DENVER, COLORADO -- And yes, there really is a Famous Dave. Dave Anderson opened Famous Dave's Barbecue Shack in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1994, and since then he's been like the Johnny Appleseed of barbecue, planting locations all over the place, often outside customary barbecue strongholds (the Stapleton outpost is the first in Colorado). Anderson and company have won awards for their sauce, for their meats, for their operation -- for just about everything they do. And we're not talking rinky-dink local awards, either: In 1995, Famous Dave's took home a first place at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest in Kansas City, Missouri (one of the biggest and most celebrated contests in the world). It's also won two "Greatest Ribs in America" titles (one in 1999, at the Great American Rib Cookoff in Cleveland) and more trophies than can be counted. All things considered, that ain't a bad run for a guy who was bankrupt in the '70's, turned things around with a Fortune 500 sales career, founded a barbecue chain and is now assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
I didn't love everything about Famous Dave's, but I was impressed. The place is big, but still near capacity on a Thursday night when everything surrounding it was as quiet as a grave. The service was fast and, if not entirely efficient, at least real friendly about it. It's done up in the style of a Wisconsin fishing cabin, with a lot of exposed, artificially weathered beams, antiques and fishing paraphernalia. To me, it looked like they opened the joint in an abandoned set for The Red Green Show's Possum Lodge, but that could be because I watch way too much PBS. And tucked away among all the fly reels, rusted cans of engine oil, aged posters and copies of Life magazine was a surprisingly well-run restaurant operation. The warren of dining rooms was broken down into seating areas, each of which felt more intimate than the whole; the bar was being used as overflow seating; a separate area was set off for to-go orders; and the kitchen was huge -- prepped and staffed to serve a thousand orders a day, easy.
I ordered the Georgia chopped pork and was pleased to see it come lumped atop a single slice of thick-cut white bread. The meat was smoky, shoulder-cut and touched with just enough sauce to give it a little sweet, Southern sting. The side of apples was awful -- at once tough and mealy and mushy, with an unpleasant tinny aftertaste -- but the honey cornbread was decent, and the beans (studded with big pieces of pork) were excellent.
Still, it was the ribs that really proved that Dave knows what he's doing. According to the legend of Famous Dave, Anderson spent 25 years traveling around the country eating barbecue and tasting sauces and experimenting with cooking methods that ranged from dry baking to greenwood smoking in a garbage can before he finally settled on his secret sauce and hickory slow-smoke process. I could taste his dedication in the ribs -- seriously, I got a little swoony after the first bite. They were that good -- tender, hit with just the right amount of sweet and peppery Southern rub, deeply smoky and served (on request) totally naked. I tried a bit of three different sauces on the side, but there was no need: The ribs were just fine on their own.
So if you ever find yourself out in the wilds of Stapleton with a hankering for some good 'cue, give Dave's a try. It might not be the best you've ever tasted, but it's a good addition to Denver's vibrant barbecue culture.