Champs, rookies prepare for Smoke-filled ribs battleWritten by Michael Stainbrook | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Vendors will serve ribs throughout Smoke on the Water — Ribs for the Red Cross presented by Columbia Gas of Ohio, but they are hoping to save some of the best for last.
The three-day festival will wrap up with the Judge’s Choice contest, where local personalities will taste and rate each vendor’s ribs. The winners take home a trophy, bragging rights and exposure that might lead to increased business.
The panel of judges comprises two politicians, six media members and four other area professionals. Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, K100 personality Gary Shores and a Toledo Mud Hen will all be on hand to help determine the ultimate grill master.
The judges will convene for the tasting at 3 p.m. Aug. 1, just behind the stage at Promenade Park. Winners will be announced an hour later.
The judges are given a sample of each of the 10 vendors’ ribs and are asked to make a decision based on taste, sauce, texture and appearance. Once each judge has tasted each variety, the field is cut to six and the process repeats. The top three vendors are then chosen from the narrowed field and the judges get one last taste of the top contenders’ masterpieces. That’s a total of 19 samples in an hour. But local sports radio personality Norm Wamer is not concerned.
“Eating has never been a problem,” he said with a laugh. Wamer enjoys making his own ribs and worked seven years at Damon’s Grill. This is his first year judging at Smoke on the Water.
“I’ll just go and enjoy it with an open mind because there’s a lot of different ways to get to the end product,” he said.
But even with an open mind, vendors should expect judges to adhere to the basic dogma of ribbing.
“You look for tenderness, whether they’ll fall off the bone,” Wamer said. “Generally, the slower you cook them, the more tender they will be.”
One vendor who touts a number of trophies is two-time defending Judge’s Choice champion and self-coined “regional favorite” Big Moe’s BBQ & Catering from Kalamazoo, Mich. Moe Pritchett employs a generations-old family recipe for his barbecue sauce to court the judges.
“We do taste testings every week,” Pritchett said. “It’s amazing when I look in people’s eyes every time they taste it.”
Pritchett and his grilling team keep a special eye on the ribs designated for the judges. Even with the sauce, a little extra pampering can’t hurt, he reasons.
“You have to manicure them, make sure that they’re the best you’ve cooked for the day,” Pritchett said.
People’s Choice voting also takes place throughout the weekend. AJ’s Doolittles won the honor last year, and owner Brad Jennings has noted a spike in business. His competitive edge is his dry rub technique, which he keeps top secret.
“I’ve got a certain way I do them, but there’s two people that know how to do it,” he said.
The field also includes four newcomers. John Coulston of Twist & Shout Family Restaurant in Carey would like to claim a trophy at Smoke on the Water, but publicity is his primary goal. Like Pritchett, Coulston puts his money where his sauce is.
“This guy I bought out, we compared our sauce to his sauce. No comparison. I wouldn’t eat his sauce,” he said.
When the smoke disperses, only one vendor will win over the hearts and stomachs of the judges. Pritchett was confident enough to give advice to his grilling foes.
“Use my sauce, cook the way we do and you might have a better chance of winning,” he said with a laugh.
“Every time we’re in a competition, we want to win. It’s just like sports.”
Six Toledo-area vendors will join four other out-of-town restaurants to sell their ribs at Smoke on the Water.
AJ’s Doolittles Sports Bar and Restaurant, Lambertville, Mich.
After last year’s “People’s Choice” competition, the owners of AJ’s Doolittles had to come back, said owner Brad Jennings.
“All that hard work, it makes you feel like it pays off when people are happy with your product,” he said.
The restaurant was founded in 2003 and along with ribs serves steaks, seafood, sandwiches, burgers and more. Rib dinners range from $11 to $17.
“You name it, we’ve got it,” Jennings said.
Baldy-Q Rib Shack, Swanton
Baldy-Q will enter the event for the first time this year to gain publicity. The restaurant opened in January, but before that its owner traveled around selling ribs for two years, said owner Tye “Baldy” Hightower.
The restaurant’s specialty is southern-style ribs that use a Memphis-style dry rub, he said. Rib prices range from $11.50 to $19.50.
“We are traditionally a noncorporation barbecue restaurant. We make everything in house from scratch on a daily basis,” said Hightower, who has been a chef for 30 years.
Famous Dave’s, Toledo
Famous Dave’s, which has 192 locations around the country, has been in the Toledo area for about four years, said Matthew Kinner, general manager.
Kinner said he enjoys the atmosphere at Smoke on the Water and will continue to go back to the event.
“It’s a great time. We do very good with sales,” he said, adding that he enjoys working with the Red Cross.
The restaurant’s prices range from $5 to $20 for ribs, which have a seasoning and special rub, as well as “zesty” barbecue sauce, Kinner said.
P & D’s Sports Page Bar & Grill, Toledo
P & D’s has competed in other events such as chili cook-offs, but this will be the first time the restaurant has participated in Smoke on the Water.
“We’ve got good ribs, they’ve been telling us for years that we should do it,” said Pat Smith, one of the restaurant’s owners.
“The sauce makes the ribs different,” Smith said.
The restaurant, which has been open for 12 years, also serves crab legs and steak. Rib prices range from $8 to $13.
“We’ve got a huge, huge menu,” Smith said.
Sidelines Sports Eatery and Pub, Lambertville and Toledo
Sidelines has participated in all three Smoke on the Water festivals, and co-owner Eric Sitter said his restaurant will continue to participate “as long as they do it.”
“The people at the Red Cross work really hard on it. I’m in contact with them year-round,” he said.
The restaurant uses baby back ribs from Chicago and a special braising technique to make their ribs tender and moist, Sitter said.
Rib prices range from $10 to $19. Sidelines has a locations on Laskey Road and Mellwood Avenue, across from the Huntington Center Downtown, and on Secor Road in Lambertville.
Texas Roadhouse, Toledo
Texas Roadhouse takes three days to make ribs, cooking them for nine hours to make them tender, said Scott Schraeger, managing partner for the restaurant.
This is the second year Texas Roadhouse has participated in Smoke on the Water. Schraeger said he enjoys the atmosphere with other ribbers and customers eating and enjoying themselves.
“We thought the Red Cross would be a good thing to get involved with and being down on the water is always a nice atmosphere,” he said.
Texas Roadhouse has been in Toledo for about eight and a half years and also specializes in steak. Rib dinner prices range from about $12 to $17, Schraeger said.