Rib Winner

Tucson Foodie’s winning ribs.

must admit that I’ve gotten pretty attached to that old pig. But, alas, the time has come to let him go.

This is the plastic pig that stands atop a trophy on my office mantle commemorating my team’s victory last year at the inaugural Tucson Food Media Barbecue Throw Down.

That was last year, and regrettably, my 2018 gameday mantra of “the pig stays here for one more year” didn’t materialize. 

Victory was snatched from us with a squeal.

This year’s event, held at an undisclosed location for national security purposes, pitted three teams of food journalists against each other in a high stakes pork rib competition. A companion cocktail contest also took place with bourbon as the required base.

This year’s winner was the Tucson Foodie media team, which showcased Asian traditions at the center of its plate.

“We wanted to utilize various forms of fermented umami from cultures not associated with American barbecue,” said Tucson Foodie lead writer and photographer Jackie Tran. “While soups would have been a fun way to be contrarian against smoked ribs, the weather was too hot. So we wanted a tropical feel.”

Tucson Foodie’s ribs brought together Japanese soy sauce, Vietnamese fish sauce, Korean gochujang, Taiwanese doubanjiang, Chinese five spice, Shaoxing wine, lemongrass, star anise and other seasonings. Tran tells me that the fish sauce provided inosinic acid, with the other fermented sauces providing glutamic acids, like MSG, in various concentrations.

“Inosinic acid and MSG work together better than the sum of their parts for superb umami,” he said.

The team’s winning cocktail was a twist on a Whiskey Sour, with bourbon, tamarind nectar, mangosteen nectar, lemon, simple syrup and a fruit garnish known as rambutan that resembled the protagonist in a science fiction story.

Another competitor was the 520 Eats media team, presenting a colorful plate with several rib expressions including Filipino-style adobo ribs, ground rib and Guaymas shrimp spring rolls with pickled Fresno chiles and carne seca rib meat tacos with shaved Daikon radish and peanut dust.

Their cocktail was a taste of the tropics, with bourbon, rum, walnut liqueur, dry sherry, lemon juice and mango puree, garnished with a banana leaf and dry ice.

My team, named On the Menu Live for my culinary and cocktail radio show, presented different themes as well, including a Jamaican jerk-rubbed rib with grilled baby bananas and molasses butter, a roasted Kalua-style rib with Hawaiian island spices, pineapple slaw, and coconut rice and a Memphis-style smoked rib with smoked beans, candied burnt ends and a pepper bacon spear.

Our cocktail was a summer refresher, with bourbon, pressed watermelon juice, lime juice, mint, ginger and a jalapeño simple syrup, garnished with candied jalapeños and boozy watermelon cubes.

The judging panel included Travis Peters of the Parish, Daniel Thomas of BIRD Modern Provisions and Bar, Ben Caballero of HUB Restaurant and Ice Creamery and Ben Forbes of Forbes Meat Company, who donated all the ribs for the competition.

These guys deliberated for twice the amount of time they were allotted, suggesting an excruciatingly close game, but it was Tucson Foodie that ended up standing in the winner’s circle with that plastic pig held high.

My loser’s lament will be brief, as the sobs will eventually turn to snorts next year when we prepare to bring that pig home—where he rightfully belongs. 

Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KOI 1030 AM.