That was 2001 for me. My first of many trips to Jabo's famous barbecue cart. It had been there, however, since 1996, placating the lunchtime tech center crowd for years, before a friend finally dragged me out of my downtown bubble to pay a visit. I would go back whenever I could over the next couple years, making the way out of the way drive South for this little piece of perfection. Then one day, it was gone.
I found Jabo again a few years later in the location where he still is today: a little strip mall on Arapahoe Rd. just East of I-25. He still has the same great barbecue, but he misses that cart. Now when talking to Jabo about his old cart days he waxes nostalgic about the long lines, the fresh air and the healthy business of upwards of 250 people in a three hour lunch.
Now at Jabo's instead of a picnic bench in a gravel lot there is plush red vinyl seating and a classic black and white checked floor. There is a glass display filled with his pig-themed collectibles. There is a old-school soul and R&B playing on the speakers and, of course, there is Jabo.
Jabo is about as friendly and welcoming as restaurantuers get. And he loves talking about barbecue. Originally from Oklahoma (with a recipe that has its roots in Shreveport, Louisiana), he came to Denver, "a long time ago," and spent some years in Five Points, rubbing elbows with what he called, "Some pit barbecue masters," like the famous Daddy Bruce Jr. and Lawrence Pierre, of the former Pierre's Supper Club.
What first becomes obvious to Jabo when talking to me is that I don't know jack shit about barbecue. But it's alright, because I think Jabo believes it one of his missions in life to educate people, one by one, about real barbecue. One thing he seems particularly fired up about lately is a barbecue show on the Food Network where some he saw a barbecue "master" reaching for a bag of charcoal. "He sold his soul," Jabo tells a customer as he gives him his change, and then shakes his head in shame, "If that's what he wants to do, that's fine, but the man sold his soul. You just never use charcoal."
Jabo. He's not angry. He's passionate about Bar-Be-Q.
He told me the same story the week before. "Never use charcoal," he emphasized to me, and so I will to you, "Real pit barbecue never uses charcoal."
Jabo uses hickory wood. Hickory wood that he gets by the truckload from Kansas City. He uses it to fill his pit cooker which can cook up to 700 lbs of meat at once. Damn, that's a lot of meat. And each hunk of meat, from the pork ribs to the beef brisket, is incredibly tasty and succulent.
"Hickory is the champagne of barbecue woods..."
During my last visit I had a plate of ribs. The ribs came out smothered in one of his homemade barbecue sauces, and I hovered over the plate to inhale the steam before I set it. The rich fragrance of the hickory smoke was so thick I could taste it on my tongue just from breathing it in. I looked up at Jabo and he knew what I was thinking, "Hickory is the champagne of barbecue woods," he said. And Jabo's is the champagne of Colorado barbeque.
Those ribs were so succulent and thick with meat, and each bite had a deep smoky flavor that lingered pleasantly on my palate. I licked each bone clean. The sauce I chose for that night was the cranberry, jalapeño spicy --which is 4th spiciest, after mild, medium and hot-- and only trumped by habanero hot. Jabo makes all his sauces too. He has six flavors on any given night (out of 20-some rotating varieties) that he brings out to the rookies (if it's your first time there, Jabo will find you and that's what he'll call you) in an ice cube tray. Lately it has been original, cranberry, smoky mustard, peach, maple and the most popular of all, mango. Each sauce is delicious, and if you like spicy, the habanero is pretty damn spicy.
He also makes his own links, or at least now he has them made in a local shop with his recipe. His links and beef brisket are what make up his original food-cart phenomenon, the Jabo Link: a full sized link covered in shredded beef brisket with the sauce of your choice on a hoagie bun. This is absolutely one of the best sandwiches you will ever have. How I used to eat this for lunch at his food cart and return to work, or whatever it is I used to do during my day besides take a 2 hour nap, is beyond me.
Also delicious are Jabo's sides, especially his famous "scones". I use the quotation marks because Jabo's scones are to the scones we find in bakeries all over the world like a piece of wheat toast is to a glazed donut. All over the world, that is, except Utah. In Utah, where the family of Jabo's wife Susan is from, scones are deep fried, airy pastries. In Jabo's family, they also cover them in sweet cream honey butter. It is incredible and at the same time wonderfully absurd that you would be eating one alongside a 1/3 lb sausage and 1/2 lb of beef brisket.
Whatever the case, a scone is a must alongside any of Jabo's incredible barbecue delights. Jabo has taken his famous cart indoors, embraced his new surroundings and is slowly smoking some of the best food in Denver. He is also venturing back out into the food cart world, and starting in the spring will be setting up shop at 6875 S. Clinton, in the parking lot of the Old Country Dinner Playhouse from about 11am to 2pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
For now, I implore you to visit him at his current location. It is well worth the trip down into suburbia. Take Arapahoe East from I-25, turn right on Dayton and it will be on your right before you get to the Vitamin Cottage. Open Tues - Sat for lunch and dinner. 303.799.8056.