Two weeks ago, Healdsburg’s plaza was a haze of smoke, music, and fine beverages. The Celebrate Healdsburg street party ( http://celebratehealdsburg.com ) had returned with an even a bigger focus on chow. Local wineries sold tastes, and I was pleased to see quality micro producers such as Copain, Medlock Ames and David Ramey taking part. Bear Republic had brews on tap, and I enjoyed Sonoma Ciderworks offerings. Healdsburg’s restaurants moved their kitchens outdoors. Dry Creek Kitchen’s chef was making crab cakes in front of the restaurant, Castaneda’s Marketplace had assembled an enormous seafood paella cooked on the spot, Palette Art Café was hawking tuna tartar and asparagus salad, and The Charcuterie was firing up lamburgers and selling lavender lemonade. I can’t imagine a tonier assemblage of food and drink to be found on any other street.
But I only had eyes for the barbecue contest sponsored by Big John’s Market. Professional and amateur teams were smoking and grilling spareribs and chicken. Starting at noon, the public could buy tastes for $2 each to benefit local charities, as well as vote for their favorites. Big John’s supplied the chicken and ribs for the contest to ensure consistency across competitors. While the meats could be picked up the day before for prep, all cooking had to be done on site in the plaza. I honed in on the ones I wanted to try based on what their smoker rigs looked like, as well as skipping any that were drowned in sauce. I tasted ribs from two pros and two amateurs.
In the amateur category:
California Human Development/Healdsburg Day Labor Center – The grillmaster said that he likes to keep it simple, just a dry rub, then a light brushing of teriyaki sauce after smoking. This was the juiciest rib with a firm bite yet pulling easily off the bone. Not as much smoke penetration as the others, but good meatiness and tasty nonetheless with sweetness and salt in balance.
Smokin’ Swine and Drinkin’ Wine – This crew started smoking at 6am, not sure what time the drinking started. Meaty rib with good texture, nice crust, moderate smoke level, and interesting spicing (did I taste allspice?). This team won the amateur category based on the judges’ votes and also the people’s choice winner.
In the pro category:
Larry Vito’s BBQ Smokehouse – Larry Vito is the former executive chef who put Fournou’s Oven at the Stanford Court on the map back in the day. He’s been a caterer and private chef locally since then. I attended a private dinner he catered a few years ago, and have been following the news on his website that he would be opening a barbecue place. That’s on hold now, but he will be selling barbecue starting this summer on the patio of Patisserie Angelica in Sebastopol several days a week. And it’s definitely worth seeking out. His meat hit the smoker at 4am, and had excellent penetration with a well-modulated smoke character. The sparerib had a nice crust and tender, succulent flesh with just the right resistance to the bite. The complex spice blend was quite subtle and harmonized well with the smoke level showing off the taste of the pork. It was also less salty than the other offerings. The well-balanced sauce, dabbed on the side of the plate, had a lot of finesse and fruity high notes. This is ‘cue to ponder and roll over the palate to discern every nuance like a fine Pinot Noir.
Black Bean BBQ – This caterer, formerly Stim’s, has been recommended on the board for its Texas style ‘cue. I was excited to try it for the first time, and it didn’t disappoint. Smoking started at 1am, and these ribs looked completely different than everyone else’s. From the heavy smoking, the barky crust was mahogany brown, the silver skin under the rib was dry and papery, and every bit of fat had melted off. The taste screamed Central Texas, aggressive with black pepper, salt and intense, deep, dark smoke. The meat was drier than the field, but not dried out or stringy, and had a bit of chewiness and near-jerky texture around the edges that I’m told Texans like. They asked me if I wanted sauce before automatically adding it to my sample. I scarfed this one down so fast, I don’t remember what the sauce was like other than that it was complimentary to the whole and didn’t overwhelm the meat. This was unlike any other barbecue I’ve had in the Bay Area, and I wouldn’t argue with those who hold it up as the best around.
The winner of the pro category was the Kiwanis . . . and I didn’t try it so I can’t compare. All I can say is that if the judges felt it was better than these two, it must be amazing.
This was a great opportunity to try out different barbecue styles and to sample these two experts. I’ve heard from the organizers that the event was a success and they’re planning to hold it again.
More Celebrate Healdsburg photos
Larry Vito Catering
6811 Laguna Pkwy, Sebastopol, CA
Black Bean BBQ Catering
5401 Alta Monte Dr, Santa Rosa, CA
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