August 2010 update: The Steelers have finally confirmed what I reported here weeks ago. The 2010 Rib Fest will indeed take place over Labor Day Weekend. See their press release for the full schedule of musical acts and activities. As usual, we'll be there getting our fingers messy with sauce!
As fall edges into winter here in Pittsburgh, I've been reminiscing about one of my favourite annual traditions in this city, the Pittsburgh Rib Fest.
At the end of every summer, barbecue teams descend on Heinz Field for a long weekend of outdoor grilling and competition. While awards are handed out at the end of the weekend for the best ribs, best sauce, and so on, the festival is moreover an opportunity for barbecue lovers to wander the area and sample some great ribs from around the country. Menus vary from vendor to vendor, with the one constant being pork ribs and sides like slaw and baked beans (although you should ask before you order since it seemed like most beans came from a can). Many also sell barbecue chicken and pulled pork, while brisket, beef ribs, and corn bread can be found too. Aside from the dozen or so barbecue joints, kiosks also sell Pennsylvania country fair staples like lemonade, funnel cake, and frozen custard.
But as regular readers of this blog know, I get most excited by barbecue. So every year, I make the trek down to Heinz Field and get 3-bone rib samplers (for $5-6 each) from as many different vendors as it takes to fill me up. If you're not craving a particular regional style of pork, there are many other ways to help you decide which ribs to eat. You can go with the stand with the shortest lines, the one that has the most trophies or award banners, order from the vendor with the catchiest slogan, or perhaps support the stand where the grillmaster is also pulling double duty as MC. It's hard to go wrong.
This year Tam and I started with Bad Wolf Barbecue ("The K.C. Legend", surprisingly based out of Toronto) which combined an impressive array of award banners with some kitchy statuary.
The Bad Wolf ribs were very good without being mindblowing. I'll give them points for the sweet sauce which made for both sticky fingers and a nicely caramelized, slightly charred crust on each rib. The ribs were also quite juicy, not having been cooked to the point of falling off the bone, and maintained a lot of richness from the fat which hadn't fully rendered out of the meat. Are they beautiful, or what?
We thoroughly enjoyed every bite.
Not yet full, we wandered the length of the festival before deciding that our second stop should be at Ron's Ribs ("The King of Ribs"), based out of Mansfield, OH. A huge factor in our decision was this larger-than-life size poster of the King of Ribs himself.
There's a lot to be said for a man who can proudly don a crown on top of his chef's hat, epaulettes, a golden sash (literally proclaiming him the "King of Ribs and Sauce"), five medals (presumably for excellence in ribs and/or sauce), and white gloves (not very practical for a barbecue grillmaster), without a hint of irony. And is that a scepter he's wielding?
While waiting in line, we noticed that the King himself was manning the grill, thankfully having traded in his scepter for a pair of tongs and his crown for a King of Ribs ball cap. After purchasing our ribs, we settled down on the curb and pulled them apart with our hands. These were exactly my style. Achingly tender, lean, and with a perfect balance of sauce to smoky pork. Long live the king!
The Pittsburgh Rib Fest takes place outside Heinz Field and generally runs over the long weekend which contains the first Pittsburgh Panthers home football game in late August or early September. Check back on this page in the summer of 2010 for an update on the upcoming festival's exact schedule.
Similar events periodically take place across the country. The Kansas City Barbeque Society keeps an excellent searchable list of events they sponsor on their website.