Monday, August 15, 2011

Stephen Starr-Garry Maddox BBQ Challenge

Despite an absolutely delicious and filling brunch at Supper earlier in the day (and changing my mind at least five times over the course of an hour), I somehow found room in my stomach for the Stephen Starr-Garry Maddox BBQ Challenge. With all the proceeds going towards academic support and enrichment services for children in troubled neighborhoods, I thought the event was well worth the time and money.

Even though a light drizzle (and a series of flood warnings) had started to come in for the afternoon/evening, my Serious Eats foodie friend Ben and I decided to brave the weather and trek out to Citizens Bank Park for some porcine-focused fun.
After paying a ghastly $15 for parking, we made our way through the first section of the event -- the amateur competitors. With their grills grilling, their smokers smoking, and the smell of BBQ filling the air, we couldn't help but get excited. Unfortunately, the amateurs weren't allowed to share their wares (BOO!), so all we could do was proceed through as quickly as possible without salivating too much.

At $5 a ticket or $10 for three, Ben and I both decided to start with three. Within 10 minutes, I had to go back for three more. Shocking, right? Go figure.

Having perused the list of 17 restaurant competitors (and also Garry Maddox himself), I'd already decided on a short list that I definitely wanted to try. Unfortunately, I only really wanted dry rub pork ribs (my preparation and meat of choice), and not every restaurant was serving them. Some went instead with pulled pork, BBQ chicken, and even (surprisingly) beef filet.

I started off with Le Cochon Noir, who gave me one measly rib. If my rib had been amazing, I suppose I wouldn't have griped. That said, it wasn't. It was decent, but seemed to be missing something. Salt? Spice? It was hard to tell. Not worth $3.33.

Next I tried Bull's BBQ. Good texture, but definitely way too salty. Ben and I both finished off our ribs, but we probably shouldn't have.

Ben was particularly interested in North Carolina pulled pork (having studied down south), so we trekked backwards to find Baby Blues BBQ. Having tried their food several times already, I let Ben go at it. Unfortunately, the sauce wasn't up to his standards, and he thought it could've used more vinegar.

At some point, I thought I was getting in line for Carolina Blue, but instead found myself getting ribs at McFadden's instead. And while some random gentleman found the (unnecessary) need to express his disregard for all things McFadden's, I actually found my rib quite tasty. Ben wasn't a big fan of the flavor, but I thought the rib had just enough sweetness and just enough char.

Ben decided on Rubb BBQ for his second attempt at pulled pork Unfortunately, he found out that the sauce was tomato-based rather than vinegar-based, which made for a sad Ben.

In between bites, I decided to check out the judges tent. Having only experienced BBQ competitions through the Food Network, I was even more jealous now that I got to see the judges live at work -- gnawing through rib after rib, with offerings piled high in carefully marked yet nondescript styrofoam boxes. In all his infinite foodie wisdom, Ben mentioned how there were training events for potential BBQ competition judges. I'm not sure my stomach could ultimately handle this sort of work, but "BBQ judge" is definitely something I wouldn't mind having on my resume!

I also wouldn't mind having "pitmaster extraordinaire" on there either, especially if I could potentially win one of these shiny pig plates. Talk about impressing potential suitors.

Seeing that the queue had disappeared at Carolina Blue, we decided to try their peachwood smoked bistro filet. Even though the meat was tender, I personally hate beef filet (I swear filet mignon makes me gag -- I know, I know), so I had half a piece, and promptly offered the three remaining pieces to Ben -- and then to some random strangers. And yes, that's how much I hate beef filet. It so does not belong in the BBQ context. Thankfully, everyone else enjoyed my generosity.

To work off some of our serious eats, Ben decided to ride the mechanical bull. Yes, the mechanical bull -- one of several entertainment options at the event. And at $2 a ride, why the heck not? Let's just say that Nancy (Ben's wife) most certainly missed out on witnessing Ben's prized moment!

Even though Famous Dave's is a chain, I decided that Dave had to be famous for a reason. And seeing as how Wilbur (the mascot) was nice enough to cheer on Ben *and* take a photo with me, I felt I had to oblige by sampling some of Dave's hickory-smoked ribs.

To my surprise, I was actually quite pleased with the extent of smokiness pervading the meat. Ben even went so far as to point out the smoke visible in the pinkness of the rib.

Our absolute favorite restaurant offering of the day was the ribs from Butcher and Singer. Not only were they the perfect blend of fat and lean meat, but they had great char and great seasoning. No other dry rub we'd tasted had demonstrated such depth of flavor. There was just enough salt to bring out the complexity of spices, and Ben's more well-refined palate actually detected a fair number of them.

Unfortunately, what followed was absolutely horrific. Seeing as how Garry Maddox was the founder of the organization associated with the event, I thought we should at least stop by his tent and check out his ribs. I really should've known better when I saw the big Kraft sign and the display of multiple Kraft BBQ bottles. What a total waste at a serious BBQ competition. Ugh.

After taking a picture with Gary (and even now, I still don't know who he is), I picked up his ribs -- completely encased in BBQ sauce. Even though we both should've known better, Ben and I proceeded to take hearty bites of our ribs. As soon as we did, I proceeded to make a face of disgust and chuck my rib into the nearest trash can. Not only do I generally despise sauce, I was thoroughly dismayed at the complete overdone-ness of the meat and the absolutely intolerable gross-ness of the sauce. Talk about wanting to wash my mouth out with soap.

Seeing as how there was no way I'd let us end on that kind of note, I raced over and bought one more ticket. While I'd suggested going back to Butcher and Singer, Ben thought we might as well give one more restaurant a chance. We went with Rosey's BBQ, which had no line and samples set out for pick-up. Definitely some good smoky flavor, but no Butcher and Singer spice-wise.

With our appetites sated and our stomachs full, we trekked back through the amateur section, checking out all the funky names and signs we'd passed by quickly on our way in.

As we were walking out of the event, we had the opportunity to sample the wares of an amateur pitmaster. While we weren't able to exchange tickets for samples, I supposed it was okay for the amateur pitmasters to give away leftovers at the end of the competition. Lucky for us, we passed by at exactly the right time to check out their ribs -- and for the adventurous folks, their bacon-wrapped pickles. (Personally, I find the concept gross. Probably because I despise pickles. And yes, I despise a lot of things.)

Although Ben had been saying it as soon as we arrived at the event, it wasn't until I tasted these ribs that I emphatically agreed with the following: Based on how tender and flavorful these ribs were, I have no doubt in my mind that our tasting experience would've been vastly improved if we'd been allowed to sample from all of the amateur pitmasters. It's like they actually tried.

If anyone ever needed to get my attention, all they'd need to do is set these ribs in front of me. While Ben placed Butcher and Singer's ribs slightly ahead, I went back for seconds here. I found the meat slightly moister, and the dry rub more suited to my palate.

Considering that this was my first ever visit to Citizens Bank Park, I was more than happy that I was able to enjoy some amazing eats without having to sit through a baseball game. And yes, I'm not afraid to say it: I care more about yummy BBQ than the Phillies!

P.S. Check out the following press release for the Challenge winners:

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