MESQUITE, Nev. – About 50 of the nation’s best barbecue teams from across the nation gathered at the CasaBlanca Resort and Casino, 959 W. Mesquite Boulevard in Mesquite, Nevada, Saturday and Sunday for the seventh annual “Smokin’ in Mesquite BBQ.” Armed with all manner of barbecues and secrets, the competitors camped out in trailers, vehicles and rigs of all sizes and constructs, even an old school bus retrofitted to accommodate both sleeping and some pretty elite cooking, all for the goal of $40,000 in prize money.
Billed as one of the top barbecue competitions in the west and sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society – the cooking competition’s governing body – “Smokin’ in Mesquite BBQ” pits teams against each other in four meat types – ribs, brisket, chicken and pork – all put to the test by judges from the Barbecue Society.
One of the competitors, Scott “Manno” Manning from Fort Collins, Colorado, said he got his start in barbecue competitions two years ago in Frisco, Colorado, when he and his partner entered their first competition two weeks before the event. In the short time before that first, the classically trained chef learned the how-tos of barbecue competition through self-teaching and YouTube.
At the actual competition, Manning said, he got a lot of help from volunteers who were regulars in his restaurant and friends. He also learned from a man he called one of Colorado’s best, a man named Kevin; Kevin, he said, told him: “Competition barbecue isn’t necessarily good barbecue.”
That is, the end result of competition barbecue is likely too intense for the average meal.
“You’re trying to focus all the flavor you can into one bite for the judges,” Manning said. “You couldn’t eat a whole rack of competition ribs because they’re just so rich and flavorful. It’s going to blow your mouth out.”
While cooking may just be an enjoyable pastime to some, competitions like “Smokin’ in Mesquite BBQ” are serious business and require a lot of effort from competitors.
Some teams choose to take shifts to ensure the food preparation never slows to a stop.
In his game plan, Manning’s competition partner stays up through the night, Manning said, and he then comes on around 4 a.m. to take over while his partner sleeps.
Another group of competitors shared Manning’s view that going solo might not be the best idea. Doug Rucker and Terry Bellow have competed solo before, but find the unity they share in competition is a valuable asset.
“It would be a little more difficult, it can be done,” Rucker said of competing solo. “There’s quite a few teams that do it alone. We don’t think it would be as fun.”
The group’s gathering place and home-away-from-home is what they call the “Old School BBQ Bus.” It serves as an invaluable asset to the group, Rucker said. Giving them a place to interact, sleep and plan out their culinary game-plan, the team takes shifts between sleeping on a few of the original seats in the bus – and cooking. Rucker even places a cot in the well-outfitted kitchen inside the bus so he can catch some winks between tending to the meat througout the night.
“Mesquite’s been exceptionally well-hosted,” Rucker said of the “Smokin’ in Mesquite BBQ” event. “It’s well-organized, well-planned.”
Even though all barbecuers prefer to cook on grass areas, he said, cooking in the parking lot has worked well – much better than dirt.
“Access has been really good,” he said. “The facilities have been really good — excellent here.”
Justin McGlaun, from Waverly, Iowa, and Mike Knox, from Grand Junction, Colorado, met online, are now good friends and meet-up to compete. One of them won the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour three years ago, a $50,000 prize. Their secret? Flavor layering, hot and fast.
While the Mesquite competition may be a first for many others, Wayne Hoppal and Ken Thompson of St. George, Utah, have teamed up at the event before, and have walked away with a victory.
“We actually took fourth in brisket a couple of years ago,” Thompson said.
While the two have won the competition in the past and have learned a great many barbecue secrets over the years, Hoppal said they are constantly trying to learn more and adapt to change.
“Out west here, it’s a little bit different than what Kansas City barbecue’s gonna be, or Memphis barbecue’s gonna be … ” he said. For example, he said, in some parts of the country barbecue is more of a vinegar type while here it is more of a sweet profile.
“So, it’s all relevant to where you live,” he said.
Along with adding their own seasoning to the meat, Hoppal said he and Thompson also invest in certain types of beef, like wagyu cattle, or Kobe beef from Japan that they were using Saturday. It’s about the marbling, all the marble that will be gone when they’re finished with the barbecue because it melts away. That’s what gives it the flavor, they said.
While these meats can cost more than typical meat – the cut they were using Saturday cost about $200, they said – investing in the higher quality of beef that you can’t get in your local grocery store is worth it to them.
One said: “If you’re competing for 15, 18, 20 thousand dollars, then by god you might as well … ” trailing off for his partner to finish the thought: “You might as well spend the money.”
The competition continues through Sunday at 7 p.m. Admission into the event is free and costs for food and drinks vary. More information on the contest can be found on the event website.
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