Did he ever think he would be the name in hot dogs known all around Denver?
No, says the ponytailed Biker Jim of Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, putting it more bluntly in his common language that we can’t print:
“(Expletive) no!” Jim Pittenger says. “I was just tired of sitting in a truck by myself driving around all night stealing cars.”
Before he was Biker Jim, he was Repo Jim. That was a fine job, repossession. Paid well. Got his required adrenaline pumping (you never know how people might react to you taking their car).
But it was also taxing after so many years. It was 2005. Pittenger was pushing 50. He decided seizing cars was no legacy to leave behind.
His wife at the time especially did not like his next idea.
“Nobody thought it was a good idea,” Pittenger recalls. “You’re gonna quit this job to go stand on a corner and sell hot dogs?”
At the advice of a vendor he knew, he did just that along 16th Street, just him and his cart. He used a name inspired by his much more preferred mode of adrenaline: Harley motorcycles.
And here Biker Jim is now, a widely recognized man about town. He’s known for his charisma — that picture of him wearing a sausage necklace over a leather jacket and squirting ketchup and mustard all over — but more so for the grub he invented to match his zaniness.
It’s the grub that brought Pittenger fame. “Bat(expletive) crazy and weird,” he proudly calls it.
The elk jalapeño cheddar bratwurst, topped with Coca Cola-soaked caramelized onions and cream cheese, was Susan Feniger’s choice on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” That is a tame choice considering the pheasant, ostrich, boar, “mythically delicious jack-a-lope” and other game. The toppings range nearly as bizarre: cactus, wasabi, apples, peaches, pintos, pickled-then-fried onions, colorful and fragrant marmalades and aioli.
The menu was bizarre enough for “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman.” On “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain scarfed down elk, rattlesnake and reindeer. “More,” he commanded.
Pittenger was well on his way to more when that show aired in 2010.
The next year, he took his 16th Street cart to today’s restaurant on Larimer Street, a couple of blocks from Coors Field. The Biker Jim kingdom includes a pop-up in the ballpark, as well as others at Mile High Stadium and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. In a good week, Pittenger says the locations combine to sling about 6,000 dogs.
Quite the culinary rise for someone more experienced at towing cars and riding motorcycles than cooking.
“It blows me away that my silly little hot dog concept has garnered this much attention,” Pittenger says. “But I’ll take it!”
From the beginning, his concept was quality and quirky.
He found quality to be Continental Sausage, the family- owned Denver staple culling all-natural meats from American ranches. He found quirky to be “Wild Wednesdays,” when he’d grill something like alligator on the cart.
“That became so popular that it more or less became our daily gig,” Pittenger says.
He recalls elevated fare out of trucks just developing around the city at that time. He befriended that wave. He picked the brains of real chefs and experimented to come up with his eccentric topping combinations, sticking with the ones that proved to be hits.
For as fast as the expansion seemed, “nobody other than me remembers those 18-hour days,” Pittenger says. Or those nights in the offseason — “sometime around 3:30 in the morning, middle of February,” he says, “when you used up all the chestnuts you collected in summer and fall, and you’re still a month away from (Rockies) opening day or St. Patrick’s Day.”
But from the cart, he learned there to be an intersection with hard work and luck. He still remembers his first customer, a guy offering to buy a soda while Pittenger was unloading his cooler. Pittenger was thrilled by that — business before the start of business. It was an example of right time, right place, he figured. And other examples like that came along with media.
He values the attention still while working hard as ever.
“I gotta jet,” he says at the restaurant, wrapping up one meeting to rush to another.
But he stops for a group of fans outside.
They all want a picture with Biker Jim.
On the menu
Choose your dog ($8), then your topping ($1.75).
The elk jalapeño cheddar is the top choice of dogs. Among other traditional options: the all-angus beef, beef wrapped in bacon, a bacon-and-cheddar-packed brat and German veal.
Chipotle, green chiles and cumin spice up the Southwest Buffalo. Fresh fruit and hot peppers complement the Chicken Peach Chipotle.
On the stranger side: ostrich, listed as smokey, savory and peppery; rattlesnake and rabbit, “two great tastes that taste great together”; cherry- and habanero-infused jack-a-lope; and wild boar.
Among toppings, Biker Jim’s Classic is a piping of cream cheese and pile of caramelized onions. The Coney is recognizable, with chili, onions and mustard. And the rest are far less recognizable, starting with The Desert (roasted cactus, curry jam, scallions, cilantro and onions).
El Diablo (green chile, Sriracha-lime mayo and bacon) is popular. Drunk Pirate is a curious blend of beer-fused mustard cream sauce, fried pickled onions and greens. Bleu cheese, lemon aioli, bacon and red onion marmalade, and french-fried onions are all in on the Conspiracy. Wasabi aioli, caramelized apples, Irish cheddar with the International. Pintos, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, mustard and mayo with the Sonoran.
The favorite sides: mac and cheese as fried sticks, baked beans and curly fries smothered with pork green chili and cheese.