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February 22, 2014
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Blue collar barbecue at Bearfish in West Vail

Cooking barbecue is like cruising in a classic car.

“Low and slow is the way you do it,” said George Hilliard, owner of Bearfish Barbecue in West Vail.

Hilliard rides again. He sings, he plays, he cooks, he carries on his family tradition, and not the way Hank Williams Jr. sings about the family tradition.

Hilliard’s dad was some sort of Georgia barbecue guru whose smoked meat was spoken of in hushed tones.

Hilliard has been in the valley almost as long as Gore Creek. A couple years ago Hilliard opened Bearfish Cafe, which is good. He had burgers and some other wonderful stuff.

But he got the hankering all Southern boys get — besides the one for Southern girls. He wanted some barbecue, and no one’s matched his family’s.

So, he headed south to Georgia to pick up some of his daddy’s recipes and practice a little.

The thing about barbecue practice is that it takes a long time – 12 hours or more. It’s worth the wait.

“My daddy taught me that things worth doing take time, and this is absolutely worth doing,” he said.

The secret is in the sauce

He could tell you how they do their meats and what’s in the sauces, but he probably won’t, so don’t take it personally. He doesn’t tell anyone. Not even his adorable bride.

“Only one other person knows,” Hilliard said smiling, but not divulging who that other person is.

While it takes a day to prepare, Hilliard and his crew can have a Blue Collar Barbecue plate in front of you in about 10 minutes, so it’s great for lunch.

We suggest you try the duck wings, maybe some smoked turkey, and … OK, try everything.

Your palate cleanser is their sweet tea.

In the unlikely event you don’t want barbecue, you can get their Lonestar Burger, fish tacos, street vendor gyros and the other good stuff.

“We skip no steps,” Hilliard said.

Take the turkey for instance: They brine it for hours in some top secret concoction, rub it with another top secret concoction, then smoke it for 12 hours.

Here’s something you might not know. Barbecue sauce is an art form, the same as wine only more practical, and it’s important to pair the right sauce with the meat you’re having.

Hilliard and his crew make four sauces. The white poultry sauce is from a guy in Alabama who invented it in the 1940s. The guy’s family still runs the place.

Bearfish

Hilliard named the Bearfish after an Alaskan fishing buddy and bush pilot. Alex Stark and Hilliard wrapped up a fishing trip and Stark jumped back in his plane to go moose hunting with another friend. They bagged their moose and were flying it out when Stark flew into what turned out to be a box canyon. As the canyon narrowed he didn’t have room to turn around and he couldn’t climb fast enough to get out. The plane plunged nose first into a mountainside and killed everyone aboard. Hilliard named his place after his friend’s Alaskan cabin.

Singing for their supper

If you go back far enough, then you remember Hilliard as the house musician at The Club, a night spot that used to be at the top of Bridge Street. He got to know all kinds of musicians and when they found out he runs a blue-collar barbecue joint his phone started ringing. They’d be heading to Los Angeles to record an album, or be on their way to Aspen for a gig, and could they please perform there for a night if he’d feed them?

“Y’all stop on over,” Hilliard tells them, which is the same thing he tells everyone.

Show up some night and you might be astonished at who’s playing on The Tailgate, the Bearfish stage.

In the meantime, relax and wait for Hilliard to come out of the kitchen and greet you with, “Y’all ready to eat?”

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Feb 22, 2014 11:06PM Published Feb 22, 2014 11:06PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.