I have a fever. And the only prescription is more BBQ.
From the time I was a kid, I loved the flavor of the grill. Saturday nights were hamburger night at our house, and my father was in charge of manning the grill. Most of the time, it was the only meal he cooked in any given week; living up to traditional cooking stereotypes. Man make fire! Fire cook meat!
My barbecue addiction really went into overdrive in my late 20’s when I realized there was a whole other world of preparation I didn’t even know about. I always figured that BBQ was just throwing meat on a grill, slathering it was sauce, and going to it. And, in Ottawa, that’s exactly how it was done.
With the rise of the Food Network, social media, and various other outlets that have connected the world, did I learn about smoking. Low and slow. Just pairing those words sounds sexy. I can’t even say it without sounding like Barry White. Pairing sweet fruit woods in a bed of coals, allowing meat to indirectly cook, slowly developing a caramel colored crust while keeping all of its moisture internally was like showing me the naughty underbelly of the food world. Once my eyes were open, there was no turning back.
My father-in-law is an enthusiast, and was well into the game by the time I met him. I learned through osmosis, and after a profitable run of poker about two years ago, I bought a Green Egg – the crown jewel of slow cookers.
I take BBQ seriously, and I have high expectations. So when the smell of smoke overtook the downtown core this morning, I knew what was happening for lunch for the rest of my week.
A co-worker and I headed down to Sparks street – and while I wish I could say there was a deeply scientific approach to selecting the right ribs to try on opening day, it came down to the fact that Bibbs was right on the corner of Metcalfe and Sparks, which happened to be where I entered.
The lines were reasonable, especially given that I arrived at noon on the nose. I watched as the various staff members did their jobs. The prep cooks were unwrapping rack after rack of frozen cryovaced ribs, seasoning them and sending them to the grill. I was shocked to see that they weren’t removing the membrane – the layer of silver skin across the back. The removal is essential for ribs, because while eating the membrane won’t hurt you, it also can’t be digested. Further, it prevents the smoke from penetrating the bottom of the rib, taking away so much of critical flavor base.
It took about 10 minutes for us to get to the front and place our orders. Side ribs and pulled pork, the quintessential pairing of swine on swine affection. I will choose side ribs over baby backs every time for a multitude of reasons. Side ribs are meatier, so you’re getting more bang for your buck. Because they’re a far tougher cut than baby backs, they require a lot more time and patience, giving you a strong indication about the quality of the chef you’re dealing with. And finally, because they’re a dollar cheaper. Pocket change, yo! Still, if you’re a fan of the baby backs, they claim to be the only vendors selling them. I’ll make it a point to validate this tomorrow.
The meat is cooked over cherry wood inside a commercial onsite smoker. Cherry is an excellent choice for pork, because it’s got a really nice light smoke flavor that is complementary to any sauce and spice blend you’d use. The cheerful cashier noted that cherry “is the difference” between them and the other teams. Duly noted.
Once back at the office, I dove right in. The preparation was honestly near perfect. There was a beautiful deep pink smoke ring around the exterior. The ribs had been hit with a slightly salty, gently spiced rub, and then glazed with their sweet sticky tomato based sauce. I found it a bit sweet for my taste, but Ottawa’s more of a sugary region in general, so they know the market. The ribs themselves were full and very meaty, and the fat had been well rendered and wasn’t noticeable. Most important, they weren’t falling off the bone, but the bite went clean through; a sign that the meat had reached the ideal internal temperature.
The pulled pork scored just as high for me. All the fatty bits had been thoughtfully picked out, and I was left with nice stringy pieces of succulent pork shoulder. They were even good enough to ensure I got some of the bark, which is like candy.
Really, the only negative I can hit these guys with is the membrane – which is pictured here. I managed to pick it away, but for the sake of really getting the flavor right through the pork from top to bottom, I wish they’d take the extra few seconds to rip it off and do it the right way.
Strong effort, and knowing the competition, it’s possible these come away as my favorite of the week. Stay tuned for more.
Address: Sparks and Metcalfe (June 22-26, 2016)