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BBQ Tour Stop #19 - Best of the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off

September 14, 2009
On the way to Sparks and the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, Chris and I learned just how far the truck would travel after the uncomfortable “ding ding” of the low fuel bell goes off. Looking at the map, you would think that a somewhat major intersection would have a gas station but you would be wrong. The GPS said 43 miles to the closest station and we were well below the ¼ tank mark. “Turn off the A/C, slow down to 55” was running through my head knowing that a call to AAA might shortly commence. We squeaked out 202 miles and put 22 gallons in the tank and swore to not push our luck any more.

Driving across Wyoming felt familiar, as it had only been a couple weeks since the Wyoming State BBQ Championship and Bluegrass Festival held in Worland. When we finally hit I-80 at Rawlins, you could see the weather start acting up. It really blew the trailer around until we hit the Utah border. When you have so much time on the road, conversations tend to get creative like “how far would a wind turbine fly in a tornado?” We talked about anything to help make the hours go by.

Getting closer to Sparks, we found a Blue Beacon Truck Wash to clean the bugs off the truck and trailer. We always want to look pretty pulling into an event. We were surprised at all the “hippie” vehicles and old busses on the road until we remembered that the Burning Man celebration is also held on Labor Day weekend. There is nothing like going out to find “love” in the wilderness without showers or running water. Wait a minute; we get to do that most every weekend at KCBS events!!

It was great pulling onto Victorian Avenue in Sparks. The cooking teams or “Ribbers” as they are called were mostly set up. We passed by the Desperado’s BBQ & Rib Co. cooking area, which was right across from Butch’s Smack your Lips BBQ. Butch was last year’s people’s choice champion. Last year, we were in front of the Memphis Championship BBQ / 17th Street Bar & Grill location but this year we swapped places with the Southern Living Tour. We dropped the trailer and checked into the John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest before set-up on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning was beautiful in Sparks so Chris and I went to pick up supplies for the six-day event. We bought 96 pounds of hamburger, 90+ pounds of chicken, 12 strip steaks and 2 cases of water. We wanted to make sure we could accommodate the throngs of people that visit the little city of Sparks on the biggest weekend of the year.

While we were waiting for Smokeless Tobacco to put up their BIG blue tent, we stopped by Checkered Pig BBQ to see our old friends Tommy and Lisa Houston. We visited the Memphis Championship BBQ booth and were re-acquainted with a couple of friends, Steven “Big Daddy” and the “Legend” Mike Mills. Steven is with Sin City Smokers and is also pit master for Memphis. Mike Mills was there with his daughter, Amy, promoting their book – Peace, Love and Barbecue. I forgot to bring along my copy of the book for signatures again. We got pictures instead. You can tell that Mike is a true pit master because he has a thermometer, pen and plastic fork for samples in his shirt pocket.

This is the 21st year for Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, which was started over a handshake between five cooking teams who probably had no clue exactly where Sparks, NV was. Sparks is right outside of Reno. Reno has a funny saying, “Reno is so close to hell, you can see Sparks”.

This was “lucky 21” because Saturday night had the largest crowd attendance of all times. The 24 invited ribbers cooked over 100 tons of ribs during the six-day event. Rib teams hailed from all over the country and each brought something familiar from home to serve. Checkered Pig from Virginia brought hushpuppies, the Memphis Championship BBQ team brought fried pickles and Joey’s Texas Thunder BBQ brought brisket. I’m not sure if the Aussom Aussies brought BBQ kangaroo but that might have been the only food item missing along Victorian Avenue.

The event is also a Rib contest and I have been lucky enough to judge these past two years. The judging panel is made up of a diverse group from media personalities, food and wine writers and a couple of Chef’s to the Most Dangerous Man on Earth, Ken Shamrock. He owns the Lion’s Den Gym in Reno and was on hand to judge.

Unlike the KCBS format, there are two sets of preliminary rounds where judges get to sample half of the entries and select their top five ribs. From there, the top ten entries move forward to the finals where I judged. Head Judge, Alan Zemen, passed along a helpful tidbit to the newest judges, “If you could have just one rib for the rest of your life, which one would you choose.” While there was no talking in the judging area, the consensus in the hallway outside was that one rib really stood out in the categories of taste, doneness and appearance. We all had to wait for the awards ceremony the next afternoon to see if we were right.

Since the judges are asked to not sample ribs during the event, I was anxious to hit the rib village Sunday night after the demonstrations and packing up. Each teams’ ribs were labeled but after the fourth one on my plate, I forgot who’s ribs belonged to who and just enjoyed a filling meal. Some of the people we met over the long event had homemade score sheets and were serious judges for the people’s choice voting.

While the winners of the event take home the $7,500 grand prize, bragging rights and future rib sales are the ultimate reward. Bone Daddy’s, last year’s champion, ended up with second place this year but did win the People’s Choice award. The consensus judging favorite this year was Desperado BBQ & Rib Co., who had the odds stacked against them, coming into the event. Lee Rice, leader of the team, went down with an undisclosed illness at the beginning of the event and his son-in-law flew in to lead the team to victory. It was touching to see how emotional this win was and watch the winners marching down the street holding their trophies high above their heads. They bounded into their areas and the crowds cheered knowing they were in the right line for some of the best BBQ in the country!

Before we were all packed up, we rounded up Kristina who took care of us like we were family at the event. She placed the ending checkmark on the back of the trailer for us. I must say everyone at the Nugget including the Ascuaga family (John, Michonne and Stephen), the long-time staff at Rosies Café and the young man driving the shuttle van treated us like family. They made our stay one that we look forward to visiting again.

Chris and I are fortunate to travel the country and promote the best BBQ organization out there. We are always humbled when people say that we have the best job out there. While we agree, it is not all fun and games but the positives make up for any negatives. This six-day event saw us passing out tens of thousands of Tour booklets, Tabasco Chipotle packets, Scott Shop Towel samples, Weber Gourmet Burger samples, and Tums Smoothies to everyone who passed our stage and tent area.

Mike (and Chris) Peters
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