By Gina Ruccione, Cuisine Writer
If you were unable to attend the West Coast BBQ Classic at the Queen Mary May 9, I feel sorry for your loss. What you missed was some of the best barbeque this side of the Mississippi, so allow me to paint a picture for you.
Imagine thousands of hungry attendees, 80 certified barbecue judges and 57 eager teams competing for the ultimate prize: a wifi barbecue grill, a check for $10,000 and a chance to hold the state title of Grand Champion. Brought to you by the Kansas City BBQ Society, this was the fourth annual barbeque classic here in Long Beach. And, let me tell you, it was well worth the heartburn I experienced after sampling some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Contestants were able to compete in several categories, submitting entries for chicken, ribs, pork and brisket. Judges rated each team’s entry on a scale from one to nine and allocated points for appearance, taste and tenderness. Oh, to have been a judge that day…
I’m horrible at “sampling” anything. If someone hands me an excellent piece of barbecue chicken or a pork rib, there is no way I’m taking just one bite. If it’s out of this world, I’ll happily take the whole thing down (and probably ask for seconds).
Naturally, I lasted about two hours before I had to army crawl back to the car just so I could drag myself home and take a nap. From what I was able to try, there were four teams that really stood out above the rest. While they didn’t place in the top five of any category, their entries were so on point, I can only imagine how sensational the winners must have been.
Competing for their second year at the West Coast BBQ Classic was Team Woodshed. Based in Orange, the Woodshed is actually a brick-and-mortar store, and is well known for their premium firewood.
Purchased by husband–and–wife team Mike and Patty Sharpe in 2006, the Woodshed gained notoriety in the restaurant world in Southern California. In 2012 Patty lost her beloved husband to leukemia, but she continues to honor him by continuing to run the business with genuine enthusiasm.
I found the team to be incredibly upbeat and eager to please everyone. They didn’t have an arrogant air about them; they were there to have fun. Of course, it’s about the food, but competing as a team that is actually known for providing cooking wood to other contestants, I still thought their entries were quite incredible. The kalua pork was a particularly bold move considering most judges are looking for traditional barbecue fare, but sometimes you need a break between smoky ribs and charred chicken. Served alongside spicy pineapple beans and rice, the kalua pork was the perfect combination of sweet and tangy.
Outta Gas BBQ deserves an honorable mention, particularly because they won the People’s Choice Award. Husband–and–wife team Chris and Laura Ades started grilling in the backyard. Their love for exceptional barbecue quickly turned competitive in 2013. Their team, comprised of friends and family and their loving entourage, gave them a competitive advantage.
Outta Gas BBQ catered to the hordes of people like a well-oiled machine. Their booth alone was a crowd favorite, giving them an added appeal. Crowds formed in front of their grilling station, which looked like a roadside barbecue shack and waited patiently for their ribs.
My personal favorite was their short rib taco with romaine lettuce and cabbage slaw served with a lime wedge. I almost asked for two but instead Laura gave me a generous serving of their special beans cooked with chunks of bacon. I have no problem with bacon; I say put it on everything.
But the true showstoppers were the soon–to–be husband–and–wife duo Harry Soo and Donna Fong, who compete as Slap Yo Daddy BBQ and Butcher’s Daughter BBQ. Unlike most of the competing couples I spoke to at the event, Harry and Donna have a whole different dynamic. In fact, they are not a team at all. They travel around competing against each other and the stakes are high.
By day Harry is an information technology manager in downtown Los Angeles, but by night he’s a barbecue grill master—a title which he undoubtedly earned. The man has so many barbecue accolades, it’s almost ridiculous.
His most incredible win was placing first among 7,000 contestants in a barbecue contest in Kansas where he did it with chicken. Harry is well known in the world of barbecue. He currently teaches barbecue techniques to eager and willing enthusiasts. Many of his students were competing against him at the Queen Mary.
Donna is a quiet, introverted molecular biologist who lives in Northern California. She had her first taste of barbecue several years ago and decided the only way to eat great barbecue all of the time was to become a judge. She started taking barbecue courses from Harry and as they say, one thing led to another. They have since been happily competing against each other for years.
I stood between their booths, watching in complete awe as they kept passing me slices of different things to try. My heart went pitter-patter. With expert precision, Donna sliced off a piece of her Wagyu beef brisket from Snake River. For those of you who don’t know, anything from that breed of cattle costs a pretty penny, but my god it is worth every cent. Her brisket melted in my mouth; I’ve never had anything like it.
Harry offered up his pork ribs, his famous chicken, both of which were excellent. The chicken, in particular, was so juicy that I forgot I was eating chicken.
As I turned to leave, Harry handed me a tender morsel of something that blew my mind. To this day I still have no idea what I put in my mouth but whatever it was, I have a new appreciation and fondness for barbecue. After that bite, the world stopped for a moment. In some respects, it was life–changing. That one piece will forever be my first, my last, and my only (until, of course, next year).