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BBQ Advisory: Hungry Wolf BBQ & Catfish, Denver, CO

My friend Mark Antonation, a food writer for Westword, tipped me off to Hungry Wolf BBQ and Catfish–a new barbecue joint in my part of town. Although he did so under whack circumstances. It turned out that right after Hungry Wolf opened, someone STOLE THE SMOKER SET UP IN THE FRONT OF THE RESTAURANT!!  I mean, seriously, who does that? Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. Several barbecue joints in Colorado have either had their smokers stolen or vandalized.

Hearing about what happened, and that it is an African American-owned barbeue business, I rushed to support them. I went there yesterday, and this was a very welcome sight:

The smoker is fully-operational! I was there for lunch, and I got a nice sample of most things on the menu. I ordered the “Hungry Wolf Platter”: a pork sparerib, a beef short rib, a quarter of smoked chicken, a split hot link, a fried catfish filet, two fried shrimp, and a choice of two sides (I got red beans and rice and coleslaw).

Here’s my assessment:

Pork spareribs–a nice smoke flavor, and my piece was on the lean side.

Beef rib–I was expecting a big rib, but this was more like a short rib. It was tender, and had great flavor. Not too chewy and stringy like so many other beef ribs that I’ve had.

Catfish–fried hard so that it had crunch, but the coating didn’t have a lot of seasoning. Fortunately, there was hot sauce nearby to do the trick.

Chicken–the quarter had good flavor, but the breast was a little dry.

Hot links–had some nice kick, but it wasn’t the really spicy, coarsely-ground hot links that I’m used to getting in an African American-run barbecue shop.

Fried shrimp–they were lukewarm by the time that I got them. Just OK.

Red beans and rice–this was a very good side dish. Please note that all of the sides here are pork-free. As good as this was, I really missed having some Louisiana-style sausage in the mix.

Coleslaw–much too creamy. So much so that the cabbage gets lost.

I was too full for dessert, but I’ll be back. I hope that you’ll give Hungry Wolf a try as well.

I got a chance to speak with the owner who said that he offers “Oklahoma-style barbecue.” I tried to get a fuller description, but his answer was cryptic. I’ll keep investigating!

Hungry Wolf BBQ & Catfish
9865 Hampden Avenue
Denver, CO 80231

My First Tastes of Brooklyn Kosher Barbecue

Me and Andrew Newman

The first time that I’d heard about kosher barbecue was in the context of the annual kosher barbecue contests held around the U.S. I didn’t know that more kosher barbecue restaurants are opening up across the country as well. I was in New York City a few months ago, and my friend Andrew Newman hipped me to a couple of spots in Brooklyn. I owe him everything for this excellent “taste” of kosher barbecue.

Our first stop was Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse.

Izzy’s website indicates that it is supervised by OK Kosher Certification which is practically next door. Izzy’s isn’t a huge place, but I liked  the feel of it when we entered.

Knowing that we had another spot to hit, Andrew and I ordered enough food to get a good sampling.

Izzy’s assertively adopts a central Texas barbecue aesthetic with the tin rectangular plates, butcher paper and pickle condiments. The sliced, beef brisket had a nice smoky flavor, the burnt ends (a daily special) were fantastic, but I really liked the smoked fried chicken sandwich: a nicely seasoned crust, and lightly smoked meat. I could definitely grub on that for a long time!

Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse
397 Troy Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Next up was Main House BBQ. It took awhile to get there (I had no idea Brooklyn is so big), but it was definitely worth the wait.

Main House BBQ

Main House BBQ is a spacious location, and it has a casual feel. Though the décor doesn’t scream central Texas, the plating does: tin rectangular plates, butcher papers with sliced pickles served on the side.

Lots of tempting options here, but we ordered:

The beef brisket was solid with nice smoke and seasoning, and the house-smoked pastrami was transcendent! That’s the definite thing to get if you only had one choice. The cornbread was soulful which means it was on the sweet side. I really wanted to try the “Sloppy Yosef” sandwich (sauoy burnt ends with pickles/slaw), if only for the name, but I was already pretty stuffed. Next time!

Main House BBQ
6001 Strickland Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11234

BBQ Advisory–Smokin Yard’s BBQ’s New Denver Location

Horse art in front of Smokin’ Yards BBQ

Through sheer luck, I stumbled upon the “soft opening” for Denver location of Smokin Yard’s BBQ (“SYBBQ”). I visited he first location is in Idaho Springs a couple of years ago. I thought the bbq was pretty solid then, and wondered if the Denver location would deliver a similar product.

Inside Smokin’ Yards

Smokin’ Yards menu

Free boiled peanuts, too!

Some good news here. First of all, during the soft opening, the owners are doing a “pay what you want” model. You don’t have to pay full price, but you shouldn’t stiff them either. Please note that the last day to take advantage of this special offer is Sunday, December 31, 2017 until 9 pm when they close!

Fried catfish

Spicy coleslaw, white bread and collard greens

St. Louis spareribs

Sliced beef brisket

I ordered the three meat combo with fried catfish, sliced beef brisket, St. Louis-cut pork spareribs, collard greens, spicy coleslaw, white bread and a light beer from Tivoli Brewery. Here’s my rundown:

  • Brisket–light smoke, slightly tender.
  • Fried catfish–nice seasoned cornmeal crust, not greasy, but it’s Vietnamese catfish. Tastes fine, but different texture than U.S. catfish. UPDATE: Smokin Yard’s contacted me and assured me that they serve U.S.-raised catfish. Evidently, a catfish’s texture changes throughout the year.
  • Spareribs–good flavor, but a little dry.
  • Spicy coleslaw–creamy, mild kick.
  • Collards–soft, but could use more seasoning.
  • White bread–perfect.
  • Service: very friendly staff!

They just opened, so I look forward to circling back in a few months to see how things are going.

Smokin Yard’s BBQ
900 W. 1st Avenue, Denver, CO 80225

900900 W 1st Ave, Denver, CO 80223, USA W 1

Another “Angle” on Barbecue

When I think about traditional barbecue as practiced by Native Americans, I picture smaller cuts of meat being smoked on a raised framework over a slow fire, or large chunks of meat wrapped up and cooked in trenches filled with burning hardwood coals. History has shown me that some Native Americans had a third way with barbecue—the “inclined stick” technique. In his book, The Southeastern Indians(1976), Charles Hudson culled from eighteenth-century sources that the Native Americans in the Lower Mississippi Valley “barbecued fish, small animals, and pieces of meat of larger animals by impaling them on one end of a sharpened stick; the other end of the stick was stuck in the ground with the stick inclined toward the fire. They turned hte stick from time to time to cook the meat evenly.” [emphasis added]

Roasting—make that barbecueing!—salmon today in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Andrea Johnson

This barbecue technique was not limited to the American South, for tribes in the Pacific Northwest have long used the same approach to cook salmon. Sometimes the salmon was hung above an alder or cedar wood fire, and other times the fish were splayed on a specialized wooden frame that was then angled toward the fire. The cook could adjust the level of heat and smoking by moving the frame closer to or away from the fire. So, the next time you get into a heated discussion with someone about defining authentic barbecue, lay this angle on them.

Some Thoughts on Barbecue and Love

Dearly beloved, we are gathered in this post to celebrate the union of love and barbecue.

With the summer wedding season in full swing, love is in the air—and it is increasingly followed by the perfume of burning wood and smoking meat. Once confined to the South, more and more wedding rehearsal dinners and receptions across the country feature a barbecue-laden feast. Recently, as I was leaving his son’s wedding, a Colorado barbecue man—by way of Opelousas, Louisiana—gave me a parting gift of some alligator meat to smoke.

Some couples go whole hog for efficiency by holding their ceremony and reception at a barbecue restaurant. Texans seem to do this the most.

Photo courtesy of Soozums (Flickr).

Aside from these examples, which suggest barbecue as love ex post facto, but how does barbecue spark love? Ophelia Pinkard Taylor, in her 1984 oral history of the Juneteenth holiday in Texas, offered this: “Tradition has it that no maker of a good barbecue sauce will give the recipe to outsiders (those who are not family members). It has been noted that marriages are arranged so that the recipe can be passed on to a family seeking it.” I leave you to decide whether such counts as a shotgun wedding.

Does a Clambake Count as Barbecue?

Trying to define barbecue often sets off a fireworks display that rivals anything you saw on the 4th of July. In the spirit of stoking that fire, I ask, should the New England clambake fit under barbecue’s big tent?

Though barbecue is now the consensus meal for Independence Day celebrations in much of the country, it’s not our nation’s only outdoor-cooking tradition. In the nineteenth century, the clambake was just as popular in New England as the pit barbecue was in the South. They share some common elements: digging a pit in the ground, burning hardwood down to coals and embers, using a variety of meats (some clambakes also feature lobster, chicken, and sausage) and wrapping the food—seaweed and canvas for clams; aluminum foil and burlap for pork or beef—to create steam and/or minimize burning. The successful “bakemaster” and “pitmaster” are both revered in their communities.

Traditional clambake fare gets gussied up for a 1968 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

Of the many differences between clambakes and barbecues, an intriguing one is how each tradition accounts for its heritage. While acknowledging the Native American contributions in southern-style pit barbecue has waned over time, some scholars have argued that such influences are actually exaggerated within the clambake. In any case, if they’re cooking over a wood-fueled fire, I’ll invite New Englanders to bring their clams to the barbecue table.

Bison—Barbecue’s Next Frontier?

July is National Bison Month, and bison meat is roaming in from barbe-culture’s fringes to its mainstream. However, barbecue purveyors tend to offer just bison ribs and forsake the rest of the animal. (You may have had a bison burger—they’re pretty tasty for such a lean meat—but that is, of course, not barbecue.)

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

There’s a lesson to be learned from Native Americans who developed a method for pit-cooking the entire animal. Chief Plenty-Coups of the Absarokees (Crow Indians) recalled in a 1930 interview:

Chief Plenty Coups, ca. 1880

We used to dig a hole in the ground as deep as my waist…. We would heat little boulders until they were nearly white and cover the bottom of the hole with these stones. Then we would cut many green boughs from the chokecherry trees and cover the hot stones a foot deep with them. Upon these we would place thick chunks of buffalo meat, fat and fresh from the plains, sprinkling them with water…. Finally we spread the animal’s paunch over the hole, covered it all with its hide, put gravel on this, and kindled a log fire. Men kept the fire going all day and all night yet never burned the robe…every bit of good in the buffalo was in the pit. Little was wasted except the brains. I have made myself very hungry telling you this. I will talk of something else to forget meat-holes.” * 

Here’s hoping that today’s pitmasters will remember the meat-holes and rise to the challenge.

*Quote from American: The Life Story of a Great Indian by Frank B. Linderman (first published 1930).

A Profile in Barbecue: Columbus B. Hill

I’ve written about our nation’s wildest barbecue, and in the middle of it all was Columbus B. Hill, the event’s chef de cuisine. Chef Hill’s reputation was sullied by the event, but before that, he was a well-known “barbecue man.” The Greeley (CO) Tribunereported in 1894 that “Hill is a colored man and has a great reputation as a barbecue cook. He has officiated at more barbecues the past twelve years than any other man in the Union. From Missouri to the Lone Star State he has baked meat for hungry thousands and he thoroughly understands his business.”

Illustration from the Denver Evening Post, January 27, 1898

In 1902, Hill was still working to rebuild his image from the 1898 Colorado catastrophe. He told the Denver Times, “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial alters of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes.”

Chef Hill got good press in his era, but many African American pitmasters went unheralded outside of their immediate community. Still, these barbecue ambassadors played an important role in both maintaining barbecue culture in the South and spreading it to other parts of the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Epilogue: The Food Network’s recently debuted “Chopped: Grill Masters” mini-series has no African Americans among its host, three judges, and sixteen competitors. Chopped usually does a good job of representing a diverse cross-section of American chefs among its contestants. Of course, “grill master” isn’t the same thing as pitmaster. But I continue to ask…what gives?

Pork Barrel Politics? Make that Whole Hog

There’s been some big food and drink news on the campaign trail of late, from Paul Ryan’s catfish-noodling hobby to President Obama’s home-brewed “White House Honey Ale.” They got me wondering if barbecue had ever taken center stage in a presidential campaign. (Well, since this one.)

Barbecues as a social event/fundraiser have a deep tradition in U.S. politics, but I think that Lyndon Johnson took things to another level in his effort to make barbecue a symbol of his 1964 re-election campaign. That summer, the Baton Rouge State-Times reported that Johnson had a “plan to turn Texas barbecue into a political weapon” with a “cross-country series of barbecues supervised by the barbecue chef from the president’s LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas.” The “barbecue chef” in question was Walter Jetton, a pitmaster and caterer from Fort Worth.

Spoiler alert—LBJ won his reelection bid. Here he is at a 1967 barbecue for Latin American ambassadors at the LBJ ranch. Photograph courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.

What distinguished this ambitious plan from past campaigns was that it aspired to take Texas barbecue to the uninitiated masses in cities like Beverly Hills, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. The St. Albans (Vermont) Messenger reported in October 1964 that Johnson even contemplated occupying Wall Street with a massive, open-air barbecue where “several or more blocks of the nation’s financial center would be roped off.”

The idea was nixed by New York Democrats, who felt it was “too corny for Manhattan, especially for the President of the United States.” I wonder what they—and LBJ himself—would have made of today’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.

The Lowdown on Barbecue Down Under

I first heard of Australian barbecue in the 1980s, when actor Paul Hogan (of Crocodile Dundee fame) promised me through the TV that he’d “Put an extra shrimp on the barbie” for me, if only I visited the Land Down Under. I figured out that Hogan was talking about a grill and not the iconic doll, but any further conclusions remained elusive.

Decades later, the “Barbie Babes,” a team of three native Australians competing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, raised my hopes for finally getting some answers. That was before their team was eliminated during the show’s second episode—far too soon to share their spin on barbecue with America. Still hungry, I reached out to Awia Markey, an Aussie who’s writing a book on soul food. After polling a cross-section of her friends, Markey gave me this description: “The most basic form of BBQ is known over here as the ‘Sausage Sizzle’…always with [grilled] onion, and then the sausages and onion are put between two slices of (usually) white bread.” Other meats can be the choice entrée, including lamb chops and, of course, shrimp.

I’m so relieved that Crocodile Dundee didn’t lie to me in my youth.

Typical sides at an Aussie barbecue include a green salad, potato salad, coleslaw, and beets. Though the Australian version doesn’t meet the “low and slow” standard necessitated by purists, it’s an interesting example of how a culinary art is practiced elsewhere on Planet Barbecue.