What's in a name? At Cowboy Kitchen, more than you might think. The estimable Oxford English Dictionary notes "it is typical of the cow-boy that he does his work on horseback, and leads a hard rough life, which tends to make him rough and wild in character."
Consequently, the marriage of the rough and wild cowboy with the kitchen, that source of domestic calm anchoring the home and hearth, seems paradoxical at first.
Yet the OED nowhere refers to the independence, resourcefulness and capacity for gentleness that inform our romantic cowboy image. Its very Englishness knows not the poetics of the open range, and it is in those poetics that rough and wild can converge with home and hearth to make for hearty, yet gently prepared food to soothe the spirit and warm the soul.
If this seems like a lot of horsepucky when talking about a barbecue joint run by Texans in the hills above Colorado Springs, I encourage you to reconsider. Located at the crossroads of highways 24 and 67, Debbie and Jeff Harper's Cowboy Kitchen brings together the coarseness of simple cowboy living with the delicacy of expert culinary technique, bound together by a free-form, improvisational spirit.
These connections are immediately evident in the property and its two workhorses. The former is a small patch of ground occupied by a veritable shack, which gives way to a rigged-up corral that holds two cookers Jeff fashioned from a salvaged pipeline that exploded on a friend's ranch. (In exchange for the raw metal, he designed and fabricated a smoker for the pipe's owner, in addition to two for himself.
Other touches of craftsmanship and creativity permeate the process. Jeff's fireboxes expel oak and mesquite smoke up a flue and over the top of the racks, where it then wafts down onto the meat. It circulates in the enclosed space, rather than just coming up from underneath it. Eighteen hours later, brisket and ribs are ready to go.
Purists will immediately notice the solid pink smoke ring that borders each slice of the tender brisket, the tell-tale sign of master smokesmanship. Liquid smoke can be added to sauces, marinades and wet mops, but only a long exposure to slow, steady heat can so brand the inside of the meat.
Everything tastes good at Cowboy Kitchen, especially the brisket and ribs. The former stands out for being richly flavored by the smoke alone, needing no sauce for flavor or moisture. The rib meat pulls easily away from the bone, yet leaves enough work for the teeth to be truly satisfying.
Side dishes here do more than fill plate space. I'm told that the beans are quite good, and the potato salad, a traditional accompaniment, is downright delicious. If you like to finish with a sweet taste in your mouth, don't overlook Debbie's desserts, especially if she's made a fresh cobbler.
Don't hesitate to make the drive grab a book of cowboy poems and hit the road. Debbie and Jeff are extremely welcoming, and there's plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the products of their labor. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything better.
Cowboy Kitchen Bar-B-Que
11027 U.S. Hwy. 24 (at Highway 67), Divide, 686-9090, cowboykitchen.com
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.; catering also available.