Hold up – I know you’re already asking “didn’t he JUST review Ottawa Ribfest?” Absolutely – last month, Ottawa Ribfest took over the downtown area like a 1950’s magician, appearing in a puff of smoke. But, mayor Jim Watson, always in favor of heightening the Ottawa festival scene, gave the thumbs up for a second event, the Capital Ribfest, nestled on the front lawn of City Hall, snugly set between roughly 8,000,000 Pokemon Go players.
I realize that for some of you, this may seem like BBQ overkill, and if you feel that way … well, we’re not friends, because there’s no such thing as BBQ overkill. There’s something about the primal feel of cooking over a fire, with fresh hardwood smoke, carefully selected seasonings, and a lake of BBQ sauce that just makes my inner carnivore’s monkey wriggle. Yesterday we smuggled beef jerky from Rosie’s in Vermont into an Ottawa Champions game, and I immediately turned from Jekyll to Meat Hyde. (Not to be confused with Raw Hyde, I do have limits!)
After a morning doctor’s appointment, where I got word that all was good in the hood, I made my way downtown. Carefully threading my way through the young adults chasing Squirtles and Pikachus (honest to god!), I eyeballed the options.
Capital Ribfest has been hyping their event on Twitter for months, and has taken careful heed to note that they are different from the Ottawa Ribfest. This is for true BBQ pitmasters, the kind of techniquey folks who want to show off their wares – so they claim. Having spent time travelling through some of the most prestigious BBQ regions in the USA, my expectations are always sky high.
Going around 2:30pm, there were no lines anywhere, which pretty much gave me the pick of the litter, and gave me a chance to view them all. Had I seen any brisket, I’d have been immediately sold on that booth – so I was let down that I didn’t happen to catch any. I did see at least one place offering beef ribs, so I may double back tomorrow and make it a point to stop in – but for today, I got roped in by the two words that were guaranteed to get my motor running: Kansas City.
Kansas City might be my favorite place in North America. It’s got a rich history, from the jazz music playing on every street corner, to the breathtaking Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame (which nearly moved both my wife and I to tears at points), to their deep appreciation of all things BBQ. Kansas City isn’t known for any particular style, as it acts as a central hub for all the biggest regions, from the Carolinas, to Tennessee, Alabama, and even Texas. Beef is a big player, especially their world class burnt ends, but honestly, they do everything well! Sauces are usually rich, tomato based blends, with a hint of vinegar. Spices are liberal, and plentiful. So, with Bad Wolf Barbecue claiming to be from Kansas City, I dove in, because success on the Kansas City BBQ scene does not come easily.
I’m on vacation, but my wife is still working, and she asked me to bring her home some chicken – so I opted to get a full platter of ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and beans, which would allow me to run the gamut and judge appropriately. The vendors were quick to deliver, and within a minute, I was handed a box that was positively overflowing. I gotta say, even though there was zero chance I was going to come close to eating the entire thing in one sitting, I do like the portions!
I tasted a piece of chicken first, before putting the rest aside for Emily. It was fantastic – especially given how hard it is to cook breast meat properly. It had remained juicy right through, with skin that was easy to bite through. There was an awesome smokiness that didn’t overpower the bird, and the sauce complimented it well.
Next, the ribs. I didn’t ask, but it’s clear these were spares, judging by the giant bones that don’t curve at the end. I always prefer spare ribs to baby backs, so I was happy to get these. They’re usually meatier, and because of the added fat and tougher muscle, it takes longer to cook – but that extra time really adds to the tenderness. My first observation was that the membrane was very much intact. I covered this at length during the Ottawa Ribfest last month, but this is completely unacceptable from anyone who wants to be taken seriously at all. Once you know the technique, a paper towel and a spoon gets that removed in all of 15 seconds. To leave that in place is straight up laziness, and none of the top rated barbecue places in Kansas City would ever accept it. It’s indigestable, flavorless, hard to chew, and prevents proper smoke penetration. I cannot stress enough how badly the ribfest coordinators need to put pressure on their vendors to eliminate the membrane.
The flavor of the ribs was good – but I was shocked at just how much bone to meat ratio there was. I can picture a defensive farmer telling the other pigs “hey, he’s just big boned, leave him alone!” – and they’d be right. Unfortunately, this meant I was left with two of my four bones have virtually no meat on them at all, and the other two being ok. The sauce was rich, and sweet, cooked into the meat just enough to get some nice caramelization going. The ribs were slightly undercooked, so they didn’t tear away from the bone cleanly – probably about 5 degrees off target. Still, they were juicy, tender, and good. 15 more minutes in the smoker likely would have made these championship level.
The pulled pork was good, with a nice mix of strands with some chunks, virtually no fat, and some bark. I didn’t get a strong smoke flavor from it, making me wonder if it had done the bulk of the cooking in a different apparatus. It could have stood some help from more sauce, as the pork wasn’t standing out on its own – making it the weakest of the three meats.
While I can’t give them top marks for either of their pork offerings, I can say that their chicken is legitimately worth going out of your way for. It may be sacrilege to a “ribfest” to be seeking out a completely different species – but taste buds need to be challenged, and they do a mighty fine smoked bird.
Address: 110 Laurier Ave W (July 28-31)