Wednesday, October 23, 2013

East Cambridge Rib Fest 2013: The Winners

"It's a simple question Doctor, would you eat the moon if it were made of ribs?"
--Will Ferrell

There is something primal about eating ribs, hearkening back to our ancient ancestors. You grab the rib with your hands so that there is no distance between you and your food, as occurs when you use utensils. You gnaw the meat off the bone, like any carnivorous animal would. And the sauces that usually cover the ribs sticks to your hands and face, often reminiscent of blood. This past Sunday, I participated in such a savage ritual, on the streets of Cambridge, amidst a horde of other carnivorous diners. The glories of charred flesh.

Once again, the East Cambridge Business Association (ECBA) presented their annual “Smoke ThisRib Fest 2013, pitting the chefs and pit masters of eighteen restaurants and establishments against each other in a culinary showdown on Cambridge Street to determine who made the Best Ribs. There were actually three levels of judging for this event. First, there were three more professional judges, including Dan Souza, senior editor of Cooks Illustrated Magazine, Nookie Postal, chef/owner of Commonwealth Restaurant, and Tyler Sundet, of Hungry Mother and State Park. Second, there were three local bloggers, including Erica of In and Around Town, Fiona of A Boston Food Diary and myself. This was my second year judging the event, and it was just as fun as last year. Finally, the the public had an opportunity to vote for their favorites too.

This year, eighteen restaurants and establishments participated, three less than last year, including: Abigail’s, Area 4, ARTBAR, Atwood’s Tavern, Bambara, Champions, CRLS Culinary, East Coast Grill, East Side Bar & Grille, The Filamonica Santa Antonio Center, Lord Hobo, New Deal Fish Market, Ole, Portugalia, Puritan & Co., Redbones, Trina’s Starlight Lounge, and Tupelo. Though there were a few less restaurants this year, there were still plenty of ribs, as well as other dishes, and more table space so you could sit and savor your ribs. It is important to mention that ribs were not the only items available, and that a number of restaurants sell other items too, from oysters to corn bread. If you leave this event hungry, then you have a problem (or are a vegetarian).

Fortunately, the weather on Sunday was excellent, sunny but with a pleasant fall crispness in the air. It brought out plenty of attendees, and several of the restaurants had long lines to obtain their ribs. With music, games, and cooking demonstrations, there was much else to do besides gorge on ribs. There were a few beer vendors, though no wine booths, which I think was an omission they need to fix next year. Not everyone likes beer and there are plenty of hearty red wines which would pair well with the meaty ribs. There is Sake too which would go well with ribs, but I wouldn't expect the Rib Fest to have a Sake booth too (though it would really excite me.)

There is such a diversity in the realm of ribs. Beef, pork, lamb, goat, and more. Rib styles such as Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Carolina, Texas and more. Though the definitions can be a bit vague, you can generally separate the styles into two basic schools: wet and dry, dependent on whether the ribs are slathered in a sauce or prepared with a dry rub. The nature of the sauce varies, whether thick, thin, sweet, spicy or a combination of sweet & spicy. In addition, the cut, size of the ribs and which bones are removed makes a difference. We cannot forget Asian style ribs either though, and I mean more than the ordinary spare ribs you find at basic Chinese restaurants. Tea smoked, five spice, Thai style and so much more. The eighteen restaurants at the Rib Fest offered up plenty of diversity, though they obviously couldn't include every type and style that exists.

An important issue that struck me during my tastings was that not all ribs are created equal. When a restaurant is cooking a large stack of ribs, some of those ribs are going to be naturally better than others. Maybe a more tender cut of meat, a better cooked section of rib, an area with just the right amount of sauce or rub. Conversely, there are going to be worse ribs, with fatty or tougher meat, which are over or under cooked, or with not enough or too much sauce/rub. Good chefs will try to minimize these differences, but they cannot be eliminated. The result is that not all judges are going to have the same quality of rib from the same restaurant. That contribute to differences in voting results, and I think it played at least a partial role in my own decision of my top three favorites.

The professional judges selected Bambara as the First Place winner of the Rib Fest (which won last year as well. They also awarded Second Place to East Side Bar & Grill, and Third Place to the Tupelo. The public had some different choices, awarding First Place to East Side Bar & Grill, Second Place to Tupelo and Third Place to ArtBar. Last year, the professional judges and the public did not choose any of the same winners but this year they shared two of the same picks, though in different positions.

My own choices for the Top Three Ribs are most in line with the public voting, matching two of their choices, though not the positions. Before announcing those choices, I want to congratulate all of the entrants for their rib dishes. Judging was not easy because there were plenty of ribs which I enjoyed, each with their own unique attributes. It is a real pleasure to get to judge and sample so many excellent examples of ribs.

Third Place is awarded to Tupelo for their St. Louis Ribs with Tupelo's Secret Sauce. I am a fan of their restaurant (loving those fried grits) and I enjoyed their ribs much more this year than I did last year. The rib meat was tender and flavorful, and the sauce was complex and intriguing, with a nice balance of tastes. Third place was tough to decide as there were a few other close contenders, including AbigailsLord Hoboand Portugalia.

Second Place is awarded to ARTBAR for their Baby Back Ribs with Apple Cider BBQ Sauce. Last year they went more nontraditional with their Spiced Lemon Confit Marinade Baby Back Ribs, but this year went were traditional. When I picked up my rib, the meat slid right off the bone even before biting into it. The meat was incredibly tender, with a superb and complex sauce, both sweet and savory, that was rich in complementary flavors. This is the type of rib that thrills your palate and which makes you immediately reach out for more. And I was very torn over whether this rib should take first or second place. A very,very close decision. ARTBAR also gets kudos for the extra items they served, including a tasty pulled pork, corn bread and apple cider donut holes. All of them were delicious, especially the donut holes!

Drum roll, please.....

First Place is awarded to Champions Sports Bar! This is their second year as my top favorite, and their ribs are essentially the same as last year. This is what I wrote last year and it stands again to represent my feelings. "These ribs had a Kansas City dry rub, were cooked over apple, hickory and cherry woods, and had a glaze that included apples and brown sugar. The moist, tender meat slid off the bone and the taste impressed with its complexity and melange of compelling flavors, both sweet and spicy. The sauce accented the ribs without overwhelming it. This was another clear "wow" dish and I was tempted to remain at their table and devour several more of these ribs. Kudos for such amazing ribs!" When you create such a compelling rib, there isn't much reason to change your recipe.

I must also give a special Honorable Mention to Puritan & Co. for their Moxie Glazed Lamb Ribs, one of the most unique offerings at the Rib Fest. These ribs seemed to be a bit fatty, due to the nature of lamb, and the meat was a bit tougher than many of the other ribs, but they packed in some delightful and earthy flavors, with a mild but compelling glaze. I am a fan of lamb so these ribs appealed to me, and I think lamb ribs have lots of potential and I would like to see more of them at future Rib Fests.


Anonymous said...

yo do you even know what bbq ribs
are clearly east side did the best

Anonymous said...

you dont know what is bbq clearly east side is the best