Hey folks, Lindsey here. Ahhh, it does feel good to get back on the Fridge Magnet blog after a week and a half away. I’ve missed all the banter and brainstorming that goes along with it. Thanks again to Nona, who kept us entertained and informed while I was away. Without her, I’d have had to put the blog on a temporary hiatus in order to fill in for my editor.
Of course, just because I wasn’t blogging doesn’t mean I wasn’t eating! In fact, I experienced a very exciting opportunity on Sept. 20, when I got to judge the rib cook-off at the Big Lick Blues Festival at Elmwood Park in Roanoke. I’ve been dying to tell you guys about it.
This is only the second time I’ve judged food since I became the food writer for The Roanoke Times. The first was a chocolate contest. You might be surprised to learn that I would much rather make myself sick on pork ribs than cookies and fudge.
These judging experiences are rather interesting; the rules all depend on the particular contest. At the chocolate festival, I was allowed to chat as much as I wanted with the other judges. So we found ourselves talking about such things as the subtle hints of cinnamon and chile pepper in a piece of fudge. At the rib cook-off, no talking was allowed. So much for me advising my co-worker, music writer Tad Dickens, who said he knows way more about the blues than the bbq.
Four restaurants took part in the cook-off, but I really had no idea which ones they were before the ribs were carted in. For each of five judges, there appeared boxes filled with dry ribs and sauced ribs from each restaurant. We were to judge them on presentation, flavor and tenderness. So if you do the math, if each judge ate just one rib from each restaurant for each contest, that judge would eat eight ribs, total. One rib from each rack? Yeah, right. I probably ate at least 12 or 16 ribs in that sitting.
Tad liked some of them so much that he went ahead and annihilated the entire half-rack, which explains why he had a big belly ache later on.
I started by simply opening the boxes and studying the ribs. The presentation ranged from a lonely half rack plopped in an empty box all the way up to purple and green lettuce beds with garnishes of roasted jalapenos and crisscrossed chives. For presentation, Martin’s restaurant in downtown Roanoke scored highest on my sheet.
Next it came time to dig in. I was looking for ribs that could be easily pulled apart with my hands and did not require a knife and fork. If it required a knife and fork, it scored low on tenderness. On the other hand, one rack of ribs was SO tender that there were almost no discernable bones, just little pieces of bones and a soft pile of mush in your hands.
For flavor, I was wide open. Spiciness, smokiness and essences of beer were detectable in different ribs and I liked all of those elements quite a bit.
The winning rack, however, came down to a combination of all the things I’ve mentioned already. That prize went to Martin’s, and I think it would have regardless of their fancy presentation (although that didn’t hurt.) Their ribs were braised in beer and cider vinegar before they were grilled. They were big, meaty ribs that pulled apart with ease. And the sauced version was dressed with a killer mustard-based barbecue sauce, the only mustard-based sauce in the competition. The dry-rub contest was also won by Martin’s, because even without that sauce, the ribs had extraordinary flavor and texture.
Blue 5 on 2nd Street in downtown Roanoke came away with second-place prizes in both contests. Their ribs were incredibly tender and well-flavored.
The other contestants were Bastian’s BBQ and Pitt Boss BBQ. I enjoyed Bastian’s sauce the most out of all the sauces. I think if their sauce had appeared on Martin’s ribs, it would have blown everything completely out the roof. Pitt Boss ribs were generously portioned with nice, smoky undertones.
The good news is that you can get the winning ribs anytime at Martin’s. And Blue 5 serves a Moonshine-glazed rib on their dinner menu, although I’m not sure whether that’s the same recipe they used for the cook-off.
Bottom line: I wouldn’t have been displeased with any of the ribs I ate at the festival had I been served them at the respective restaurants. Do you all have a favorite place for ribs that wasn’t represented in the cook-off? What are your opinions about what makes a terrific rack of ribs?