Home Team advantage: Hot off X Games, the Buttermilk BBQ joint blazes
February 1, 2018
Sunday at the X Games in Aspen: Home Team BBQ is comin' in hot on the final stretch of what is, hands down, its busiest weekend all year. The new beer garden—launched to the public outside the restaurant at the back of the Inn at Aspen—is the first in the event's 17-year history, and has distributed more than 3,000 wristbands since Thursday, many by Home Team BBQ operations director Adam Rothstein.
At 2 p.m., with some six hours to go before closing, the covered patio, flanked by a giant screen live-streaming the competition and a Pacifico-branded Airstream trailer hawking $6 cans, swells to about 200 sunshine-basking imbibers. They cluster around high-top tables and heat lamps, sipping beers, snapping selfies, and noshing on Home Team's spice-rubbed chicken wings, loaded tater tots, and hefty brisket sandwiches. Those who've strolled too slowly from the superpipe above must wait in line to enter. Nobody seems to mind much; aside from the on-mountain spectator areas, the action is here.
Inside the restaurant, though restricted to credentialed attendees (athletes, sponsors, employees), Home Team serves its full menu of Southern barbecue, highlighting Sunday brunch, which launched recently. Six wings with sauce, a beer and a shot sell for $15. Up the hill in the X Games concession court, Home Team's vending booth has been slinging fare, including pulled-pork sandwiches, cheeseburgers and chicken chili all day, every day. In the VIP athlete lounge, where area restaurants trade off on catering duties, Home Team's showcase slider bar, by all accounts, was a smash. The 13-month-old restaurant's X Games output deserves a gold medal.
"We're going through about 20 to 22 butts a day," says Home Team Aspen head chef Kyle Wilkins, back in the kitchen. (Pork butts, natch.)
"Yesterday we went though 22 briskets!" quips pitmaster and sous chef Thayer Boling. Around us, servers glide by to scoop orders of Home Team signature fare—platters of charred meats and colorful sides; a mound of pulled chicken atop grilled bread, nestled into a Southwestern-inspired salad; a fat square of brioche French toast in a pool of banana pudding, topped with caramelized banana rum sauce and a snowflake made from three strips of crispy bacon.
Observing the Zen-like operation, I can't help but wonder: Why is everyone so darn calm in this kitchen? Home Team operating partner and chef Chris Lanter, on break from manning the beer garden food station, offers clues.
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"Our staff has really come together. It's awesome," Lanter says. "We've had an extremely successful first year—it exceeded our expectations. We're a locals' restaurant, so it kind of bums me out that we have to close for X Games (stipulated by the Inn at Aspen's lease agreement), even just 10 days of the year. But we have so much local support, especially in the offseason. Everything's good."
An independent LLC with its own Rocky Mountain flair, Home Team Aspen is in a groove, thanks in part to a tightly knit network that sends reinforcements during major events such as the X Games. Running plates beside us is Sean Daniher, GM and operating partner of Home Team's second location on Sullivan Island near Charleston, South Carolina, where the original flagship launched in the West Ashley neighborhood in 2006. (A third outpost opened in downtown Charleston in 2016, followed by Aspen in December that year.)
Aaron "Fiery Ron" Siegel—Home Team founder and chief operating partner (Lanter's former college roommate at the University of Georgia and erstwhile sous chef at Cache Cache, where Lanter has been executive chef for years, though he's mostly handed off to chef de cuisine Nate King since launching Home Team Aspen)—is on site, too. Ditto for Home Team executive chef and pitmaster Taylor Garrigan, a regular Aspen visitor, and Aspen-based GM Brad Mosier, wheeling cases of beer smoothly to the bar outside.
Clearly the Home Team crew, which has had much practice at major Southern music festivals, runs on a unified effort during the X Games, estimated to draw more than 115,000 visitors to Buttermilk in four days. Careful consideration of what customers want the rest of the year, however, is what earns loyal fans. Home Team Aspen is a sports bar with nine TVs, Colorado beer on tap and happy hour deals; a cozy family restaurant with booth seating, a solid kids' menu and ample free parking; a chill hangout for groups with sharable platters and live music on Fridays. And it all revolves around barbecue: meats roasted for hours in enormous wood-fired smokers adjacent to all that free parking.
Certain specials have become so popular that diners are known to make requests on return visits. The chefs listen, too.
"It's a good problem to have," Lanter says. "Our fried ribs were originally a special. (Now) we'll always have them."
Instant brunch hits: the brisket and biscuit combo, steak and eggs, fried chicken sandwich, and a massive breakfast burrito stuffed with chorizo, pulled pork, beans, cheese and tater tots, topped with salsa roja, queso and cracklins.
"We're trying to bring out everything we do in Charleston, where brunch is huge," says head chef Wilkins, who moved from the city to Aspen three months ago.
"It's called Southern hospitality!" chimes Boling, exhibiting the energy that keeps this kitchen flowing with ease.
Wilkins leads a tour to the smokers out back. Recently he's reinstated linguiça sausage spiced with cayenne pepper, paprika and red wine—a bestseller in Charleston, where Wilkins learned the art of charcuterie. Last winter chef Garrigan was forced to pull it from the Aspen menu; the kitchen couldn't keep up with demand without a dedicated sausage-maker.
"I'm the guy that brought sausage back," Wilkins says.
Usually Wilkins or Boling fires up these smokers at 6 a.m. daily. The Johnsons are large enough to cook 16 brined briskets or 80 racks of ribs at once, the former for a full eight hours—plenty of time to impart a dark color from heavy smoke.
"Sausage is pretty versatile: on a salad, on a sausage platter and the board, which contains smoked turkey with two sausages, pulled pork, wings, ribs and three pint sides," Wilkins continues. "It feeds four—or two hungry people."
Adaptability, it turns out, is what sets Home Team Aspen apart from its East Coast counterparts. The restaurant serves breakfast daily from 7 to 11 a.m, and caters parties of up to 300, offering various additional menus of regional cuisine featuring 7X Beef and heritage pork.
X Games may be long gone, but Home Team seems keen to stoke that energy, thanks to lots of space and good, old-fashioned Southern grace.
Super Bowl, anyone?
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