Author and Barbecue Judge Adrian Miller Shares His Rib Tips

Categories: Chef and Tell

Mark Antonation
Sharing ribs and sides with Adrian Miller at 3 Sons BBQ.
Adrian Miller is a man of many talents and passions -- judging barbecue not least among them. That's not to make light of his other achievements, however. A Denver kid who attended Smoky Hill High School, Miller soon moved on to bigger things, graduating from Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School. High notes of his career include serving as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as director of Clinton's Initiative for One America; working for Governor Bill Ritter, first as deputy legislative director and later as a senior policy analyst; and his current post as executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. And then there's the latest item on his résumé: He's the winner of a 2014 James Beard Award for Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.

See also: 3 Sons Brings Barbecue Back to Whittier

Mark Antonation
Brooks Smokehouse -- another of Adrian Miller's Denver favorites.
The book traces each component of a single soul-food meal to its origins, explaining the history and impact on African-American culture along the way. It also touches on the difference between soul and Southern foods (among them: Soul food includes the odd bits like chitlins and pig's feet), and talks about how a cuisine that originated in the Deep South followed the African-American migration into the cities of the North after the Civil War. Miller's next project is a book about African-American chefs in the White House and possibly a one-hour documentary on the same subject.

For black and white cooks alike, barbecue is part of the Southern food heritage, and when I was having a tough time deciphering the smoke signals surrounding my recent Ethniche series on barbecue in Denver -- after tasty but confusing 'cue at Wayne's Smoke Shack, Piggin' Out and Brooks Smokehouse -- I decided I needed to consult an expert, someone who has critically evaluated more styles and recipes than I even knew existed. So I invited Miller to join me at my fourth stop: 3 Sons BBQ, a cross-regional smokehouse located in the same strip of storefronts that once housed the beloved and much-missed M&D's Cafe -- at one time one of the city's finest examples of homestyle barbecue and Southern cooking.

Between bites of brisket and nibbles of collard greens, Miller -- who earned his judging certification from the Kansas City Barbecue Society in 2004 -- explains the judging criteria for a perfect smoked pork rib. When you bite into the center, he says, the meat should just barely cling to the bone, giving just a little resistance. The bone should turn white once it's been exposed beneath the meat; the pink smoke ring is a good visual indicator, too.

And how would he judge Denver's barbecue scene, which so many have labeled as second-rate? Miller is quick to list a few favorites: Boney's Smokehouse Pit Barbecue downtown, Brooks Smokehouse in Aurora, Country Time BBQ in a little shack off West Hampden Avenue, and -- no joke -- Whole Foods locations that feature their own in-house barbecues (the aroma of wood smoke is the giveaway). But he also points out how young most of this town's barbecue restaurants are, and how many try to tackle too many styles and sauces instead of focusing on doing one thing well.

Denver is home to plenty of transplants from Texas, Tennessee, Kansas City and regions of the Deep South -- all places with distinct barbecue styles, all of which have their supporters as well as their detractors. I ask Miller if one of the reasons for the town's bad-barbecue rap might be these non-natives giving up too soon when they can't find an authentic taste of home, and he agrees: Folks who grew up eat-ing a certain style of barbecue move to Denver and sometimes get lost in the city's hodgepodge of sauces, techniques, sides and -- maybe most important -- varieties of wood.

And even with all the versions of barbecue available here, the country's barbecue scene features several regional styles not generally known or served in Colorado. With the weak representation of vinegar-spiked Carolina-style pulled pork (Breckenridge Brewery's is the best version, Miller says) and the complete absence of both Alabama white-sauce barbecue and Santa Maria-style tri-tip from California, there's still room for growth. Miller's even trying to figure out how to resurrect the lost Colorado art of lamb barbecue -- ribs, for sure, but he'd also like to see other parts of the animal used -- so that there's at least representation in cooking competitions, if not in restaurants.

Keep reading for a Q & A with barbecue expert Adrian Miller...

Location Info

3 Sons BBQ

2030 E. 28th Avenue, Denver, CO

Category: Restaurant

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GuestWho topcommenter

This guy knows bbq!

...but bbq balogna and bbq spaghetti?  Never!


Adrian Miller may know his bbq, but in his list of classic Denver bbq joints now long-gone, he made imo a HUGE omission.

Barry Fey turned me on to "Ernie's Big Chef BBQ" down by ~ E. 26th Ave & Welton back in 1974.  I have eaten at M&D's (back in the 'early '80s), Daddy Bruce's, etc etc

and without a doubt Ernie's was easily the best in town.    A plate of small end ribs with some beans and a couple slices of white bread to sop up the spicy tasty sauce, washed down with a couple of cans of Pepsi (you needed 2 - sauce was peppery-hot)  was pure heaven.

During the '70s Fey started having Ernie cater backstage meals at  local rock concerts , and before you know it, Ernie was shipping frozen cases of ribs and sauce across the pond to London, keeping (e.g.) the Stones, Who, Zeppelin etc happy.  Ernie's was literally "world famous."

For me Ernie's may have been the best bbq I ever had ANYWHERE in the US.   Ernie (I forget his last name) supposedly died around 1980 or so, and sadly took his recipes with him.   RIP.

If you want to do an article on legacy Denver BBQ, you should get your butt down to the Points, find some folks in their mid-late 70s, and ask around about Ernie's Big Chef bbq.   You'll get some great stories.

TheFabulousMarkT topcommenter

In terms of lamb barbecue, I think Colorado Euskal Etxea would be a great resource for Mr. Miller.

Grilled lamb is a hallmark of Basque cuisine and I'm pretty darn sure our local community has a plethora of good cooks :)

Here you go - zorte on! (If I remember correctly one of their primary sources for lamb is Superior Farms in Globeville).

Mantonat topcommenter

@GuestWho BBQ balogna rocks, when done properly. There used to be a joint on East Colfax called Joe's West of Memphis that had smoked balogna sandwiches - they smoked whole balogna logs and then it to order.


and one last thing I forgot that made it so special -

Ernie was a quiet but friendly gentleman who held court behind the counter with a smoky sauce-stained apron, a big smile, and lots of good yarns about who had been in that week and what happened.  He didn't care if you were black, brown, pink or purple - all his customers were treated like friends, especially if he knew you as a regular.

RIP Ernie.

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