Where there's smoke there's fire: Polynesian ribs the best barbecue in Denver food scene?
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Note: This review was the inaugural in a new food column I launched in the December 2017 issues of Life on Capitol Hill and the Washington Park Profile.
With this month marking the first day of winter—Dec. 21 being, for this writer, the dreaded day—and this being the first installment in what I hope will become a regular food column in this paper, I thought why not go big and bold: why not go ribs? I’ve always loved summer and, being a southerner by birth, I figured I’d used this first installment to pay homage to a classic food of my favorite season and region.
First, though, the ground rules: this column will be, unlike this month’s dish, light and fast. Here we’ll hit one place, one dish, once a month. The spirit? Go here for this. There for that. Single plates that cause serious cravings.
Hang tight; almost done—we’ll dive into the dish of choice in just a second. Second, maybe a statement that could start a fight: Denver’s still a cowtown. Why do I say this? I want you to know where I stand. As I like to say to friends and family when they ask about the food scene here, this town’s still breakfast, burrito and beer territory (sometimes all three bases are covered in the same meal). Beyond that, steak. I’ve lived in some great food ecosystems and, don’t get me wrong, there are truly innovative things happening here in this ecosystem—and hey, I hope the best of those innovations will be covered here—but there’s a lot the town’s new innovators will have to overcome for Denver to be known as a longstanding hub of haute cuisine.
Ready to hit me yet? I can handle it. Now, the main event.
The guava baby back ribs at Adrift. Photo by Haines Eason.
The ribs I’ve chosen could just be the unifying factor able to bring me and my potential detractors together. Innovative and classic, meet the Guava barbecue Baby Back Ribs a la Adrift, a Tiki Bar-themed spot on Denver’s ever-hep South Broadway corridor.
How are they classic? They’re cooked low and slow and fall off the bone like almost none other I’ve ever had. They bite big: each rib offers an exceedingly meaty, very generous cut. They’re aged just right and are charred perfectly (i.e., these ribs have all the essential bases covered).
There's much more to Adrift than ribs and high-powered cocktails. If something lighter is to your liking, consider the Kilauea Poke salad with Ahi and Albacore tuna, mango, wakame and taro chips. The dry ice presentation is something you have to see to believe. Photo by Haines Eason.
How are they innovative? Guava, for starters. Guava? Yes. That flavor is introduced via a house-made, specialty barbecue sauce (which is light and hardly intrusive; almost a glaze). The sauce joins the numerous flavors at play here and does not compete—a rare thing in barbecue. But before the sauce comes the rub: a citrus coriander rub, as a matter of fact. Coriander? Yes again. You’ll have to trust me here: these flavors pair, and pair well.
As for methodology, it’s back to the classic. The brainchild behind these ribs, Chef Tyler Critchfield, says he lets the ribs dry age with rub applied for 24 hours before smoking them over oak and hickory at 275 degrees for three hours. Then, the sauce. Finally, they’re wrapped in foil and returned to the smoker “until tender.” How long’s that? Wouldn’t you like to know.
Critchfield says the inspiration for the ribs is “very much Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas,” adding, “The thing that excites me about ribs is just the fact that there are so many bad ribs out there that it’s nice to be able to give a product a little extra love and attention and see the difference.”
The difference shows. I’ve had these ribs on four separate occasions and know I’ll have them on many, many more. Having lived in and visited some serious rib towns (K.C., St. Louis, Austin, Chicago...), I can say Denver is durn lucky to have what I am willing to admit might be some of the best ribs I’ve yet had.
Adrift runs a killer happy hour (during which the ribs are two for $5, down from four for $12 during regular shift) and other special events. Visit adriftbar.com to learn more.