Food / Dining

Rib Cook-Off returns to San Juan Bautista after 2-year hiatus

The three-day festival is a sign of the town returning to normalcy.
Ribs at Doc’s Q’in Pit Stop. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Ribs at Doc’s Q’in Pit Stop. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Dan Clifford. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Dan Clifford. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The three-day Annual Great San Juan Bautista Rib Cook-Off had a quiet opening April 29, as a relatively small crowd took to Third Street to sample from eight competing barbecue vendors, serving as a prelude to a record-breaking crowd over the weekend. 

When the dust settled two days later, Carson City BBQ from Carson City, Nevada, was declared both the People’s Choice and the winner of the best ribs, with Joshua’s Ribs from Sacramento taking home a trophy for best sauce.

“We could not be happier,” said Jason Williams, who has managed 15 of the 17 cook-offs. “The weather was great, the crowds were incredible, and it was great to be back in San Juan Baustista. I think there is a lot of pent-up demand and events like this have been getting a lot of traction recently. We had a great turnout. Friday was kind of like a day for the locals but Saturday and Sunday were pretty intense.” 

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events, leaving the competitors just as happy to be back in town as the cook-off attendees were to be able to queue up for their ribs.

“Before the pandemic, we usually hit all the big festivals,” said Ralph Reyes of Lord of the Ribs BBQ in Sacramento. “But we could only do one last year, the San Jose Summer Fest. Now, with things starting to open back up, we have a few more on the books, but there are still a lot of promoters who do not want to draw a big crowd.”

Reyes, who is marking his eighth year as a San Juan cook-off vendor, has a particular fondness for this event.

“Of all of the festivals we go to,” he said, “this is the only one that is specifically a rib cook-off. I think that really inspires all of us because we know everyone just wants ribs and we are going to be up against some strong competition.”

As with last month’s Arts and Crafts Festival, the space taken up by the Third Street parklets required some of the 120 craft and specialty vendors onto the side streets and the event also extended to one block of The Alhambra. Parking was primarily at San Juan School and the adjoining soccer field.

The event proved to be a nice break from work for Alex Flores and a few of his coworkers at Taylor Farms. Flores grew up in San Juan Bautista and was very happy to see the festival back. 

“It is a good day and there is lots of great food in a great environment,” he said. “I got some ribs, some chicken, some beans—a little bit of everything, to be honest. We’re just sitting here enjoying watching the people and listening to the music, having a good time.”

The San Juan event is one of only three cook-offs that are lucrative enough for Doc’s Q’in Pit Stop in Modesto to participate in during the year.

“We do both the rib cook-off and wing cook-off in Reno, then we come here,” said owner Jermaine Clark. “These are the biggest ones. We can spend more days at them and be able to work around our catering business.”

On April 29, Clark started the day with 100 racks of ribs, which he confidently predicted would be “enough to feed everybody.” 

Lord of the Ribs began by cooking 100 racks, but by 3:30 p.m., they had cooked all of their 175 racks they brought for Friday and were in danger of running out of food before the end of the day. Reyes said he planned on bringing 225 racks on Saturday and hoped that would be enough.

First-time visitor Dan Clifford and his friends took full advantage of Friday’s shorter lines and had a feast of ribs gathered from four of the eight vendors.

“People I knew in the area told me to come down today if I wanted to get some awesome ribs,” he said. “Lord of the Ribs was probably our favorite. The meat fell off the bone and the sauce was great; sweet with a bit of spiciness. I’m having fun, the weather is beautiful, and I’m enjoying checking out all the vendors selling their wares. I am absolutely planning to come back next year.”

The eight competitors and the awards at the event were:

  • Carson City BBQ, Carson City, Nevada: People’s Choice, 1st place for Best Ribs and 2nd place for Best Sauce.
  • Doc’s Q’in Pit Stop, Modesto.
  • Git-R-Smoked, Reno, Nevada: 2nd place for Best Ribs and 3rd place for Best Sauce
  • Indonesian Satay BBQ, Los Angeles.
  • Joshua’s Ribs, Sacramento: 1st place for Best Sauce.
  • Lord of the Ribs, San Jose.
  • Mansmith’s BBQ, San Juan Bautista: 3rd place for Best Ribs.
  • Valley Sm’oak BBQ, Salinas.

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.