It has been almost a year since Finn's Manor launched in RiNo and with it came Owlbear Barbecue, a barbecue business on wheels. Parked in the courtyard of the funky food truck pod, the business owned by Karl Fallenius became popular quickly among those seeking excellence in smoked meats. Without a brick and mortar location, Owlbear landed on every self-respecting best-of barbecue list in Denver. We asked Fallenius to share his story:
What is Owlbear and how did it come about? Owlbears are monsters from Dungeons & Dragons, renowned for their voracious appetite for flesh... Owlbear Barbecue is a food truck located permanently in Finn's Manor that serves some pretty dang good barbecue.
How did you get into the barbecue business? I was living down in Austin, Texas and in desperate need of a job. My good buddy was working as a bartender/barista at a coffee shop/bar that had a barbecue truck out back that happened to need a new overnight cook/patio custodian/security guy. I had been trying my hand at cooking pork butts in various backyard grills and smokers over the last few years and figured barbecuing professionally could be something I might really enjoy. Little did I know that it would become such a huge part of my life. My time working there taught me some really great lessons, mostly about how not to do things, but it was where my love of smoking big pieces of meat with a wood fire really took root.
Though that job didn't end well, a significantly better opportunity came close on its heels when a friend finagled me an interview at the ever so well-known and popular Franklin Barbecue. Working at Franklin was a dream come true, and it taught me something important very quickly, I really knew nothing about barbecue. I kinda still don't.
What motivated you to open your own business? As much as I truly loved working at Franklin Barbecue, I don't really like being told what to do. I was also lucky enough to have had the means and opportunity to make it happen.
Why in a truck and why parked at Finn's Manor? It's in a food truck because a food truck is far cheaper than brick and mortar. It's at Finn's because Finn's is fucking dope. I am super duper lucky to be there.
Will there ever be a brick and mortar? I sure hope so, but I don't know when and I don't know where. Right now, I'm just starting to think about how.
What's your philosophy on barbecue? This is a loaded question and my answer only really scratches the surface.
- Details, details, details, and more details. So many details! But that's the secret to great barbecue... to great anything really. Details.
- Wood is the only fuel source worthy of barbecue. Any other fuel source is inferior and will only produce an imitation of barbecue. When using pellets or pucks remind yourself that you are also burning whatever was used to bind the sawdust and shavings together. The same goes for briquettes. Lump charcoal burns fast and hot and is great for grilling, but it doesn't have much flavor. Propane/natural gas is stupid. It's all about burning wood.
- Use good meat. I find it absolutely repugnant that our culture is so ready to accept the realities of factory farmed flesh as long as the price tag is right. It is one of the most horrendous industries on the planet and we should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing it to continue as it is. It is also beyond doubt that by properly cooking meat harvested from an animal that lived a happy and wholesome life, you are going to be able to create a product that is far superior to anything you could craft from an animal that was only ever treated as a mere commodity.
- Secret ingredients are stupid. Hard work, diligence, attention to detail, patience, technique, level headedness... these are the things that will make your food special.
- Mistakes will happen. They always do. Learn from them.
- Sauce is an ingredient that all too often serves as a crutch for covering up poorly cooked meat. If you don't have sauce, your meat has nothing to hide behind.
What about sides? What's the point of putting all of that effort into making excellent meat if the sides are crap? None. There is no point. Everything has to be great if you want your customers' experience to be great. Don't cut corners. Make everything delicious. Stick to the classics, but make them your own.
Why do you use the smoker you have? I made my smoker with the help of some amazing local welders. The smoker's name is Smaug. It's a classic offset smoker made out of old propane tanks. It forces the person tending the fire to pay attention to details as the only way to properly regulate heat is by building your fire properly and checking it regularly.
What kind of wood do you burn at Owlbear? It is a type of white oak, which is probably the most popular type of cooking wood in the western world. However, this specific species, the gambel oak, is often overlooked because it is very scrubby and a pain in the ass to cut and split. The grain on it is very tight and wavy and there are lots and lots of knots. However, gambel oak trees grow far more locally than the more popular species of white oak such as post oak, live oak, and blackjack oak. The gambel oak is also the preferred habitat of our state insect, the Colorado Hairstreak Butterfly.
Where do you source your meat from? Our brisket comes from a company in Kansas called Creekstone Farms. We use their ultra humane, hormone and antibiotic free, prime graded, 100% pure Black Angus briskets and couldn't be happier. Their entire slaughter process was designed by Temple Grandin. If you don't know who that is, I would highly recommending looking her up.
All of our pork comes from Tender Belly, a local distribution company that specializes in heritage breed pigs that are both humanely raised, and hormone/antibiotic free. We do a skin on, bone in, whole shoulder for our pulled pork, and our ribs are whole spare rib racks with the breastbone still attached. Despite neither of these things being on their established list of products, they were willing to cut them especially for us without it being a big deal. They rock. They sell great pork.
How do you describe your finished product and what is the best thing you serve?
I would describe our food as obscene but glorious. The best thing we serve is the meat, but the sides give them a run for their money.