Jan and I attended Fresno’s first annual rib cook-off this past Saturday, curious to witness a cooking competition outside of Iron Chef America and our own living room. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had one thing on my mind as my stomach growled driving toward downtown Fresno: ribs!
We arrived around lunchtime to reasonable-sized crowds and weather temperatures nearing 100 degrees. As I got out of the car, I could smell the ribs cooking, and I was anxious to see what lie ahead. As we walked closer, we could see the competitors, crowds, and massive amounts of meat being smoked and grilled. From various parts of the country and the world, serious barbecue competitors had gathered to show off their skills. Each entrant had two-story-tall displays proclaiming all their awards in various cooking competitions.
I could tell these guys were serious. Not only did they have their competition trophies lined up on tables, reflecting the light of the sun, they had giant smokers on wheels with teams of people cooking. I’d heard a little about the competitive barbecue circuit from Jan’s former neighbors and the owners of Clovis’ QN4U, (who were the local entrants in the cook-off and were recently featured on TLC’s Pitmasters), but now I could finally see for myself how competitive these things could get.
Since we were aiming for our own taste-testing, Jan and I each got in line at two different places. Swayed by their banners proclaiming “Featured on Food Network,” and “As Seen on the Travel Channel,” I chose Australian barbecue champions Aussom Aussie, while Jan went for the more traditional Johnson’s of Virginia. It was difficult to choose whose ribs to sample, since we knew we couldn’t try them all. I might have been willing to wait in line for a rib from each vendor, had I not been feeling like a barbecued pig myself on the hot asphalt.
While the pace of the line moved just like the slow rib-smoking process, I anticipated my lunch, hoping I had chosen wisely. And as I neared the front of the line for a good look at the Aussom Aussie himself mopping ribs with barbecue sauce, The Fresno Bee captured me as I braved big gusts of smoke (link to the Bee’s gallery here). There was no way I wasn’t leaving without smelling like ribs. I felt like the girl in the Taco Bell commercial who carries around bacon in her purse in an effort to attract men. I smelled like barbecue perfume and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
Jan and I met up at the picnic tables under the trees, where we got a break from the heat. My first bite was from the Australians, followed by three more bites, one per accompanying dipping sauce. The ribs had excellent flavor, and the original sauce was a good balance of bold, sweet, and spicy flavors, and my top choice over the other two (hot! and raspberry chipotle).
I sampled the Johnson’s rib next, which was also tasty, but I found the hickory smoke flavor overwhelming. I know some people like the smoke, and even go to the lengths of adding artificial smoke flavoring to their own ribs to achieve it, but I find the taste of smoke distracting from the pork flavor that makes ribs such a unique treat. I was also disappointed by the sides, something I find a common problem at barbecue joints. With so much attention paid to “The Sauce” and “The Meat,” it’s sad when the simple dishes like potato salad and baked beans get ignored. I peeked into the mobile kitchens of several competitors, and saw that they were using salad from a tub and beans from a can. My take is, if you have a simple menu of basically meat and sides, everything on that menu better be a generous and delicious portion made from scratch. But I’m getting sidetracked from the ribs.
As we ate under the shade, Jan and I offered our own verdict. And the winner was…well, no one. We agreed that we prefered homemade ribs on the grill, not because we’re biased, but because neither of the ribs sampled delivered on the texture. Being barbecued by pros, I expected tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs, and while the ribs sampled weren’t tough, the meat certainly could have been softer.
We stood in line once again, this time at Cowboys BBQ of Texas, so we could bring a promised plate of ribs to a friend unable to attend the cook-off. (We later got a report that those were excellent, but we didn’t taste them for ourselves.)
We never found out who officially won the cook-off, or even the criteria for how the ribs were judged. Maybe that was for the best. After all, it seems like everyone has their own take on what makes a good rib, and even more so, a good plate of barbecue. Despite our nitpicking over the details, we had a great time, ate some good food, and would welcome a chance to attend any kind of cook-off in the future. Who knows, maybe next time in our backyard.