Its not often that I write about something not created in my kitchen. However, this event deserves its own post and may inspire more like it to follow. Every Labor day weekend (Wednesday-Monday) Sparks, Nevada is home to the largest Rib Cook Off west of the Mississippi, and considered by many to be one of the most prestigious wins amongst the very competitive BBQ circuit.
This was to be my second visit to this event. With lessons learned from last year, our hotel room at the Nugget was booked, Budweiser cans filled our back pack, and the all important white t-shirt was donned as patriotically as possible. I was wearing an old Tony Stewart NASCAR shirt. I was ready. As we made our way out of the casino on to the strip of rib vendors, everyone’s excitement was visible. Where do we start? What’s our rib ordering strategy? Someone pass me a beer! We conveniently found ourselves next to a respectable vendor blasting great music. Why not start here? There were 8 of us in our party, so rib ordering had to be done strategically. Portions were sold in 3 ribs, 6 ribs (1/2 rack) or 13-14 ribs (whole rack).
Our general strategy was variety. Try to pack as many different rib vendors in as we could. So, we embarked on our pork filled journey with Porky ‘n Beans. An excellent first choice to kick off Rib Fest. The ribs were tender but not too fatty. The meat fell off the bone, and the sauce was bold and a great balance of sweet & spicy. This place set the bar high.
On to the next joint! Last year we stumbled upon BourbonQ, which was our favorite at the time. This Kentucky style rib was delicious and had, hands down, the best sauce at the competition in our eyes. Luckily, BourbonQ was only a few steps away from where we had just devoured our first set of ribs. The excitement was growing. There are some great ways to pick out who has great ribs at Rib Fest. One of which is how long the lines are. If there is a bottle neck in the street, chances are that the cause of the mass of people are tasty ribs. BourbonQ was no exception. The line was probably the longest we would wait in. With a large banner stating “World Invitational Rib Champions” and a t-shirt stand selling shirts promoting pork consumption, BourbonQ lived up to the hype and our expectations. Probably the best part of BourbonQ is the sauce. There are 3-4 different types you can pile on to your already sauced ribs, but the flagship sauce, “Fighting Cock,” was my personal favorite; spicy, tangy, sweet, and bold. Our team devoured the ribs so fast I couldn’t snap a photo! BourbonQ had an early majority vote as the favorite.
Next door to BourbonQ was a national brand, and boasted a trophy table that was intimidating. Kinders BBQ claimed it had the best sauce year in and year out. We would be the judge of that. The line was shorter than BourbonQ so we had ribs in hand in record time. There were two sauces present, one a garlic based, the other a more smokey and bold mixture. The rib meat fell off the bone, but fell well short of our previous two. We knew right away that this joint was no where near the caliber of the first two.
Moving on. From my previous visit to Rib Fest, there was a vendor that I particularly loved. It was a Memphis style rib which, I believe, was the only vendor to promote a dry rub. I remembered that these ribs had a ton of flavor that the others didn’t, and sauce wasn’t necessary… not something you see much, especially at Rib Fest. So, I led the pack down to the end of the street where Willingham’s stood tall and regal. There a couple things that every BBQ tent has; Huge banners promoting their specialties, large #1st Place signs, and a collection of trophies from various BBQ events. Willingham’s was no exception, however it lacked a trophy table. Odd considering the list of 1st place awards flanking its massive banners. But, as you approached the window there was a 8′x4′ banner containing a picture of all of their trophies. They were so confident they didn’t feel the need to travel with their trophies, so they took a picture instead. Awesome.
Darcy was at my side driving our order through… “If you think that these are gonna be good, let’s get a full rack.” After a slight hesitation, I couldn’t deny that logic. “A full rack, please.” The lady at the register yelled out “Full!” and rang a cow bell. Again, awesome. We saw our man by the BBQ pull off a huge full rack of baby back ribs, and slice them right in font of us.
We waited patiently and excitedly. Greedily, we grabbed our styrofoam container and headed to the sauce station. Lathered up one side of the container with both sauces and joined our team. At first bite I was lost in goodness. I remember hearing a lot of grunting, moaning, and more grunting. The full rack was the call of the day. Everyone wanted more. More grunting ensued, followed by sauce licking, and then finished with beer drinking. The dry rub style ribs, in my mind, brought a ton of flavor into the ribs that no other had done yet. The more you chewed, the more flavor you tasted. Combined with the bold & smokey or sweet & sassy sauce, the ribs were out of this world good.
This easily became my favorite, and I think some other team members were convinced as well. I was stoked to have a 2nd and half of a 3rd rib. Finished off with a rib cheers, a beer cheers, and some stomach stretching, we moved on…
As the team left Willingham’s smiling and happy, we agreed we needed to slow down a bit. We had done 4 vendors in about 30-40 minutes. Our walk slowed to a saunter as we took in the sites and paused at the incredible opportunity to people watch. This was certainly an event people traveled too. As we strolled down the strip, the decision was upon Jerry on where to eat next. He landed on a Texas vendor. At this point, we hadn’t tasted anything from the famous BBQ state. The vendor looked like a good choice and had a man in a cowboy hat BBQing right on the street, a good sign.
The ribs were ok. Nothing like Willingham’s, BourbonQ, or even Kinders. Texas quickly fell short. They were a bit too fatty, and didn’t fall off the bone. The sauce was ok, but again, nothing like the previous vendors. Maybe we got a faulty rack, but Texas just wasn’t that good.
By this point we were getting pretty full and happy, but there was still room for more. A couple more beers, and a few more paces we stumbled onto Rasta Joe’s. A number of Tahoe people had recommended this place. So, another order of ribs was bought. Unfortunately, these ribs just weren’t good. Maybe it was because we had started with such high quality places, or maybe it was because we were getting full, but I barely finished one rib. They were really fatty and chewy, almost like they had been boiled and then lightly grilled. The sauces were uninspiring, but at least they had pickles! I focused on my beer.
All in all, Rib Fest was a huge success. 6 different vendors, and well over a full rack eaten, I was very satisfied and very full. Darcy and I ended up going back to Willingham’s for one last taste, and we were not disappointed. If you haven’t been to Rib Fest, you need too. Not only are the ribs phenomenal, but the event itself is awesome. Live music, competitive eating contests, and well, all the fun that Nevada boasts. We ended our night dancing to an old man band and drinking whiskey inside of photo booths. Thank you, Rib Fest. Ill see you again next year.