Monday, 29 June 2009

Ottawa Ribfest 2009 - Rib-Chicken Reviews

I had very mixed feelings about the event overall. I had read negative press from Ottawa Citizen food editor Ron Eade who said "the travelling rib BBQ road show on Sparks St. is, well, a sham" & "the rib fest is just a travelling show to sell ribs. Chicken done in ovens, only finished on grill." In 2007 he worked behind the scenes and wrote about it, then re-wrote the same article again this year. It seemed like overkill attacking the event. It was a healthy dose of cynicism.

His main beef's as I saw them:

  1. While ribs are smoked, the membrane on the back is not removed due to volume of rib selling.
  2. Chicken is roasted in ovens and tossed onto the grill at the last minute.
  3. Propane is used to cook most of the meats with wood added for smoking or last minute grilling.
  4. Judging isn't professional: there's no how-to's, no criteria, and no drink prohibition to affect flavours.

So were these cursings substantiated or was this the rantings of a BBQ food snob? Let's get to the meat of the issue: the rib tasting.

Make that rib/chicken/pork tasting. We didn't have a lot of time, or money to do a broad sampling as my gang does normally in London. And we were also looking to try more than just pork ribs, as this was a 'Rib-Chicken' cook off. There were several crews that don't visit the Forest City, so narrowing down the list to choose to try was a bit easier. We hit 2 establishments, Camp 31 & Billy Bones BBQ, and got their rib-chicken-pulled pork combo and did some sharing.


I've heard a lot about this place and its ribs. And by place, mainly the restaurant in Paris Ontario. You might think, Paris Ontario can do good, Southern BBQ? Well they can, and that's because they are really from Alabama. AND they do some ribfest circuits as well.

By far they had the best looking outfit - with smirking pigs, warning signs, wood motifs; they were a visually interesting booth.

Camp 31 was last years champs, which definitely caused big line-ups waiting for their product. Even when it was empty on Sparks Street on Saturday morning people were still flocking early. I was a little put off when I stopped by at 10:30 and asked what time they opened, and I got a snarky "11:30" by one of the crew. But at 10:55 people were lining up and being served. I got in line and waited for some well sauced meats. Their big feast is known as the "Tree Hugger Special."


The meat was tender, but not quite fall off the bone.

The sauce (the key to this event) was, well, blah. I mean the colour was a cherry red and looked like it would be sweet and bold. In fact, the pork meat flavour came through more than any smoking, sauce or spices.

Maybe the first batch is not the best, but from my sampling I could not understand why people were flocking here. I would much rather try the actually restaurant.


They gave the option of light or dark meat, and I went with dark thinking it would be full of flavour. I was wrong. The bird itself was mediocre at best. While it wasn't dried out, it wasn't moist either. Clearly baked and not smoked. The skin wasn't even crispy.

I watched them put the birds on the grill and they looked naked (no spice rub, or very little if any) and then mopped the sauce for the 2 minutes I was in line. So nothing really made its way into the bird.

The sauce was slightly dark and peppery. They used real tomatoes in the sauce (not just ketchup or paste) because you could see the seeds. But totally passable as a dish.


When I saw them spooning the pulled pork into the take-out container, I thought to myself, don't you need to sauce it first? Then I realized it was sauced.

Very dry, and overwhelming pork flavour (I'm saying overwhelming, but I mean dominant). It was slightly sweet, but we boxed this up and sauced it ourselves as leftover sandwiches at home the next day.


I know next to nothing about these guys. No website, no info. I did find out via internet research they are from Ontario. What drew me to their booth was their win for best sauce, the delicious aroma from their truck, and the saucy ribs seen from out front.

They have a monster rig for smoking and cooking. And I liked the 50's style advertisements and re-pigged movie posters out front. There was no line up (but really, no one other than Camp 31 had a line up at that hour) and I had our second meal in my hands in seconds.

Their meal was the "Big Daddy Special." Clearly presentation was not important.


The meat was very tender and it came away easily from the bone. A smoke ring was much more noticeable on these ribs, but I didn't get a strong smoke flavour from these either.

The sauce was subtle, but slightly sweet, slightly peppery. But just slightly. For winning last years best sauce, I was really expecting something bolder.


This was a white meat piece, as I really wanted the wings. But the same problems that plagued Camp 31's chicken apply to Billy Bone's: baked chicken with little flavour. No crispy skin. As LJ said, "the chicken was a waste of time."

The chicken sauce was also slightly sweet (in a ketchup sweet way), but everything was so mute that it was really hard to judge personally.


This was it, this was the gold mine. Saucy (if not oily). Moist. Tender. Good.

There was the positive flavour of the pork, but the sauce made a really nice balance. It was BBQ sugary sweet, but far from sickly so, and there was spice that kicked it up. Their pulled pork just melted in my mouth.


When it came to the event, I wasn't impressed. Sure it was an interesting outing, but it just wasn't that great. That's how the ribs also felt. Looking back at Mr Eade's comments, how do I feel now?

  • Because the event is JUST selling of meat, it wasn't that exciting (that sounds so crazy coming out of my mouth). So your food better be good. And it wasn't.

  • I've always known you can't go by the trophies because everyone seems to win somewhere sometime. There is no professional competition here.

  • The baked chicken is pointless. It's not BBQ, and it doesn't even get on the grill long enough to count.

  • The membrane dealie didn't bother me. The ribs are cooked for so long that you don't taste them, and their texture wasn't terrible. That's not to say I want them on, but it wasn't a deal clencher for me.

So I agree with Mr Eade and have to bow to his experience. People should be aware that this isn't all authentic 'Que. And it wasn't that fun an event to begin with. And the food we tried was really weak. And yet the people keep lining up. I know London's Ribfest may not be light-years ahead in terms of the event, but I just found the food on the whole to be much better there, but then again I have had the opportunity to try more vendors.

As a celebration of ribs and chicken, this was a failed event for me. Billy Bone's pulled pork on the other hand was definitely worth the visit. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a sourpuss or a hater walking around, but for LJ who had never been to such an event, I really had to explain that this was not the same experience for what me and my friends flock to every year. I feel sorry for Ottawaians, this is the best they can get.

Ottawa Ribfest 2009 Event Review


Best Chicken: Boss Hogs
Best Ribs: Camp 31
Best Sauce: Camp 31

Either the judging was a sham, or I didn't get the same ribs from Camp 31. Kudos to Boss Hogs, I like their work.


Teena in Toronto said...

I love rib fests!!

Chris said...

I use Billy Bones Competition Rub, Original Rub, and his XXX Cherry Rub. I also have some of his original sauce. I've never actually ever had anything Billy or his crew made (They're way up there in Saginaw, Michigan...wait....that's down there for you) but his rubs are great stuff. A lot of folks on the KCBS comp circuit use his stuff.

As far as the event, it's great that you kept an open mind going into it. Too bad about the chicken. That is often an after thought for some at contests or events.

I would never want to cook for that many people because it is hard to produce good q (for me and my abilities) on a large scale. If I am having to rush out the product and take short cuts that I normally would not do, then I'd rather not do it in the first place.

Great review.

Lord of the Wing said...

Chris - From what I've read, the Vendor I went to is not connected to the legendary Billy Bones. Sadly.