ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Barbecuing bad boy Roger Bell isn’t taking his less-than-winning score in last year’s premier barbecue competition lightly. The Rio Rancho restaurant owner has been tweaking his sauce so this year he’ll improve his score.
And Madux Hobbs, who’ll also compete in the Pork & Brew BBQ State Championship next month, knows he doesn’t exactly look the part. But at 33, the self-described “tall and skinny” dude doesn’t see why that matters.
“It’s not like you have to be a 50-year-old, big, fat guy with a beard and a straw hat and tattoos,” he says with a laugh.
Bell and Hobbs are two of more than 40 grill-masters planning to wow judges and edge out competitors at the 11th annual event, which is July 4-6 at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho.
The competition, which usually attracts 15,000 people over three days, is a gateway to entering what’s known nationally as the World Series of barbecuing, the American Royal, in Kansas City in October.
Hobbs, Bell and other participants say getting ready for this year’s competition is about preparing to present six boxed slices of meat to picky judges appealingly – all the while hanging out with friends and family and meeting the guests who’ll sample their charcoaled cuisine.
The first step is the set-up, says Jim Ballog, 63, a competitor from Albuquerque whose two-person team, Sweet Peppers, has participated each year since the Pork & Brew began.
The owner of an Albuquerque company that sells and repairs electric motors, he won Grand Champion once before. Last year, he came in third place, but this time, he’s coming to win the grand prize again. “You have to have that positive feeling … you know what they say?” he jokes. “Second place is the first loser.”
He’ll start the Friday morning of the three-day cook-off around 3 a.m. He’ll put up his 10-feet-by-10-feet easy-up, set out ice chests, lights, spices and three portable smokers. Once his meat gets inspected to make sure it’s raw and neither seasoned nor marinated, he’ll start readying it for the smoker. He and other competitors will have to turn in their entries for judging the next day.
And those judges are a choosy bunch, says Bill Taylor, 54, who will cook for them this year. They chop off points if the meat falls off the bone; they check to see if it stretches when pulled. And if they have to use their jaw muscles too much, that’s a problem – the meat mustn’t be excessively chewy.
And only certain garnishes are allowed inside the 9-inch-by-9-inch clamshell-style Styrofoam container along with the meat. “You can use green lettuce, parsley and cilantro,” he says. “You can’t use cabbage, kale, endive – all the stuff that makes stuff look really cool.”
Judges will also look for New Mexico’s regional culinary twist, because different parts of the country have their own barbecue signatures. “If you go to New England, you’re gonna get barbecue that has nothing more than a little salt and pepper,” he says. “In the Carolinas, it’s going to be a vinegar-based sauce, and the meat is chopped. In Texas, it’s all about beef barbecue, heavily smoked.”
Some New Mexicans add chile as a unique twist, says Taylor, a global product support representative for a mining equipment manufacturer. He began cooking at 10 years old. “I throw a little chile in there; a sauce that I use to glaze the ribs might have red or green chile in it.”
Powdered red and green chile show up in the rub Bell created. The 49-year-old owns Rub-N-Wood BBQ, a 20-table restaurant that opened in Rio Rancho last August. Originally from Wink, Texas, which is about 16 miles from the New Mexico border, he remembers the family barbecues of his youth as social. “Everybody getting together that you ain’t seen in a long time,” he says. “You eat barbecue, make fun of each other, drink beer, then eat more barbecue, make more fun, and drink more beer!”
This will be his fifth time at the event. Last go-round, he placed in the teens and twenties in various categories. It was the sauce that did him in, he thinks: He was told it was too tangy and clashed with the meat. So he changed it. “I did away with the liquid smoke, portioned the vinegar down, added more molasses and brown sugar,” he says. “And then,” he says with a laugh, “I stuck my finger in it!”
The much younger Hobbs, who owns a used car lot in Roswell, says there are other keys to winning besides sauce-tweaking. His secrets are serious study and thoughtful preparation. “I order the beef 30 days prior so it has time to age,” he says. He goes online to an out-of-town vendor.
He’s entered a bunch of competitions after spending lots of time studying the art of barbecuing. He’s taken home prizes and award money, too. “I can’t even imagine how many pounds of meat we cooked, trying this and that, a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time practicing, taking lots of classes … I’ve dedicated a lot of hours to competitive barbecue that gives me a little edge versus someone who’s coming off the street.”
One of his favorite parts is chatting with meat-loving spectators. “I love getting trophies and awards at the end, but I think the best thing for me is when somebody walks up who doesn’t know anything about (barbecuing) and they see this big chunk of meat coming out of my cooker and their jaw drops down and they’re full of questions,” he says. “It’s fun being able to share that with them.”
JIM BALLOG’S SMOKED BRISKET FLAT
Beef brisket flat, 7 to 8 pounds
Dale’s meat marinade (available at Smith’s)
Sea salt, coarse
Trim the fat from the back side of the brisket until it is about 1/8 inch thick. Remove the silver skin from the meat side. Lay the brisket flat on a foil-lined cookie sheet and apply meat marinade liberally to both sides, using enough so that it does not disappear. On the fat side, apply a layer of sea salt and turbinado sugar. There should be enough sugar on the surface so it can be seen (it should melt and look wet), but it should not completely cover or cake the meat.
On the meat side, apply a layer of turbinado sugar only. Let it rest for one hour, then apply a generous amount of garlic pepper to both sides – enough that it can clearly be seen, but is not caking the meat. Let it rest for at least four hours.
Place charcoal in smoker and light. Add a few chunks of hickory. Push charcoal to one side and place brisket in the smoker, meat side down. Let it cook for four hours in the smoke, at between 225 and 245 degrees, watching to make sure it does not burn on the edges. Do not flip.
After four hours in the smoker, wrap brisket in two sheets of tinfoil, adding in ½ stick of butter. Place back in the smoker. Maintain meat at 225 degrees until the internal temperature reaches between 200 and 205 degrees.
Remove from the heat and let rest for at least one hour, wrapped in a towel. Then cut against the grain and serve.
COOK’S NOTE: “This recipe, if you do it right, you can win a contest with it,” says Jim Ballog.
Black Betty’s Pork Finishing Sauce
½ cup white vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
½ cup apple juice
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons white pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
Mix all ingredients together ahead of time. Then, add sauce to pulled pork just before serving.
COOK’S NOTE: Madux Hobbs created a recipe for a finishing sauce, used on pulled pork after it has been cooked. “I use it to moisten and add flavor to pulled pork before I serve it,” he says.
Bill Taylor’s Good-on-Everything Mop Sauce
1 quart cider vinegar
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon of your favorite seasoning
6 bay leaves
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon rosemary
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
Combine all ingredients and bring to a rolling boil for 10 minutes. Let cool. Remove and discard bay leaves. Mop meat every 20 to 30 minutes during cooking.
COOK’S NOTE: Another good meat flavor-adder is a mop, which, often vinegar-based and boiled, is typically thinner than a sauce but thicker than a marinade. “Mops add another layer of flavor to your meats – they typically don’t penetrate very deep into the meat, but will form a glaze and add moisture to the meat itself,” according to Bill Taylor, who is putting together a book on how to barbecue and smoke meat, called “BS Grilling Smoker Manual,” which includes a chapter with recipes.