Every Labor Day weekend, the small town of Sparks, Nevada hosts what’s widely known as the Masters Tournament of barbecue rib competitions, the Nugget Rib Cook-Off. I’ve served as a judge at this epic event since 2011. But this year, the pandemic had other plans for the 500,000 people who typically turn out to collectively consume more than 100 tons of ribs.
Alas, the event has been cancelled for 2020. On Labor Day, instead of celebrating my decade on the bench with each and every bone, I’ll be staying at home in Tucson and licking my wounds.
Ever the encourager, Tucson pit master David Martin got me out of my funk by reminding me that licking is for lips, not wounds. He even shared some tips for my own weekend smoking as he counts down to the opening of his new Boulevard Barbecue and Fixins later this month at 5737 E. Speedway Blvd.
When it comes to brisket, Martin uses what he calls an “old school, Texas-based approach.” His rub is nothing more than salt, pepper and granulated garlic. And depending on how the brisket feels before the rub is applied, he may begin with a light coating of oil or mustard. He’s also loyal to the 18-mesh grind size for pepper, which he argues is more flavorful than a standard 28-mesh table grind.
I guess mesh matters.
Martin also puts his briskets in the smoker with the fat side down, a counterpoint to those who swear that fat side up allows it to melt into the meat as it smokes.
“That’s malarkey,” said Martin. “The fat isn’t going to penetrate the muscle as some people would have you believe. Plus, if it’s on the bottom, it provides a nice barrier between the heat and the meat.”
For pork butt – which is the pig’s shoulder, anatomically speaking – his secret is to leave the bone in during the smoking process, but not because it adds moisture as many suggest.
“If you remove the bone before you smoke your butt, it’s going to leave a huge cavity that you’ll have to truss to cook evenly,” he said. “Skip that extra step, leave the bone in, and let it do its thing.”
Then there’s those ribs, and though they’ll only be available at Boulevard as weekly specials at first, Martin has racked up years of rib wisdom which includes a strong conviction about membranes.
While some pit masters prefer to leave the thin, skin-like membranes on the bottom of the racks intact, Martin strips them off and throws them out before the ribs are rubbed and smoked.
“The membrane blocks the smoke so you’re missing out if it stays on,” he said. “And if it comes off after the rack is smoked, it’ll take all that great rub with it.”
Martin has been a regular fixture on the local smoking scene for years as owner of Red Desert Barbecue. But when he had the opportunity to team up with the owners of the popular Serial Grillers restaurants for a new ‘cue concept, he put Red Desert in his rearview mirror and hopped onto Boulevard as managing partner. Look for his new joint to open in late September.
Equipped with some sage advice from a master smoker, and embracing a whole new attitude about membranes and mesh, I’ll be smoking like a champion this Labor Day while preparing for my return to Sparks next year.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.