So it's a bottom dweller. A fish some scoff at, and refuse to consume. But anyone who eats Big Sarge's cornmeal-battered catfish, cut chicken-finger-style and fried to a light, delicate crunch, will certainly realize the potential of this Southern staple. I can't say I've eaten more memorable catfish anywhere.
"We quickly learned that while our BBQ is good, our catfish steals the show everywhere we go and is not to be missed," Henry Taylor, aka "Big Sarge," told us in early June. The 42-year-old, retired Army man opened his restaurant in a modest South Academy Boulevard storefront on May 1, growing out of backyard barbecue experimentation and a subsequent mobile vending business. He intends to expand onto Fort Carson as well.
Like many culinarians, he made it clear up front on a follow-up phone chat that he was in love with his grill, a pellet-fed "animal" that he purchased from Old Colorado City's Barbeque Mercantile, where he also buys the sauces and spices he mixes to create his signature flavor.
I have no major prejudice against the employment of some procured versus homemade ingredients so long as they're high quality and the end result pleases. At this level of affordable versus fine dining, if you can't make a better version than the market, but you're savvy enough to pick good purveyors, I'm satisfied.
Big Sarge's price points exceed satisfaction, with $7.99 dinner plates featuring an entrée and three sides and $6 to $6.50 lunch plates offering a main and two sides; extras are $1.25, as are sweet tea, lemonade and simple pound-, red velvet- and lemon-cake wedges.
The lemonade is fit for a respectable roadside stand, but the sweet tea brought a dual pucker of bitterness and over-sweetness — far from the addictive gallon jugs sold in the South. The cakes are like those you'd make from a box at home or find in a supermarket deli: easy, moist, no-frill, sugar-delivery systems. A pleasant touch of sugar can also be detected in Big Sarge's cornbread, in the slightly moist, but still crumbly texture.
Other sides that fared well: earthy collard greens, stewed with pork bones (or turkey bones, with 24 hours notice) for a richer flavor; straightforward black-eyed peas that only lacked a pinch of salt; and simple kidney beans on yellow rice.
Those that left more to be desired: cole slaw, a little dull-colored and missing bite and character; potato salad, almost more of an egg salad in flavor with a large pickle presence; and mac and cheese, somewhat bland. Also, many needed to be hotter.
For mains, in addition to your mandatory catfish order, the pulled pork sandwich on a basic sesame bun makes a great second choice. Whatever sauce Big Sarge uses (he won't say) works, and the meat is plenty soft and juicy. The ribs also benefit from the sauce, though they're a little tough and only score average.
If seeking poultry, get the chicken breasts over the hot wings, which aren't hot-sauce-covered buffalo wings. Both carried a nice smoky grill flavor and the breasts were textbook, but the wings had glassy, sticky, too-burnt skin and were dry. Look for teriyaki steak or shrimp plates also, which were added after our visits.
Though service is casual, it's warm, capturing the backyard barbecue vibe. It's easy to see how Big Sarge earned the affectionate nickname from his soldiers: He takes care of people.