Smōk Wants to Create a Barbecue Culture in Denver

Photo by Rebecca Grant.

Does Denver have a barbecue culture? This is a question that chef Bill Espiricueta, formerly of Oak and Acorn, found himself asking and the main reason behind why he chose to open Smōk — Denver’s newest barbecue joint.

From Texas to Missouri, this style of cooking is seemingly embedded into the very soil that we practice it upon. And while every community has a unique way of chopping, rubbing and slathering — they all have one thing in common, a deep appreciation for the power of fire and meat. There are cities across the country that have developed a known reputation for great barbecue. Unfortunately, Denver has not historically been one of them. And when Espiricueta came to Colorado with a background in both Kansas City and Austin barbecue, he found himself searching, without success, for something that reminded him of the ‘cue culture back home.

“Where I come from, Austin and Kansas City, people eat barbecue three times a week… and I couldn’t even find a place to eat it once a week, or once a month, ” said Espiricueta. His solution has been to bring A-game to Denver, but not just for the sake of his own business.

“I don’t want to take attention away from other barbecue joints. I want to bring attention to them. I am not the only person trying to bring barbecue to Denver. But I am trying to do it in a way that brings as much attention as possible,” he said. “It’s like fine dining restaurants. The more fine dining restaurants, the more they elevate their game to keep up with the standard.”

In comparison to the barbecue hubs in America, Denver’s ‘cue culture still has room to grow. However, we have in recent years seen an influx of spots like GQue, OwlBear and now Smōk entering the scene. With Smōk, Espiricueta wanted to bring in the best of barbecue from across the country. He’s serving an array of different meats by the quarter pound — from brisket ($5.50) to burnt ends ($5.50) smoked pork belly ($3) and a smoked fish (market price) with seasonal sides like ginger coleslaw ($5) pit beans ($5) cheddar jalapeño cornbread ($5) and fried hushpuppies ($5). And while he plans to stay true to classic barbecue technique, this chef hasn’t forgotten his fine dining training in the process.

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“I’m spending more time focusing on the things that are outside of what everybody understands barbecue to be,” explained Espiricueta. “If you go to a lot of places throughout the country, they’re so focused on the meat that they don’t really care about the sides…. I want to make sure that I’m staying true to my fine dining background and using seasonal ingredients and using the best quality brisket or pork I can that gives me the best end result.”

In staying true to his emphasis on local and seasonal, Espiricueta will use ingredients like locally sourced tomatoes in the summer, local sweet potatoes in the fall and local butternut squash soup in the winter. His wood, on the other hand, will be sourced from out of state — white and red oak from Missouri and Alabama. And he’s feeding it into a top of the line smoker that he believes takes human error out of the equation.

This is the biggest one you can buy and it holds about 70 briskets depending on the size,”  explained Espiricueta as he gave us a tour of his smoker. “I chose this smoker for extreme consistency. It has gas assist, so if the temperature falls below what I have it set for, the smoker will keep that temperature exactly where I want it. Purists in Texas, they use barrel smokers and they’re manning that fire, regulating that temperature, all day… This is kind of like cheating to get that same consistency.”

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A mix of the old and the new — this is the style that Smōk is bringing to Denver by using classic techniques and state of the art equipment to create top-tier fare. And while the team at Smōk is all about good eats, they offer more than Coors Light and Miller High Life to wash it all down with. The beverage program is intricately designed by award-winning mixologist Alexis Osborne. She poured her heart and soul into creating cocktails that would compliment the smokey and savory flavors in the food.

“It is my baby,” laughed Osborne, in reference to the cocktail program. “I’ve been dying for this to happen and to watch people’s surprise and excitement with the entire program.” 

As for the cocktails, Osborne doesn’t get inspiration just from the booze. “I like using herbs, I like using unexpected ingredients and finding a way to create a perfect balance where people are like, ‘I wouldn’t have thought of that’… So my favorite thing and kind of my process is going to markets and Natural Grocers and I just walk around and I smell things. It’s fun and I create my cocktail from there. I don’t do it from the spirit first. I like picking cool ingredients first and then creating drinks around that.”

From the Bell of the Ball ($13) with wormwood bitters and thyme to Cardi B Hot ($13) with Cardamaro, sweet potato and chipotle — Osborne has infused ingredients into the Smōk cocktails that are infrequently seen on not just barbecue cocktail programs, but cocktail programs in general. And if liquor isn’t your thing, she’s also put together a kick-ass beer, cider and wine program with an emphasis on local favorites like Ratio Beerworks, Denver Beer Company and Stem, to name a few. So whether you’re a fan of enjoying your brisket with a sophisticated cocktail or prefer an IPA with your meat — they have you covered.

From plate to cup, this team is cutting no corners. They’ve created an environment that caters to both sophisticated and casual palates. And the interior resonates that dichotomy.  Smōk is essentially divided into two parts, the ordering counter and the bar. The space is modern yet industrial with lots of metal, cool grays, clean lines and concrete floors. Upon entering you’ll approach the open kitchen and order from a hovering menu. You’ll receive a paper-lined tray, to be piled high with all the pulled pork, cornbread and baked beans that you can handle. Then you’ll proceed down the line to a cashier, passing a glass display case with homemade desserts and take-home sausages on the way. If you’re in the mood for a beer, there will be an ice bucket full of the beer of the day — if not, you can order a draft beer, cocktail or glass of wine and the cashier will give you a number for pickup when it’s been prepared. Each table is outfitted with a bottle of Smōk’s house-made sauce so whether you choose to smother or simply dip, they’ve got you covered.

Bell of the Ball

Smōk opens to the public this Saturday at 8 a.m., 3330 Brighton, #202, Denver.  It will be open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m., to close. In addition to lunch and dinner, this joint is also serving breakfast and brunch (weekends) so be sure to swing by for a morning pick-me-up during normal business hours. For more information regarding Smōk check them out here.

All photos from Rebecca Grant Studios.

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