In September 2013, husband and wife duo Stacy and Colleen Van Tuyl opened a pan-southern barbecue joint in the Northside neighborhood. The Arkansas natives — who have now lived in Denver for 26 years running — opened Ragin’ Hog BBQ to celebrate flavors from across the South, opting to draw inspiration from a variety of traditions rather than focusing on the styles of regional heavyweights like Kansas City or Texas. Defining the mom and pop aesthetic, the two are onsite every day, continuing a practice of community support and encouragement they’ve been providing since well before opening. “I’d done business before but I had never opened a restaurant. It took nearly two years to open,” said Stacy. “I got a smoker for us probably 15 years ago. We always cooked for the neighborhood,” he continued.
That spirit has clearly led to a community of loyal followers, with fans frequently making the trek from Boulder and Colorado Springs. One Georgia family has even made an annual tradition of racing straight to Ragin’ Hog first thing after they step off the plane. But the camaraderie extends past their customer base, with the duo opening their kitchen for fellow pitmasters Khristian Matthews and Ki’erre Dawkins of Saucy’s Southern Barbecue and Cuisine to prep their wares. As important as proper smoking technique and tasty sauce are for good ‘cue, the pair happily exemplify the notion that kindness is one of the cuisine’s most important ingredients. “If you make decent food and you’re nice to people you tend to have repeat customers,” smiled Stacy.
While Ragin’ Hog is certainly welcoming, the food could easily fly off the shelves even in the absence of such friendliness. Briskets and pork shoulders are smoked overnight for a duration of 10 – 14 hours, with the Van Tuyls arriving at 4:30 a.m. each morning to begin one of two rounds of chicken and ribs — both sitting for between four to five hours. Following their order, patrons can expect the satisfying sound of a cleaver striking the cutting board, Stacy stressing the importance of keeping the meats whole until it’s being served. “I’m not gonna cut it until you get here,” he said. And while items — especially the deservedly popular burnt ends — routinely sell out before closing, Stacy says he’ll gladly reserve stock for people who call in.
Sides and desserts are carefully crafted in-house, with the level of focus extending down to the marvelously balanced sweet tea. Three area-inspired sauces — Memphis, Georgia and Carolina — are joined by sweet and hot varieties. Each one receives its due attention, with the Memphis relying on a mild tomato base, Georgia and Carolina vinegar, sweet chock full of molasses and hot combining hot sauce, cayenne and sriracha.
In addition to dispensing a quality product, Ragin’ Hog never shies away from providing a remarkable bang for the buck. Particularly in the case of the family packs, with the one-pound pack ($27) coming with a choice of coming with an option of smoked pork, chicken or hot links, Blue Point Bakery buns, two medium sides and a half-pint of sauce, enough to feed three to four people. Customers can upgrade to brisket or burnt ends for $31. The sides avoid the pitfall of being treated as an afterthought, with the collard greens and Brunswick Stew — a dense combination of pork, chicken, lima beans and corn in a tangy Georgia sauce-based broth — being some of the most crucial items on the whole menu.
The ribs ($7 for three, $12 for a half-rack and $24 for a full) — an unusually meaty offering of pork baby backs smoked dry and then kissed with the sweet sauce — are without a doubt some of the best in the entire city. The current special is the peach bread pudding, which uses Blue Point’s brioche to produces a dense dessert befitting the already colossal portions.
Much of the restaurant’s charm is in its consistency, something Stacy says is bolstered by his and Colleen’s regular presence. ‘Cue has always been personal in nature — Ragin’ Hog is clearly the result of a great deal of love and consideration. In addition to standard service, Ragin’ Hog can accommodate pick-up only catering for events of up to 200 people, perfect for a summer where social engagements are presumably back on the docket.
Ragin’ Hog is located at 4361 Lowell Blvd., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Saturday from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. or until it sells out. The compact storefront is currently to-go only, though it is set to reopen for limited indoor dining in the middle of May.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.