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Ribs are one of those foods that somehow manage to promote competition. I don’t know whether it’s the primeval sensation of stripping the meat from the bone with your teeth, with your fingers covered in sauce, but there’s definitely an element of one-upmanship that goes into relaying stories about them. There’s the eternal debate about which style of BBQ is better, since different regions in the US developed different styles. There’s the question of which cut is the best to use. Do you want back ribs or side ribs or do you just want to go for the pulled pork instead.
Most viscerally, the competition amongst rib eaters seems to come down to the question of “who has the best ribs” which quickly becomes a taunting “I have eaten better ribs than you.” It is worth noting that I think that this is a particularly male thing. I know a number of women who have an opinion on the subject, but they don’t seem to come out with it unbidden.
I can tell you about the worst ribs I ever had. I tried to cook them last weekend. They were a couple of side cut racks that were purchased because they were on sale. I tried to cook them in a slow oven at around 300 for three hours and then jack them up to 400 for basting, but they did not turn out. They were tough. They were cartilaginous. They were gosh darn near inedible. I don’t know if it was the rub or the sauce that I whipped up, or whether the glazing took too long and left the heat out of the oven, but I have learned one thing: My ribs are not very good. Probably next time I’ll pay attention to whatever Michael Ruhlman says in his books.
If you’re like me, and you’ve experienced this kind of shocking realization that you don’t have what it takes rib-wise, then you’re in luck. Toronto Ribfest is on today and tomorrow out at Centennial Park in Etobicoke.
I hadn’t actually been to Ribfest before, or Centennial Park for that matter. I was more than a little surprised by the size of the thing. It has been just dry enough this summer that the wind was blowing sweeping clouds of dust across the parking lots on the way in. The stands that they serve the ribs out of all have marquees displaying the various accolades the BBQ teams have won in past years. Oddly enough, this has the effect of making the line of BBQ stands look like clapboard storefronts in the Dakotas ca. Al Swearengen, which, with the wind blowing as it was put one in mind of tumbleweeds.
Unsurprisingly, Ribfest is well attended by a cross section of Toronto’s inhabitants, from well dressed twenty somethings to middle aged folks wearing two tones of plaid and black sandals with black socks. What I didn’t realize going into it was how large it was going to be. You hear Ribfest and you think, “I’m gonna get me some ribs.” There were 16 different stands of ribs on offer.
Theoretically, I was there to look at the selection of ribs and other delicious pork based treats and offer some kind of coverage pertaining to pairing the beer and food available to you. This is not beyond my capability. The difficulty is that the kind of thought that goes into beer and food pairing is hard to maintain in an environment with a stiff wind, 95 degree sunshine, constant wood and charcoal smoke blowing in your eyes and a huge stereo system that blasts ZZ Top’s La Grange (a- haw haw haw haw).
The thing that I’ll mention is this. All of these BBQ stands are competitive and they’ve all won so many trophies over the years at the various ribfests in North America that you can’t really go wrong. What I will point out to you is that you may enjoy different stands based on some of the variables that go with cooking any kind of ribs.
If you’re looking for tender, I think your best bet is Crabby’s, who seem to be based out of Scarborough. They’re using a side cut rib, which means that there’s a slightly higher percentage of fat and that the bones only get through about half of the slab. They’re fall off the bone tender, which means you’re going to want a fork. Their sauce is not a particularly sweet one and you can sort of pick up the garlic and onion powder and black pepper. It’s got a hint of what I think might be tamarind sweetness in there with a little vinegar acidity.
If you’re looking for something with a little more texture, that isn’t going to just melt away, you probably want Texas Rangers. They’re using a back rib, so you have a little more purchase and you can actually pick the thing up without making yourself into some kind of deranged sauce golem. The serving I had had the silverskin still attached to the reverse side. Theoretically, that’s a no-no. If you look at a recipe online, they will tell you to remove that. These guys know what they’re doing, though, and it provides a nice little crunch. Their sauce has a sort of honeyed sweetness to it, which covers some depth of flavour. Also, their coleslaw was good. Creamy slaw.
Incidentally, you should know that there aren’t a huge number of beers to choose from. There are some MolsonCoors offerings and there are some Mill Street offerings. Specifically, the Organic Lager and the Stock Ale. If you’re going to go with Ribs, I think you want the Stock Ale. It has some complexity that isn’t available in the other beers on offer; some fruity ester and a little tiny bit of spice. Not enough to intrude, but enough to refresh between bites. I think that for the purpose of sitting in the sunshine and eating BBQ, this is an underrated choice.
Special mention goes out to Gator BBQ for providing an excellent pulled pork sandwich. If you’re looking for pulled pork, that’s where you want to go. The sauce has some citrus sweetness to it, and they’ve got a really good hot sauce to go with it. You remember I was saying about situations where Coors Light works? On a day where you’ve got 95 degree weather with sunshine and a pork sandwich loaded up with hot sauce is one of those.
It looks to me like this is an excellent Canada Day activity and it runs until Monday. Get out there and get some vitamin oink, won’t you? Also, it should be mentioned that if you take the TTC home from Ribfest with your face covered with BBQ sauce, no one on the TTC will bother to tell you. We are polite, we Canadians.