Nation’s top BBQ grillmasters vie for glory while doing what they love at Pittsburgh’s Ribfest
Dan Johnson flew Army planes and helicopters for 32 years before retiring from the military in his mid-40s to pursue his passion for barbecue.
The Little Rock, Ark. native had moved to Virginia Beach and noticed the areas surrounding the military bases had some of the best seafood in the world — but none of the delicately slow-cooked meats he’d grown up devouring and preparing to near perfection on the pits of his family farm.
Several restaurants, a thriving sauce brand and more than 600 national awards later, Johnson and his six-cook crew at Johnson’s Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Que stand are among those vying for the title of the best ribs at the 2018 Heinz Field Kickoff and Ribfest.
“I’ve been doing it for quite a while, and they ask me when are you going to stop,” said Johnson, now 75. “And I tell them real quick I’m not going to ease up, let up, shut up or give up until I’m taken up, and I’m just getting warmed up.”
Fifteen vendors from around the United States are competing in this year’s ribs competition, which will award titles for best sauce and cook as well as best ribs overall. The People’s Choice award goes to the vendor with the most votes from the public via online submissions.
“You see people from all across this country, there’s hundreds of years of experience of cooking right here on this little road,” said Chris “Bubba” Hanley, 28, of Armadillo’s Rib & BBQ Co. based in Royston, Ga. “This is the place to come to see who’s really got the best barbecue.”
The five-day festival runs noon to 11 p.m. through Monday. Entrance is free into the festival and concert stage area set up just outside the gates to Heinz Field, with meat platters and sides ranging from $2 to $20, with many offering $8 sampler platters.
“You got Cowboy, who’s been out for 20, 30 years. I can beat him, but he’s good. He beats me every once in a while,” said Johnson. “You’ve got people all the way from Atlanta, Ga., and when you can win, you’re blessed because all of them are very, very good at what they do, and it may be just a slight difference in taste for the area that makes them win.”
A man who goes by “Big Baby” promoting Cowboys Barbeque and Rib Co. said their “ribs have been smoking so long they need to go to rehab.”
“Our sauce is the boss,” he added. “It’s like Sweet Baby Ray’s with a Michael Jackson kick, but then he smooths it out with the spacewalk.”
Rondell Adams of Rib-Bins BBQ — whose slogan is “Better than your daddy’s BBQ!” — said he makes a 28-ingredient sauce that’s “sweet, tangy and smoky — all three, you can’t beat that. And if you want it hot, we can make it hot.”
Kevin Coatoam, 24, manager and cook of Texas Pit, said he learned from owner Ron Conaway the secrets of great barbecue ribs as well as brisket that “just falls apart and melts in your mouth.”
“He’s been going it for 30 years so he’s got it down,” Coatoam said.
Their sauce is “a really sweet sauce, it’s a tomato-based sauce, and it’s the perfect sweetness for the ribs,” he said. “Two years ago, we took first place for best ribs, and we’re looking to do it again now.”
Last year, Chicago BBQ took first place in the ribs competition, followed by Pigfoot in second place and Big-Boned BBQ in third.
Rib-Bins took home the win for best sauce, and Bad Azz BBQ won the People’s Choice Award through online public voting.
“What makes us different is we let the meats cool and then we hand-slice it,” said Pigfoot spokesman Dillon Kocher, 27.
Pigfoot also is offering a new applelicious sauce this festival that’s made of 45 percent real apples and is gluten free.
Johnson — who travels to rib competitions in 27 states every year — won’t disclose what makes his mild sauce so popular nor Area 51 sauce so spicy it brings tears to the eyes of the brave soul who tastes it within 32 seconds — “you can get military secrets quicker than you can get barbecue secrets,” he said with a sly smile.
“But I’m asked nationwide what makes a good rib — is it the rub, is it the sauce? I say no, it’s the rub, it’s the sauce and the cook all combined that makes a good rib. So we take our time, and we indirect-cook it,” Johnson said. “I have a theory in life — if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’. So what you have to do basically is put your fire on one side of the pit, your product on the other side of your pit, and take your time and let it cook and smoke slowly.”
The festival, which ends 11 p.m. on Labor Day, also includes live music performances, a variety of non-ribs vendors and Steelers Experience and children’s activities.
Country music group Lonestar — known for No. 1 hits such as “Amazed” and “I’m Already There” — headlines at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Here’s the entertainment schedule:
Saturday, Sept. 1
3 p.m. – Pitt Panthers vs. Albany Great Danes (ticket required)
7:30 p.m. – Milly
9 p.m. – The Clarks
Sunday, Sept. 2
8 a.m. – Steelers 5k Race, Fitness Walk and Kids Kickoff Run (registration required)
7:30 p.m. – Dylan Schneider
9 p.m. – Lonestar
Monday, Sept. 3
2 p.m. – Gatorade Junior Training Camp (registration required)
4 p.m. – Saddle Up
5:30 p.m. – Tim Vitullo
7 p.m. – Parmalee
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.