Highland & South Aves., Rochester, NY 14620
Web: The Big Rib Bar-B-Que & Blues Fest
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Barbecue Festivals Ribs Rochester
"If you're looking to sample different types of barbecue sauce and see what distinguishes various types of ribs and briskets from one another, this is a good place to start;"
Ribs. Brisket. Pulled Pork. Plenty of sides. And a big stage with BYO seating and live music. Rochester's The Big Rib mightn't be a huge food festival when judged by the number of vendors on hand, but this four-day event - overlapping for two days with the 2009 Taste of Buffalo - is actually pretty cool, and an opportunity for barbecue fans to sample wildly different versions of items they might have thought were always made the same. We barnstormed the five BBQ booths and several non-BBQ stands at the Highland Park Festival Site to bring you a quick report; here's what we saw, liked, and didn't like. Note that all of the portions we tried were $6 a piece, except as otherwise noted, and dinnertime admission was $5 per person, with a $5 per vehicle parking charge. Big Rib directions and other details are here.
Willingham's World Champion BBQ. This purveyor of Memphis-style barbecue had some of the very best ribs we sampled at the event - it would be the first place we'd recommend to fans of dry-rubbed, crisped rib meat, though Gator Pit below offered very good ribs on the opposite texture extreme. Though we weren't big fans of its pulled pork, which was just too dry and plain to enjoy with or without sauce, we tried and liked its sweet, tangy normal barbecue sauce, and were fine with its hot cajun version. As with all of the vendors, $6 bought a three rib "teaser" here.
Jack's Down Home Barbecue. Like every other vendor here, Jack's boasted a wide collection of awards for its ribs, and its proprietor Jack McDavid of Philadelphia's Jack's Firehouse fame was on The Food Network's Grillin' & Chillin' show. We found the ribs unimpressive - just plain - but really liked the beef brisket, which had tender though slightly too fatty meat and a nice barbecue sauce.
Texas Pit Barbecue. Though most of the booths were covered in so many awards that they almost became irrelevant, no booth at the event made more of a deal about its previous awards than this one. Texas Pit had a massive stack of trophies out front, signs all over the place calling out its varied victories, and stickers to convince people to vote for it at the event's People's Choice Awards. On the food side, it offered huge kegs of sauce and toppings at the end of the line so that you could flavor the meats with honey glazed barbecue, mild barbecue, or hot and spicy barbecue sauce. The ribs emerged pre-slathered in what appeared to be the mild barbecue sauce, and were decent in flavor and texture - neither the best-tasting nor the most tender of the bunch. We didn't think much of the plain flavor of the pulled pork, though it was certainly better than Willingham's overly dry stuff, and aided more by the peppers we added to the sandwich than the two different BBQ sauces we tried. A $1 corn muffin led to a split of opinion: it had clearly been refrigerated and was still a little cold, yet moist and sweet enough to please one of us.
Gator Pit BBQ. We were pretty much stuffed by the time we arrived here, but felt obliged to try it because it won last year's Big Rib competition for best ribs. Even though we didn't feel like eating a lot more, we actually would give these ribs a tie with the entirely different Willingham version: apart from a slightly crispy outer surface, these were wonderfully tender throughout, with no evidence of dry rub. While the barbecue sauce was only fair - a little too vinegary - the meat was certainly quite good, and a top pick for those who like their pork soft.
Other Highlights and Lowlights. The Big Rib's live music was at least as much of a draw as the food - the event is billed as a Blues Fest, and though everything we heard was more in the rock vein, it was legitimately good; people brought their own collapsible chairs and were sitting on a spacious lawn enjoying the tunes and their food at the same time. Our strong recommendation: if you're going to this event, bring the bug spray and a chair so you can make the most of the event.
We weren't impressed at all with the beef brisket at the Sticky Lips Pit BBQ, which lacked both the numerous awards and the long lines of its various rivals at the event. While the quantity of beef was way, way higher than any other $6 brisket sandwich we had at the event, the meat and barbecue sauce were both pretty plain.
One of us had and generally enjoyed Vanilla Almond custard in a cup ($3.50) at Abbotts Frozen Custard, describing it as good but not spectacular; it did have plenty of almonds in its favor. And we liked the $4.50 small portion of Cinnamon Candied Almonds at the Cinnamon Roasted Almonds Co. stand, as well. Those looking for drinks would be advised to check out the Frozen Sangria and the beer, but skip the watery "fresh-squeezed" lemonade.
Though we're bigger fans of the Taste of Buffalo, and would sooner choose to spend our time and money on more affordable samples of a dozen or more different cuisines than plate after plate of barbecued fare, The Big Rib is a good event for fans of live music and grilled food. If you're looking for an opportunity to try a bunch of different types of barbecue sauce and see what distinguishes various types of ribs, briskets, and the like from one another, this is a good place to start; Buffalo's Oinktoberfest is a closer option if you're willing to wait until late September to pig out.