Thursday, June 23, 2016

Eating up the Hill: Sparks Street Ribfest

There are some days on the Parliamentary calendar that everyone circles. Throne Speech. Budget. Presidential visits. Those are big days. But there is one annual event that trumps them all: Sparks Street Ribfest.

For three weekdays, we're not Liberals, Conservatives, NDPers or journalists. No, we are Canadians. Canadians who love barbecued pork smothered in barbecue sauce. Walking in to the office each morning, you can smell the burning charcoal from blocks away, making for a long three hours of public service mixed with barbecue anticipation before we are finally disgorged from our Gothic office buildings like a swarm of barbecue-crazing locusts, descending on a narrow pedestrian mall craving those sweet, sweet ribs. The usual policy chatter in the corridors of power is replaced with talk of favoured ribbers, and plans for the next lunch.

Alas, I'm taking the train to Toronto on Friday, so my 2016 ribfest experience is over after two days. This is the story of those ribs.

Day One: Camp 31

When it comes to BBQ, I have some standards. My last job took me down to Austin a few times and, trust me, those folks know how to do BBQ. No one up here is going to approach that level of excellence. Still, these meat carnies do nothing but travel from town to town making ribs, so you're not going to get any ribs that suck at a ribfest.

I believe I read awhile back that everyone has the same meat supplier. And they all tend to use similar cooking techniques. For me, therefore, the difference lays in the sauce.

My first day landed me at Camp 31 and wasn't chosen for the best reasons: it had a short line and wasn't far down from Bank Street. But I was drawn in for a more positive reason: they had sausage. Now, I love me some ribs. But when I'm doing BBQ in Texas, sausage is one of my favourite meats. So I joined the line, and ordered a half rack and a sausage.

Returning to the office to eat BBQ at my desk and watch a Prime Ministerial press conference on TV (ribs with a side of sunny ways), I began with the sausage to cleanse my pallet. The fact it came on a bun, instead of with a piece of white bread, didn't argue well for its authenticity. It was a perfectly reasonable sausage, however. Well flavoured, though it could have used a little heat.

On to the ribs. The ribs were meaty and the meat was juicy, cooked to fall off the bone perfection with just the right amount of char. Everything you want ribs to be. As I foreshadowed earlier though, the differentiater is going to be the sauce. Some folks are wine connoisseurs. I'm a sauce connoisseur. I look for a sauce that reveals a complex but complementary combination of tastes. All I got from this one was ketchup and maybe a little brown sugar.

We can do better. We must do better.

Day Two: Billy Bones

I did two things differently on Thursday: I walked past O'Connor Street, and I choose the ribber with the longest line. Longer lines mean either they're offering really good ribs, or they're really slow at serving ribs. Or maybe both. But likely the former. Because like I said earlier, traveling meat carnies.

No sausage was on offer here today, and no sausage was on my mind anyway. Like some are focused on helping the middle class and those working hard to reach it, today I was laser focused on ribs. There were sides available: coleslaw and beans. No thanks. Only mac & cheese may have tempted me. You should never fill up on carbs at a ribfest, though.

So I waited out the long line, and dodged a number of people driving those damned John Deere things down the pedestrian mall for no apparent business reason, and placed an order for a half rack.

It came fresh out of the flames above and into a box that was placed in my eager hands. I grabbed some napkins and, after dabbing some on my finger for a taste test, gave it another shot of sauce before retiring to a nearby park bench. Still too hot to handle, I took an anticipatory pause for the ribs to slightly cool.

When I dug in, I again found beautifully cooked ribs. Perhaps 60 seconds under-cooked with the slightest hint of pink, but nothing to worry about. Again, juicy meat that fell of the bones, and just the right about of char.

And the sauce, you ask? Definitely an improvement over day one. Definite notes of pepper, and possible some garlic lurking under the surface. I would have liked stronger flavours (I think my last year of eating a lot of Middle Eastern food has changed my pallet) but it was a very respectable sauce.

Alas, my rib experience must end there. Having confirmed with the Whip's Office that Ribfest is a free vote, I cast mine for Billy's Bones based on the better sauce. With my limited sample though, your mileage may vary.

Happy Ribfest to all. Rib safely my friends.

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