Chicago restaurateur Jared Leonard touched down in Denver last March to open his Montreal smoked meats venture Au Feu at Zeppelin Station. Shortly thereafter he introduced a food-truck rendition of his popular hot chicken venture The Budlong — five of which are successfully strewn across The Windy City. In June he followed with BBQ Supply, tucked away off of Broadway and Evans in an otherwise nondescript semi-industrial area near the light-rail station. The space — a nearly identical replica of its Chi-Town progenitor — opened as a weekend-only venue where Leonard taught BBQ classes and served up some of the richest, most thoroughly smoked Texas-style cue in Denver. On Saturday, January 26 the spot will reopen as AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q, serving the same great product seven days a week. A newly available menu of local beer, wine and cocktails will also be available to wash down the hearty offerings.
Leonard’s fast entry onto the Denver dining scene — three successful spots opened within the year — results from years of developing his craft in the highly-competitive Chicago market. “We hope to recreate a lot of the success we had in Chicago here but with 10 years of experience under our belt,” he said of the rapid expansion. The experience shows. AJ’s has all the maturity and quality of a seasoned venue. Everything that emerges from the 1,000-gallon Camelback smoker is the genuine article, much of it having been smoked for over 10 hours and seasoned with the expertise of a man who really lives and breathes cue. “My son’s name is Austin, that’s how much I love barbecue,” mused Leonard.
The interior — initially designed to function as a classroom — has the large meat-cutting counter sitting center-stage in front of the macho-looking smoker. Four durable community tables make up the dining room, with an outdoor patio to join in the spring. Cut diagrams of a cow, pig and chicken are on display on several walls and a vinyl player with a crate of records sits nicely in the corner. Otherwise, the decor is fairly sparse, leaving room for the abundant aroma of the smoker to be the lead ornamentation. The entryway is furnished with Texas memorabilia — cowboy hats, antlers and photos — allowing no illusion as to what kind of cue you are in for. Peter Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect – Encounters With Remarkable Swine and Some of the Great Ways to Cook Them is conspicuously perched, the noble tome further validating the place’s already unmistakable credibility.
Leonard matches expert preparation with quality ingredients — the chef sources Wagyu from Snake River Farms, Kurobuta pork from the Wichita Packing Company and chicken locally from Redbird. Everything is smoked over post oak — the wood’s density being excellent for slow smoking. The smoked pastrami ($15) is thick-cut with impressive marbling and much like most everything on the menu is soft enough to eat with a spoon. The pulled pork ($9) is flavorful but the burnt ends ($14) may be the menu’s real tour de force — the depth of the fat and salt content almost reminiscent of a complex cheese. The truffle mac and cheese ($4) is equally essential and highly addictive.
The restaurant is currently a tiny operation, if you get in quick you will likely find Leonard doing the slicing. Though the joint is not located in any of the city’s restaurant hubs the product is definitely worth a quick veer down south.
AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q is located at 2810 South Delaware St., Denver. It is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week from 11 a.m until the meat sells out — presumably around 8 p.m.
All Photography by Alden Bonecutter.