Finger lickin’ good |

Finger lickin’ good

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis … Aspen? With the opening of three new barbecue restaurants (and another on the way), the Aspen area might give the capitals of barbecue a run for their money.

This year the valley has seen the arrival of barbecue at the Black Saddle Grill at the Snowmass Club, Texas Reds in Aspen and Big Hoss Grill in Snowmass Village. Smoke Modern Barbecue is slated to open in October in the new Willits Town Center in Basalt. And, of course, there is the long-standing king of barbecue in the valley – the Hickory House.”A lot of people see the Hickory House is a successful place, [so] I don’t blame them [for opening competitive restaurants],” says owner Paul Dioguardi, of the recent influx of barbecue restaurants in the valley. “There are five or six Italian restaurants in Aspen, and they all do well. But I think a lot of people think the restaurant business is easy. You’ve got to know what you’re doing; you’ve got to have a good product.”With ribs (even for breakfast!), chicken, wings, beans and more on the menu, the Hickory House feeds some 500 customers a night. Over the course of a year, it doles out more than 240,000 pounds – or six truckloads – of ribs imported from Denmark and then doused with a sweet barbecue sauce that Dioguardi describes as “Chicago style.” “Almost everything here is from scratch,” he says. “Our beans come in raw; the bean sauce, that’s my recipe. My own barbecue sauce has changed over the past four or five years. [We] change things by just tasting different things … over the years we’ve worked on different recipes.” And though Dioguardi is ready for the competition, he isn’t sitting back waiting for them to take away his customers. The restaurant’s menu continues to evolve, and the equipment is often upgraded. For example, Dioguardi purchased a new smoker after one was destroyed by a hungry bear almost two years ago.

“We’ve been here a long time and our reputation speaks for itself,” he says. “During the past eight or nine years of my ownership, our sales have gone up every year. Every year is a record year for us. So I’m here.”Time will tell if Dioguardi’s competition fares as well as the Hickory House, but they are giving it a try with some traditional and not-so-traditional takes on a classic American cuisine.At the Black Saddle Bar and Grill at the Snowmass Club, executive chef and Georgia native Matthew Richardson heeded club members’ demands for more barbecue. With the help of sous chef – and Louisiana native – Chris Menard, the Black Saddle now features a full barbecue menu, with a truly down-home barbecue sauce.”That’s my recipe,” Menard says proudly. “It’s a very simple ketchup-based sauce with some secret spices that will remain my secret.”Menard’s unwillingness to share his recipe is standard stock among barbecuers. No one is willing to say just what makes their sauce different, because, says Menard, each one is personal and unique – a reflection of the cook.”That’s the same sauce I make for all my friends and family,” he says. “I’ve only shared it with one other person in my life – my older brother – he I can trust. He can keep a secret.”

Menard’s ribs, which he orders directly from Curly’s in Kansas City, are treated with a Cajun dry rub before being smoked in a custom-built pit smoker. The fare has found a following not only with club members, but also with picnickers. With 48 hours advanced notice, the Black Saddle will stock a picnic basket with Menard’s barbecue – ribs, sauce and all the fixins. Menard’s sauce, marked with bits of onion, is also bottled for friends and family when requested. Menard attributes the valley’s recent surge in barbecue to its family appeal.”I know exactly why,” he says when asked to explain the apparent demand for more barbecue. “Most people are here on vacation, and when they are on vacation, they want to feel comfortable. Barbecue is a food that really makes you feel as though you are at home, you are taken care of. We do very good ribs out here, and people like home-cooked meat.”Unlike the traditional barbecue found at Black Saddle Grill, Hoss Orwat is banking on the notion that barbecue lovers are willing to try something different. As owner and “pit boss” at the Big Hoss Grill at the Snowmass Village Mall, he and partner Steve Sklar come to the fire with a “fusion barbecue” called “Albuque.”

“Albuque is a brand-new kind of barbecue,” says Orwat. “We are taking old-fashioned barbecue styles and techniques and mixing them with flavors people like.”Those flavors, from the Southwest in particular, add a unique twist to dishes such as green-chili ribs, Southwestern beans, barbecue burritos – and, of course, his signature Albuque barbecue sauce. The sauce, made with all-natural ingredients, has even caught the attention of natural foods mega-grocer Whole Foods. According to Orwat, the supermarket chain will bottle and sell “Big Hoss Albuque BBQ Sauce” beginning this fall. Hoss learned his barbecue techniques from a former college professor. Hoss was a Southern political history major and received his master’s in American history, focusing on Southern regionalism. “We’d eat hush puppies, read Faulkner and eat barbecue,” Orwat recalls. His “intellectual approach” to barbecue – and his understanding of the food’s roots and culture – is a big part of the restaurant’s philosophy and atmosphere, he says.

“Barbecue evolved in the poor South,” he explains. “The food brought whites and blacks together. This is the culture of moonshine and storytelling. They learned how to cook the poor cuts of meat – pork butts, pork shoulders, brisket – slow and low and make it delicious. In a way it’s a cultural phenomenon of poor farmers and ranchers.”What may have began as food for the poor has since evolved into a gourmet cuisine, says Jamie Theriot, owner of Smoke Modern Barbecue, which is slated to open this fall in the Willits Town Center. Theriot, an executive chef in the valley for 13 years, decided to open Smoke after looking for a restaurant opportunity that would reflect the culture of the area while filling a void in the dining scene.”This is still the West, and the character of the West is still alive in Colorado,” he says. “The Hickory House has done a nice job for a long time, but downvalley there is no major player. For us Willits is really exciting and we think barbecue is a [good fit].” To help develop Smoke’s modern menu, Theriot and his team – chef Bryan Conrad and general manager Damon Clifford – took a six-day road trip through some of barbecue’s defining areas. Starting in Austin, the trio took visited 24 barbecue restaurants. They hit Texas Hill Country, Dallas, Memphis, Little Rock and Kansas City. Their “research” allowed them to meet the people behind the barbecues and “soak in some of the barbecue culture,” while learning traditional barbecue methods. Now, says Theriot, his team has “the ability to expand and evolve [barbecue].””We believe that each region does something best,” he says. “[Smoke] will feature pulled pork, cooked ‘whole hog’ as is the tradition in eastern Carolina … smoked brisket in the style of Texas, with a significant char from our dry rub, spareribs served dry as many venerable Memphis barbecue institutions like Corky’s and The BBQ Shop. We will also feature a specialty exclusive to Kansas City that our future customers will have to wait until opening to try.”

Theriot plans to give his barbecue a refined, modern twist with updated classics like seafood gumbo and banana cream pie. Theriot has also developed an “aggressive” wine list, serving barbecue with select wines by the glass and half-bottle.”This is a great performing segment of the restaurant industry,” says Theriot. “The feedback I’ve gotten in conversations say there is a huge demand for barbecue. I’m actually grateful no one downvalley has done this. We’ll have the opportunity to pave that path.”

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