Back in January, the last day of business for Owlbear Barbecue never came to pass.
On Sunday, Jan. 23, one of the restaurant’s core crew members, Teven Hudgins, died from organ failure. The day before, Hudgins was admitted to intensive care, and his fellow cooks stood by his side in the hospital as fans lined up outside of Owlbear for the start of its last big weekend.
Because they weren’t at the restaurant to smoke the last of the weekend’s meat, Owlbear closed after that Saturday’s service, with no plans to reopen.
“Instead of being open (on Sunday), we all gathered at the hospital,” explained Michael Graunke. “The entire staff was there to see Teven off.”
Graunke and his coworkers-turned-business-partners, Juan Pablo Llano and Esteban Gallardo, have taken the tragic last day of their friend’s life and turned it into a hopeful future in his honor. On Friday, May 20, they’re reopening a new barbecue shop, Pit Fiend, in the space where Owlbear four months ago closed so suddenly.
“One of the memories that I hold onto — when we were starting to look at other possibilities for employment, Teven said something along the lines of, ‘Who’s going to cook barbecue with me?’” Llano said. “So this is with him in mind, because the very seed of this was something that he was here to plant.”
At the core of the new restaurant will be the two custom-built, Texas-style smokers that Owlbear owner Karl Fallenius passed on to his former employees. Without those smokers in place, Pit Fiend could have been waiting for two years or more to get up and running.
“The live-fire, all-wood cooking is very unique,” Llano explained. Most places do a lot of gas assistance. But you can smell it in the smoke, and you can taste it, too, in the meat.”
Wood-smoking requires constant attention, with temperature fluctuations and airflow to consider throughout the hours-long process. The result is some of the best brisket you can find in Colorado, at least when this crew was cooking with its former employer.
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Llano, Graunke and Gallardo say they’ll be carrying over Owlbear best-sellers such as brisket, pork belly and bechamel mac and cheese. But they’ll also experiment with menu items including Kansas City-style ribs, Colombian chorizo and mojo pulled pork, Cuban-style.
“Both me and Juan Pablo are from Miami,” Gallardo said, “and I have family from South America, where there’s a culture of barbecue as well. We just want to have fun with it and try a bunch of different (barbecue) regions and incorporate that into our cooking.”
The guys also are continuing Owlbear’s tradition of incorporating fantastical characters from the world of Dungeons & Dragons into their names and dishes.
A pound of any meat, served with three sides and two beverages ($50), is called Hunger of Hadar. Sauces, from the North Carolina pepper-vinegar to the Kansas City confit garlic and molasses, carry names like Beholder and Kobold. The two smokers, of course, are affectionately named Smog and Shenron.
And if this means nothing to you, don’t worry. You can order meats by name by the pound, or sandwiches ($9-$12), sauces and sides any way you like them. There will be pulled jackfruit and smoked crimini mushroom options for vegetarians.
“We think it’s very important to listen to our customers, what they like,” Graunke said. “We want to keep it close to what people know and came to love with Owlbear.” So they’re offering a similar format and Friday-Sunday counter service to start.
And come May 20, “we’ll have all the meats in large enough quantities,” Graunke added. “We hope.”
Pit Fiend will be open at 2826 Larimer St. starting on Friday May 20, from 11 a.m. until sold out. Find menus and more information at pitfiendbbq.com.
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