Ribfest: Worthy of 10 Food Comas
Some would say barbequing ribs is an art form. A whole circuit of barbeque champions from the deep down south of the United States proves that. Every summer Toronto and its surrounding boroughs host large Ribfests where both American and Canadian BBQ rib champions unite to serve up some of the juiciest, smokiest, tastiest ribs this far north of the border.
We went into Ribfest with a strategy – attending on a weekday to avoid crowds, each of us were assigned a booth and an item to purchase. We were attending Ribfest with a couple of regular attendees, they had a tried and true strategy to purchase the yummiest ribs in a fast and efficient method. We needed the strategy too, it was overcast on the day that we went to ribfest, the clouds threatened summer rain and Ribfest was an outdoor festival. We had to get in and out, fast.
As soon as we walked into Ribfest, we were hit in the face with smells of rich, smoky barbeque, the air was thick with smoke and hungry festival goers walked around wearing red, foam Ribfest hats, and music filled the area from the open picnic seating space and the public stage in the middle of Ribfest.
Each booth at Ribfest was littered with numerous trophies and awards. At first, I steered towards the booths with the most trophies but it was pointed out to me that the trophies were not as reliable as the banners displayed above each booth advertising the vendors’ claim to fame: 1st place for best sauce, Defending Champs for best ribs, Triple crown winner, so on and so forth.
We also wanted to get a complete sample of all the different types of ribs from each region: the dry, smoky deep heat of Texas ribs to the wet, juicy, sticky and sweet ribs of the mid-west.
The first stop was Camp 31, known for their consistency in quality, pulled pork and award-winning barbeque sauce. They had so many banners on display, my neck was sore from looking up. Not to mention the endless rows of ribs that were in regular rotation on the grill as the line up of customers grew longer.
When we sat down to eat and opened Camp 31′s boxes of ribs, we found uniformly chopped pieces of sauce lathered ribs piled high in each box. Upon the first bite, my first sensation was a prickly tinglingness on the tip of my tongue then a sweet and smoky flavour reminiscent of the familiar tastes of Chinese barbeque pork. It actually made me a little bit homesick. I was, however, both comforted but slightly disappointed at the even flavours of Camp 31′s ribs. They were tasty, there just wasn’t any surprises.
We also got a couple of Camp 31′s pulled pork sandwiches. These were much easier to eat than the ribs. The flavours were also smoky and delicious and the meat was extremely tender. But just like the ribs, each bite was consistent, one dimensional, tasty but even keeled the whole way through. Camp 31 is great for the non-adventurous eater or a rib-rookie. None of us were rib rookies though.
Our next stop was Kentucky Smokehouse, not just because we couldn’t ignore all their 1st prize banners proudly displayed on top of their booth. We noticed their cook regularly basting their smoky ribs with mop-fuls of thick and juicy sauce from the moment we walked into the festival until the 2nd or 3rd time that we passed their booth. Our mouths were watering so much by the 3rd walk-by that we had to order something. It smelled amazing at their booth, the smokiness zipping up our noses and the sweet and spicy aroma circled the air all around their booth.
We ordered a couple of racks of pork ribs but decided to add a rack of beef ribs after we spent so much time salivating over the beef ribs sizzling on the grill being regularly basted and flipped over.
The cook really knew how to work the camera too, propping up each rack of ribs for the shot, and explaining how he perfected the marinating sauce. As indicated by their championship banners that ranged from the USA to Eastern Canada, Kentucky Smokehouse has been a regular on the barbeque circuit, hopping from festival to festival, honing their barbeque sauce and cooking techniques along the way.
Unlike Camp 31′s ribs, the ribs from Kentucky Smokehouse offered depths of flavour, different with each bite both in texture and flavour. Granted, they were much messier to eat though. Covered in globs of thick and luscious barbeque sauce, both of my hands were covered after each rib I ate. Boy, was it worth it.
The generous globs of barbeque sauce from Kentucky Smokehouse made their pork ribs more moist than Camp 31′s. The meat was literally fall-off-the-bone and I didn’t have to pull very hard for juicy morsels to slip clean off the bones. The ribs must have been marinating for days because the meat was like sponges of flavour, each bite bursting full of smoky sweetness, and each bite adding a new layer of flavour in my mouth until it was all I could taste.
The larger beef ribs were a little bit harder to eat since they were slightly tougher and the longer they were cooking on the grill, the more overcooked they got. The sauce really helped moisten the meat even though the beef wasn’t as deeply soaked in flavour as the pork.
Nothing goes better with smoky barbeque ribs than onion rings and we rushed to Bob’s Bloomin Onions stand to get our plate of Bloomin Onion. This reminded me of the Awesome Blossom on The Office and I finally understood Michael’s enthusiasm over the deep fried treat (even though, since then, the show has jumped the shark!).
Each ‘petal’ of onion was crispy on the outside and sweet and juicy on the inside, it was hard to just have one bite.
To top up our vegetable intake, we also bought some tornado potatoes seasoned in barbeque and sour cream and onion flavours.
Even though the potato was thinly sliced, they were still light and fluffy and made a great, light side to our heavy meal of barbequed meats.
I am a true sucker for state fair junk food so for dessert, I had to get some deep fried sweets: a Mars bar and a deep fried cheesecake. As my readers know, I prefer cheesecake with a shortbread crust as opposed to the more common graham cracker crust but since this cheesecake was deep fried, I was willing to let that slide.
The Mars bar was crispy on the outside and melted and gooey on the inside, the thick chocolate sticking to the roof of my mouth.
The cheesecake wasn’t as good as I had anticipated, the inside was just the same as a regular cheesecake and the outside was fried in the same crispy batter as the Mars bar. I may have waited too long to eat the cheesecake since by the time I scooped up my first spoonful, the bottom of the cake was a little soggy. I must remember to eat dessert first the next time I decide to spring for deep fried sweets.
I can’t wait until next year’s Ribfest. We better hone out a strategy now. Biggest tip is: starve before the festival. We could barely move for hours after this meal. No joke.