Yesterday, I headed down to the the 22st Annual Erie’s Wild Rib Cook Off in Perry Square to talk BBQ with the Ribbers (the wonderful people responsible for creating the ribs). The cook off is being held this year from May 30 – June 2 from 11am to 11pm all four days. During the cook off, Perry Square is brought to life by a host of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes stemming primarily from eight, portable grill kitchens. Don’t worry if ribs aren’t your thing, though, not only do the rib vendors sell more than just that, there are plenty of other food vendors, as well as activities, so there’s a little something for everyone!
Most of the rib companies use St. Louis cut side ribs that are taken from the belly side of the rib cage where the sternum bone, cartilage, and the rib tip has been removed. All of the Ribbers have their own “secret” dry rub that is applied to the meat before it takes a trip to the smoker for several hours. After a good smoking, the ribs are then grilled with or without sauce to finish them off before serving. I had the privilege to sit down with each of the Ribbers and learn more about the different ways they each approach this delicious craft.
At Texas Thunder BBQ, I talked with Boneyard Jim, who has been in the business for 15 years, and with Texas Thunder for the past eight. Originally from Texas, this 29 year old company is now headquartered in Chicago. Joey Sutphen is the owner of Texas Thunder, however I did not have the pleasure of meeting him as he is attending another rib fest in a different state. The Texas Thunder ribs I tried were first smoked in hickory, then smothered in their sauce, which they recommend mixing the sweet and hot sauces together in a 3:1 ratio.
The next booth I visited was Tennessee Fatbacks. Owned by a Canadian named Milton, this Ribber has been at it for fifteen years and this year, Erie is the only show he’s attending south of the Canadian border. He likes to use cherry wood for smoking to add flavor as well as color, but he has no problem changing it up. Like most other Ribbers, he subscribes to the “low and slow” cooking method to get the best tasting, fall-off-the-bone ribs possible. In fact, some of his BBQ is cooked at low heat for upwards of 14 hours.
The Armadillo’s Ribs booth is run this year by newcomer, JB, who has been with the company for two years, and Dave who has been there for 13. Formerly from Atlanta, GA, they now call Austintown , OH home. Armadillo’s is using a combination of hickory, cherry, and apple wood to create a tasty smoke combination for their ribs this week. Armadillo’s also combines Midwestern and Southern flavors in a variety of precisely made spice rubs that they are constantly perfecting.
When I was young, my family always enjoyed the fare found at Pigfoot BBQ. Although owned by Jerry & Debbie Gibson, their booth in Erie is manned by Zach and Brisket Bob. The company has been around since the first-ever Rib Fest in 1982. Bob has been grilling with them for 12 years now, and has certainly earned his nickname. Their use of hickory and oak woods give the ribs a fantastic, rich, smoky flavor. Then, the ribs are delicately sauced on the grill, and five different sauces are on hand for customers to try.
I spoke briefly with Don, the manager from Carolina Rib King, but this is his first year with the company so we didn’t have the depth of conversation I had at the other booths. The company was started by Solomon Williams of Georgetown, SC 16 years ago. This week, they are smoking with pecan wood and they seem to be the only ones doing that, which gives the meat a unique, nutty flavor. The rub used by Carolina Rib King is based on a family recipe, but Solomon put his own spin on it. They say their sauce speaks for itself and that is their real secret.
Mojo’s Rib Shack comes to Erie by way of Diamond, OH. Owner Bill has been with Mojo’s for five years, but has been a Ribber for ten. He claims that his secret to great BBQ is constantly changing the recipes. He updates both his rub and sauce recipes on the fly to make sure that he is putting out the best product possible. They love their ribs, and do them really well, but I also recommend that you try their pulled pork, as well as their three award winning sauces.
Bad Wolf Barbecue was founded in 1984 in Kansas City. In 1999, the owner and pack leader, Steve (from Memphis, TN), met a nice, Canadian girl and the company has been located in Ontario ever since. Their BBQ is smoked with cherry wood and grilled over gas instead of charcoal. Once on the grill, they are coated in thick sauce that forms a deliciously sweet, sticky glaze, coating each bite of meat perfectly.
Last, but certainly not least, is Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ. Alexander “Butch” Lupinetti entered his first BBQ competition in the late 1980s and started his company in 1990 out of Mount Laurel, NJ. After his passing in the summer of 2010, his daughter, Alyson Lupinetti took over and is running the booth at this year’s Rib Fest. Every year, the family cuts down a hickory tree from their own property and use it for smoking their product. Their “magic dust,” as well as their full selection of sauces, are made from scratch and are a family secret. During the first season of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay on Food Network, Butch came out on top in a BBQ throwdown, proving that Butch’s is a force to be reckoned with in the rib world.
You have until Saturday, June 2 at 11 p.m. to head downtown and try as many as different ribs as possible. All of this year’s attendees are first class Ribbers and it is a treat to have them in our city. My personal favorites from this year’s festival are Pigfoot, Mojo, and Butch’s, but I encourage you to try all the different booths, or at least as much as you can before you’re full! Let me know what your favorites are too!
Until next time,
Andrew – Beard vs. Food