A sure sign of an exceptional barbecue joint is the sweet, smoky aroma that tickles the nose and makes your mouth water in anticipation. Stacks of split wood nearby and the number of people who line up to place an order are other indicators. All of this is at AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Denver.
It’s Texas-style barbecue, so it’s mostly seasoned with salt and pepper, with the option of adding sauces later. Most of the nine meats, all sold by the quarter pound, are in the Texas Post Oak wood-fired smokers about 16 hours a day. Orders are placed at the counter, where the meats are sliced or chopped and plopped on a paper-lined tray. I expected each order to be served on individual trays. Instead, they’re all on one, so the combination of different cuts of beef, poultry and pork has an artful look. It’s quickly demolished once you sit down to eat.
We ordered burnt ends ($13), tri-tip ($14), brisket ($13), pulled pork ($10) and two pork spare ribs ($8 each). All the sides are $5 each and sharable. The upside of having all the meats on one tray is it makes it simple to sample a little of everything. Instead of plates, everyone gets a paper-lined metal tray and silverware wrapped in a bandana to use as a napkin. Sides come in compostable containers.
I’d be unsuccessful if I had to choose a single favorite among all we ordered. I’d have a little better luck picking three. Even that would be difficult, but the burnt ends, trip-tip and brisket make the list.
Burnt ends are just that: cubed pieces from the fatty side of a smoked brisket that gets overdone. Still, they’re juicy, crispy and, not surprisingly, smoky. Some bits are fattier than others, but they’re all hard to resist.
The tri-tip and brisket are both sliced against the grain, but the former is cut a little thicker. Among the sauces we tried to further enhance the flavors are smoky n’ sweet and smoked jalapeno. The latter is spicy without overwhelming the taste buds.
The ribs have a nice char, and the meats falls off the bone. The pulled pork was tasty but didn’t stand out from other barbecue restaurants.
The side dishes merit special attention, especially the truffle mac and cheese. Black speckles of savory truffle dot the creamy, cheesy, elbow-shaped pasta. This could be a meal, but don’t do it. Chunky red potato salad coated with mayo is picnic worthy as are the pit beans, with thick pieces of pork belly and not overly sweetened.
Custard-filled cornbread was the real surprise — not only because of the rich, creamy filling, but the way it’s served. This comes in the same type of container as the other sides, so it’s a mess! The textures are all mixed: corn kernels, baked cornmeal and the filling.
The dining area and large space in the back have long tables and metal chairs. Staff is friendly and helpful, and masks are worn indoors.
AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q
Description: Texas-style barbecue
Location: 2180 S. Delaware St., Denver
Prices: $7 to $18 per quarter pound for meats
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; closed Monday
Details: Credit cards accepted. Alcohol. Wi-Fi. Outdoor seating. Takeout.
Favorite dishes: Burnt ends, truffle mac and cheese.
Other: Gluten-free options