For one of the few times in my life, I've voted for a winner. This rarity happened over the weekend at the 18th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off at John Ascuaga's Nugget in Sparks, Nev.
A team of ribbers from the Plymouth, Minn., branch of Famous Dave's Barbecue won the cook-off, which drew cookers from 24 restaurants about the country.
When we were sequestered in one of the hotel-casino's meeting rooms, we 18 judges didn't know the identity of any of the teams represented by racks of ribs in the metal pans before us. Each was identified only by a number, and No. 117, it turned out, was the entry from Famous Dave's, a fast-growing chain with about 140 restaurants scattered about the country. (None is in Sacramento. The closest is in Gilroy, but one is pending in Fresno.)
Out of 40 possible points, No. 117 got 35 on my scoresheet, the highest of any of the 10 racks in the final round. I liked the ribs best for their balance of sweetness and spice, the juiciness of the meat, and distinct notes of pork and smoke. I gave 34 points to No. 118, which turned out to be the ribs prepared by the Sweet Meat Cooking Team of Euless, Texas, which had the longest finish of any meat in the round; Sweet Meat finished third in the contest. I gave 32 points to No. 108, the ribs of B.J.'s Barbecue of Sparks, which had the purest pork flavor of the day, the veritable definition of sweet meat; B.J.'s finished second.
Jim Heywood, nearing retirement after 37 years as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., was the chief judge, and set down the criteria for what we were to look for in award-winning ribs. Up to 10 points could be awarded for appearance, which included even coloring of a rack from one end to the other, very little char or signs of burning, and nothing at all to indicate dryness, such as meat fibers spreading apart. Up to 10 points could be awarded for texture, meaning the meat wasn't to be tough and stringy, it should fall apart easily but not so easily that it fell from the bone without some resiliency, and that it should be juicy and slightly fatty. Up to 20 points could be awarded for flavor, which he defined as "balanced salt intensity," "no overpowering acidity," "not too much smoke intensity" and an impression overall that is well-rounded and lasting. Frankly, I found several ribs way too salty, and marked them down accordingly.
Judges couldn't talk at all during their deliberations, and beforehand they weren't even to eat any ribs out on "the street," where each team was selling hundreds of pounds of ribs to the event's estimated 400,000 visitors. Afterwards, however, we could eat all the ribs we wanted, but after tasting each entry at least once, who really wanted to? Let me tell you, those ribs generally were so good I even had some more that night.