Living in downtown Ottawa can lead to a pretty awesome series of annual festival and event traditions. There's Jazzfest, Fringe, Canada Day, Bluesfest, and so on. But in the the past decade or so, one event has become a pretty integral part of creating a Summer worthy of remembrance in Ottawa. That event is the Ottawa Ribfest on Sparks Street. Basically, about a dozen competitive "ribbers" from Canada and the US line up the pedestrian-only street and fill Downtown with smoky meat awesome.
In this post, I'll be giving you my account of the various porcine treats this year's event had to offer. I went a little more often than I usually do, like every day, but my girl was nearly 9 months pregnant! What was I supposed to do? So, let's go day by day.
The first night of the Ribfest was probably the least involved one for me. I had to work the night shift and had less than an hour to eat.
The first sampling came from the rib stand closest to home (go figure), the Blazin' Big Rig out of Chatham, Ontario. Kari got the standard "Vegetarian's Nightmare" plate of ribs, pulled pork and chicken with sides of beans and slaw. Me, I was intrigued by the Jumbo Turkey Drumstick. Luckily, the boys working the grill had an extra one that'd been left on the heat too long so I got two for the price of one! I also got the sides of beans and slaw.
|Blazin' Big Rig|
So, I thought it was a really tasty little bit of fowl and something unusual to kick off the Ribsfest. As I mentioned, I had two legs, one cooked "normally" and the other kind of "overcooked", but when you leave a sauce-slathered piece of meat on the heat, it creates a kind of crunchy coating of caramelized sauce that can't be beat. So, I ate the overcooked one and kept the other for later use. Verdict? Well, it was dry from being on the heat so long, but still really flavourful. The sauce was good, but not great. The beans were really tasty as well, but I would have better later on. The slaw, on the other hand, was exactly how I want slaw to be: creamy, tangy and crunchy; best of the festival by far.
|Turkey Leg and sides from Blazin' Big Rig - also serves to club seals in a pinch|
If Wednesday was the tentative first step, Thursday was a full-on jump into the pool. Kari and I wandered around, unsure where to engage in our porcine goodness, but she managed to grab a twisty fried potato treat. We ran into to many of our friends, including my good friend Siobhan who, as a born-again carnivore, was enjoying her first foray into Ribfest and brought her three kids along to enjoy the ride. It was a lot of fun watching the kids' faces light up over ribs and corn on the cob and the frantic crowds. All in all, a good time was had all around.
As for the ribs, we stopped at one of the less busy stands, Sticky Fingers. I only got a half rack, I wasn't in the mood for beans and slaw. The ribs were really well done, exactly the right texture between solid (which can sometimes mean 'tough') and fall of the bone (which too often means 'mush'). Unfortunately, there wasn't enough sauce on the ribs to get a really good idea of its flavour. I've noticed that some of the ribbers would have big bottles of sauce with a squeeze pump so you can load up your pork with as much sauce as you want. Unfortunately Sticky Fingers weren't one of them. Which is too bad, because from the little I could taste, it was a pretty decent, tomato-ey sauce. Oh well...
|Half rack from Sticky Fingers|
Friday was a quick trip through the festival for pulled pork as we were trying to get to Confederation Park in time to get a good spot to see Willie Nelson. Once again, we were looking for the shortest line, which we didn't really find, so we settled on Bone Daddy's for pulled pork sammiches.
This is pulled pork the way it was meant to be: moist, greasy, smoky and loaded with sauce. It's hard to review food when it's nearly perfect since there's not much to say! I will give extra kudos on the sauce though, because all too often, the sauce used on pulled pork is "dumbed down" for public consumption and made less spicy and overly sweet. Luckily in this case, the sauce was the right mix of both. I was highly satisfied with this choice! And really, what says Summer more than an outdoor country show with BBQ on your face?
|Mmmmmm, grease puddle...|
Sometimes, a weird serendipity comes along to make your whole Ribfest experience sing. In this case, the decision to meet friends at noon while it was pissing rain led to being able to access one of the rib stands that usually is impossible to get to without waiting for 2 hours in line. There are two stands that always seem to be in the most high traffic area of Ribfest between Bank and O'Connor Streets and are always packed with people: Camp 31 and Silver Bullet. I'd tried Camp 31 in the past (and it wasn't as revelatory as I'd been expecting, but that was mainly due a lack of sauce) and really wanted to give Silver Bullet a go.
|Sparks St. in full porcine swing|
It was the noon hour and I decided to basically skip breakfast so I could have lots of room to pig out. With that in mind, I got the ribs and pulled pork combo with sides from Silver Bullet. First, the bad news: the coleslaw was, unfortunately, prepared in the same style as that pale green slaw from KFC that I dreaded eating as a kid. Needless to say, I didn't eat all of it. Another downside was that the ribs were served with membrane still attached, a BBQ no-no if there ever was one. It's basically like eating paper.
Now the good news: The ribs, other than the annoyance of the membrane, were PERFECT! They were cooked exactly right and the sauce was one of the best I've had: sweet, peppery, smoky and rich. The pulled pork was also really tasty, but it was overcooked and stringy in parts. The beans were really good as well, nice and rich but not chalky the way beans can sometimes be. They also were chock-full of BBQ sauce flavour, which isn't always the way. Not sure why...
|A Porkpocalypse from Silver Bullet|
By now, I have to admit that my arteries, and even my taste buds, were getting a bit overpowered by smoke and meat, so my review of the next feast might be a bit skewed. It was the last day and sweltering hot and we needed food for our D&D game, so I went out looking to get my pork fix fast. The only place that I hadn't tried that didn't have a ridiculous line-up was Texas Outlaws. I was impressed to see such a wide variety of foodstuffs being offered: pulled chicken, wings, brisket and many more. I decided on ribs and brisket since I have a soft spot for brisket. I wish the girl at the cash had been a bit less of a grumpy jerk, but I guess by Sunday, most of the ribbing staff must have been fed up with the masses of gluttony.
|Texas Outlaws - definitely the most variety offered at one stand during Ribfest|
So I got my mess of ribs, brisket, beans and slaw home and proceeded to mow down. My impressions were pretty straight forward: the ribs were good, but not great (the sauce had some mustard elements that I wasn't completely sold on), the sides were decent (slaw was kind of ho-hum, but in the way I wanted) and the beans were just a bit too ordinary (and I generally don't like beans most of the time). The brisket was really the saving grace, it was absolutely perfect; not too fatty, well smoked and very flavourful. But, because of the heat, I wasn't able to eat very much. Kind of an anti-climactic end to 5 days of pigging out on pig.
|Brisket and Ribs from Texas Outlaws|
And there you go; just one glutton's tales of a festival of gastronomic excess.