late 1800s, Colorado towns had developed a civic tradition of celebrating a food item—corn in Loveland, melon in Rocky Ford, the potato in Greeley—with the help of a big public barbecue. These diverse food celebrations had several things in common: They usually took place in the fall, barbecued lamb was the starring attraction, African-Americans tended the pits, the crowds of thousands ate the celebrated ingredient and the barbecue, and everything was free. Though these traditions mostly died out by the mid-1900s, some towns still hold the festivals—but the big, free barbecue is a faded feast. Instead, we have the barbecue restaurant. And many of Denver's spots share a similar biography: A well-traveled owner, an appreciation of 'cue from various regions, and the best of it melded on one menu, Mile-High style. Here, our guide to the best.

BBQ Round-up

From tiny mom and pops to giant national chains, these local joints consistently do it up right.

Big Jim's Ribs
For the last five years, Big Jim has peddled barbecue out of a trailer parked along Parker Road. Just pull up, walk up to the smoker, and pick out what you want. Big Jim, an Arkansas native who swears by hickory smoke, serves up 'cue year-round—and it's worth a detour if you're in the area.

Order up Spareribs, chopped beef brisket

Bones to pick The area surrounding the trailer can be very muddy, the 'cue is served covered in sauce, and Jim likes to talk...a lot.

Southwest corner of South Parker Road and Longs Way in Parker, 303-771-2641

Big Papa's BBQ
Order Big Papa's smoked meats as entrées or by the pound, and expect depth of flavor and just the right amount of caramelization. Indulge in a regional tour of Big Papa's barbecue sauces: Maggie's Deep South (tomato, vinegar, spicy and sweet), Heidi's Kansas City (sweet, thick, and tomato-based), Suzy's Carolina (spicy mustard), and Maureen's Memphis (slightly sweet and tomato-based).

Order up St. Louis-style spareribs, bison ribs, smoked chicken, barbecue beans, mac 'n' cheese, and fried okra

Bones to pick The beef brisket could use more smoke, and the meat is brushed with sauce before it's served.

6265 E. Evans Ave., Unit 1, 303-300-4499, and 12652 W. Ken Caryl Ave., Littleton, 720-922-3233, www.bigpapas-bbq.com

Countrytime BBQ
Countrytime, which opened in southwest Denver in August 2007, advertises its barbecue as "wood-pit smoked." (For proof look to the woodpile next to the smoker.) This new establishment is a bare-bones operation with a few stools, Styrofoam containers, plastic silverware, and ungodly good eats.

Order up Thick slices of well-smoked beef brisket, a generous mound of pulled pork, and medallions of spicy sausage

Bones to pick It's pretty much a take-out place without telling you so—and the staff doesn't always answer the phone.

2504 W. Hampden Ave., Sheridan, 720-404-1916

Hog Wild Barbecue
This unassuming spot in south Denver (formerly called Smoking Joe's Hickory Bar-BQ) puts out some surprisingly good barbecue. The Southern expatriates behind Hog Wild actually run two shops—one in Denver and one in Fort Collins.

Order up Smoked chicken, pork spareribs

Bones to pick The beef brisket tastes more like roast beef, and the kitchen puts too much sauce on the chopped brisket servings.

2103 S. Broadway, 720-570-0911, and 223 S. Link Lane, Fort Collins, 970-493-6029, www.hogwildcolorado.com