Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Judging Competition Barbecue: Just Don't Lick Your Fingers

So how does this sound? Sitting on your ass for two straight hours eating some of the best barbecue that regional competition teams have to offer, and then following that up with a couple hours of beer drinking and listing to some live blues music. The correct answer is, "holy shit yes, where do I sign up?" And the correct answer to that my hungry friends is to become a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judge. KCBS is the world's largest barbecue society and sanctions over 450 events across the country each year. Chances are, if you want an invite to compete in some of country's most coveted barbecue contests, you need to win some local KCBS competitions along the way.

Requirements to become a judge are this: you need to be over 16 and you must love barbecue. Sounds simple, but trust me cowpokers, it's a long way from loving barbecue to understanding the techniques, flavors and textures that go into making award deserving food.

Much like you might have seen on the television competition shows, entries are judged in three categories: appearance, taste and texture, and there are numerous rules to follow in each of these three. For example, appearance includes the consistency of portion size and evenness of any applied sauce, but surprisingly you are not allowed to judge the garnish in the box or smoke ring on the meat. For taste you are judging the flavor only; how the spice rub, sauce and smoke all blend together to create a pleasing bite. Texture, which many people confuse with taste, is all about the tenderness and doneness of the meat, for example, the "pull" of the ribs away from the bone or how well the slices of brisket stay together.

The four KCBS categories that judges are required to participate in are: chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. Many competitions will also include additional categories such as side dishes or deserts, but judging those categories are optional after the mandatory four are completed. Judges are grouped at tables of six, and so each entry must contain a minimum of six portions. Judges must base their scores on everything that is submitted in the box, for example, a team can provide both chicken thighs and wings in their box, but a judge must taste both and consider them as a single entry. Sauce on any entry in any category is optional, although most teams choose to include some.

Teams are permitted to submit any cut of chicken, although most teams go with thighs. Most judges consider thighs to be the best tasting cut due to the fat content and how well they lend themselves to low and slow barbecue cooking. Wings are often submitted along with thighs and legs are not an uncommon entry.

Ribs must be pork ribs, either baby back or some cut of spare ribs. Not much variation in this category.

Competition pork usually means butt, the upper or lower portion of the pig shoulder. Like the chicken category, teams get creative here and often submit more than one type of presentation. The standard entry is either pulled or chopped pork, but teams will also submit slices, cubes and whole muscles to give judges some variety.

Beef brisket entries are presented last. All teams serve slices, and generally adjust the thickness according to the tenderness of their final entry; thicker slices if overdone and thinner slices if underdone. Most teams will also include cubed burnt ends in their box and many times these are the highlight of the entry.

Outside the judges' tent Oinktoberfest 2014.
I took my certification class on the opening night of Rochester's Roc City Rib Fest in May, and got my first taste (literally) of KCBS judging at both the Crossborder Blues, Brews and Que event in June, and Oinktoberfest in September. Both events were knee slapping, nipple pinching fun, but there is still so much to learn!

Here are some observations. Entries come at you fast, and you need to take every criteria into consideration quickly, especially when judging appearance. Although there is 30 minutes set aside for each category, you don't have a lot of time to judge each entry. You must pace yourself and be careful how much to eat of each entry. Do the math dumb dumbs, six entries per category and four categories to judge. That's 24 pieces of meat you will be eating, so limiting yourself to one or two bites of each is a must. Barbecue just seems to attract good, friendly people, and experienced judges always welcome questions and have great stories to tell. And as much as I gush about how great a few beers are after judging, the truth is, it's hard to pound them down the 'ole gullet with so much 'que in there.

So let's sum this up pig honkers. Barbecue good. Smoking your own barbecue better. Judging competition barbecue great! You can get more info on the KCBS website here.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (Buffalo)

Review: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (Buffalo)

Okay, let me just say upfront that any barbecue joint that allows me in the back room to get a look at their smokers is probably gonna get a decent review. Hey, I have zero culinary kitchen cred or a reputation to protect, so I am open to influences (or bribes) by a great staff and pretty women, in addition to great barbecue.

So a special thank you goes out to Kitchen Manager Seth and our server Kallie for giving me a quick behind the scenes tour of Dinosaur's four mammoth smokers. Dinosaur is running two smokers that use natural gas to keep the pit temperature regulated and to provide a more moist heat for tender cuts of meat like their chicken. They also have two smokers that run strictly on wood as the heat and smoke source for the heavier beef and pork cuts. They are using all hickory wood in all four smokers and run them pretty much 24/7.

Okay smoke junkies, now on to the review.

Barbecue wings done right!
Getting a great smoked chicken wing can be a tricky thing, with many restaurants overpowering the actual flavor of the smoke with too many sweet sauces and char-grilling. Dinosaur however, banged them out perfectly with their Jumbo BBQ Wings appetizer. The texture of the wings were just right with a good chew and moist meat, and a beautiful color from the wood smoke. They were finished in a knee-slappin' sauce that was sweetened just enough with a hint of honey and a bit of garlic that gave them a nice finishing spice kick on the ol' palette. Unfortunately, they didn't offer the wing sauce as a bottle option on the table because we would have eaten it on everything. They do finish the wings on the grill before serving, but it was not overdone and preserved the integrity of the smoke and chicken flavors.

Dinosaur on Franklin.
At most places when you order pulled pork you usually get a heap of crap that looks like shredded mush, but don't expect that from Dinosaur. Wow, actual pork that looks freshly pulled and not massacred by a pissed off line cook and sitting in a warming dish for hours. The pork came with a spoonful of sauce on top and my first impression was that the sauce was a bit too sweet. I'm not sure if Dino is injecting their pork with some juices or brining the butts, but the sweetness of just the pork itself was enough for me. The texture and taste were done really well, and the meat didn't need sauce to stay moist. Because it was actually pulled, there were generous size pieces that you could grab and actually chew. Beautiful pieces of bark and pink color on the inside portions. Just a suggestion that you may want to order the pulled pork without sauce and take in all the great flavor of the meat and smoke first, and add the table sauces for more sweetness to your own taste.

Family Stylin' BBQ Platter.
Next up was the portion of ribs that came with our Family Stylin' BBQ platter. I personally think that ribs are the hardest cut of barbecue to get right and even harder to get consistently good results. So okay, the ribs we had that night at Dinosaur were average for me. The taste they got on them from the spice rub, complimented by the smoke and house sauce was good, but the texture of some of the ribs just didn't live up to the taste. I'm not a snob who will tell you that "fall off the bone" ribs are overdone, in fact, I like them that way, but a few of the ribs were way overdone while some of the rib bark was just too hard. This isn't unusual for ribs when you go to a restaurant later in the day, and I don't think it should be a reflection of how good a barbecue place actually is. It happens.

Fried green tomatoes were a hit!
Let me quickly touch on a few other tastings from the night. I did not taste them, but the girls swear that the Original Fried Green Tomatoes appetizer surprised them in a very tasty good way. I love my barbecue chicken, and the leg and thigh I had were just okay. I suggest the Wango Tango sauce to go along with it when you are there. The brisket was just not good that night. Sorry friends, but the texture was way off for what this cut of beef should be and the taste was bland.

Beside the back stage tour, here are a few other quick things that Dinosaur does right:

Beer selections. Genesee Beer, Genny Cream Ale, and Schmidt's. This is what belongs in a true barbecue joint my friends. I didn't see this selection (that they affectionately call "My Father's Fridge") until we wandered up to the bar after dinner, so had a couple selections off their pretty extensive beer list that includes many local and regional brews with my meal. I'm heading back for a bucket of Schmidt's though at soon as possible.

Turkey. I do not see their smoked turkey sandwich on the menu, but I have had this at various events around town where Dinosaur was serving up. Do not pass up a chance to have this when you come across them at a local event. They usually are a vendor at the Taste of Buffalo and the BBQ Blues Bash downtown each year. Check this sandwich out!

Atmosphere and live music. If you know me, you know that my idea of barbecue culture includes great music and a good time with friends. There are many roadside barbecue joints that serve up great food, but sometimes the night calls for a place that just gives a better social vibe to hang. Dinosaur has this. Just a relaxed, friendly place with a local feel that I will certainly hang out at more often. Next time, we will venture beyond the standard barbecue fare and dive into what else their menu has to offer. I'm sure it will be worthwhile.