Justin Brunson doesn’t sleep much. After all, the man runs three Denver restaurants (Old Major, with its lunchtime alter-ego the Royal Rooster; Masterpiece Delicatessen; Culture Meat & Cheese in Denver Central Market) and is on the verge of bringing his newest project, Red Bear American Charcuterie, to market. Last summer, he filmed a pilot with the Cooking Channel, and just last month, he found time to host a dinner showcasing some of the Mile High City’s best female culinary and beverage talent. No wonder he’s not getting enough rest.
Brunson’s boundless energy worked to my advantage a few weeks ago, when he decided to fire up his brand-new 800-pound grill in the parking lot off the side of Old Major to cook a pig… all night long. Did I want to get a sneak peak at the process and learn more about how Brunson will use his new toy? And eat barbecue pork tacos the morning after? Absolutely.
When I arrived at Old Major, Brunson was already stoking the fire in his BQ Grill, a steel behemoth sporting two huge drawers for coals, four air vents, enough horizontal space to cook a 250-pound pig, and a wood storage rack in the back. “It’s pretty much just a big, metal oven,” says Brunson. “This is the same grill that Sam Jones [of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, North Carolina] and Elliott Moss [of Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, North Carolina] use for barbecue. They make a gas model, but that’s not real barbecue. It’s got to be all wood, all the time.” Brunson rigged up a chimney inside a metal drum to burn white oak and Palisade peach wood into white-hot coals; he would continue burning wood and “feeding the drawers” with coals for the next 14 hours, at the rate of two shovels-worth each hour to maintain a temperature range of about 250 degrees.
“This is my hobby right now, cooking on this grill,” says Brunson. “With Red Bear about to open, it’s my stress relief.” It’s also about supporting local farmers and producers, and experimenting with the “flavor of Colorado.” Brunson’s goal: To use the grill for catering, special events, and to cook local pigs, lambs, and more for anyone who asks. (Seriously, if you call Old Major and ask for a whole-animal feast, Brunson will cook it for you.)
That particular evening, I watched Brunson and his butcher (soon-to-be Red Bear’s plant manager), James Stafford, prepare a mere half-pig, a 120-pound Duroc beauty from Torpedo Farms in Pueblo. They removed the tenderloin so it wouldn’t overcook, took out the leaf lard (which they turn into “pork fat powder” for Old Major’s french fries), removed the kidneys, and butterflied the top of the legs so they would cook through in time. Rocky Mountain Red Salt from Denver’s the Spice Guy may have been the only seasoning, but Brunson made it rain.
Onto the grill the little piggy went, and then Brunson set about making a green chile mop and Colorado-style red chile barbecue sauce. The mop was a tangy, spicy combination of cider and distilled white vinegars, brown sugar, Hatch green chile powder (also from the Spice Guy), a purée of mirasol chiles (grown in Pueblo), black pepper, and lots of lime juice. Brunson would wait until the pig had been cooking for about 10 hours before brushing on the mop, basting it every 30 minutes or so for its last four hours over the fire.
For the barbecue sauce, Brunson toasted and pureed red Pueblo chiles (from Musso Farms) into a thick paste. Cumin, a bit of ketchup, brown sugar, salt and pepper, and the same two vinegars that went into the mop joined the party, resulting in a rich, fruity sauce with Colorado terroir to spare.
Sauces made and pig cooking, I headed home for dinner with my family. Brunson pressed on, experimenting with flour tortilla recipes using lard and single-varietal flours from the Noble Grain Alliance for the morning’s tacos. Neighbors and friends stopped by throughout the night, sharing beers and laughs around the grill; the last to leave said goodbye around 3 a.m. And then it was just Brunson and the Duroc and the grill.
The next morning, Brunson looked tired but happy. The pig was ready at around 8:30 a.m., and Stafford and Brunson used a large wire net to transfer it to the kitchen, dripping glorious juices along the way. The pig smelled so wonderfully smoky and good that we didn’t even wait for the meat to rest; Brunson chopped up hunks from the shoulder, layering the succulent meat with salsa verde, raw onion and cilantro, and a generous squeeze of lime. It was simple—if you can call a 14-hour taco that—perfectly seasoned, and delicious.
More chopped pork went on top of slices of Hinman’s Bakery white bread, along with a scoop of coleslaw, a drizzle of the green chile mop, and a lashing of the red chile barbecue sauce. I would put that fork-and-knife sandwich up against Texas barbecue any day.
The rest of the pork went into sandwiches for the Royal Rooster lunch crowd, as well as carnitas tacos for family meal; the skin was dehydrated into chicharrones, and the bones went into stock.
I bet Brunson slept well that afternoon, dreaming of the fresh sausages and deli meats Red Bear will soon be selling, and the Colorado animals he’ll cook on his new grill. For your own taste of Brunson’s action, keep your eye on Old Major’s Facebook page or, you know, just give him a call.
3316 Tejon St., 720-420-0622