Update: Verdict on the food at Esquimalt Ribfest. I sampled offerings from four of the five booths. The pork ribs were all good, though one was a little tougher than I liked. Pulled pork and beef brisket were excellent; full of flavour and tender. But the chicken I tried from two booths was a let-down. It was leg and thigh meat that was dry and tasteless. The skin on one piece of chicken thigh was unpleasantly tough. Don't order the chicken at an event called Ribfest, I guess.
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It’s a big weekend for lovers of barbecued meat — Ribfest is sizzling and smoking at Bullen Park in Esquimalt.
Barbecued pork and beef ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, chicken, baked beans and coleslaw are stars of the event, alongside beer and more beer, live music and dancing (the patrons dance).
I visited and ate (and ate) shortly after Ribfest opened on Friday morning, while many vendors were still setting up and before the musicians started strumming and singing.
Here are some of the things I discovered.
When you enter, you are greeted by volunteers handing out ballots to vote for the best ribs, and a big donation box. There’s no admission fee, but the event is a fundraiser for the Esquimalt Firefighters Charitable Foundation, so it's good form to drop in a little cash.
Five barbecue vendors are in a row near the entrance, with big signs boasting about their offerings, supplemented by their trophy tables. Since it was early, there wasn’t much of a wait in the ordering lines, but it gets a lot more crowded later in the day. This is a huge event. Last year, organizers estimated 28,000 people attended. When I went in the evening last year, the wait to get to the ordering window on one of the shorter lines was 20 minutes. It was at least twice that at the longest line.
The meat will likely be fresher and hotter if you go when it's busy, since there's no chance for the food to sit around.
Go to the Esquimalt High School alumni tent for the best soft drink and ice cream deals. It's $1 for a can of chilled soda, $1.50 for ice cream, $3 for an ice cream float.
I ordered a full rack of pork ribs for myself. That turned out to be 10 very meaty, saucy ribs. It was too much. Half a rack would have been enough.
The prices are pretty the same at all the barbecue booths. For example: $24 for a full rack for pork ribs, $14 for a half rack; $28 for a full rack of beef ribs, $15 for a half rack. They only accept cash. Prices are line with what you might pay at a local restaurant. (Though there aren't many barbecued meat restaurants in Victoria.)
I confess to ordering the full rack of pork ribs because it's a better deal than the half rack. And indeed it is if you share it with someone, or have greater eating capacity than me.
If you toss your change into the tip jar at some of the booths, someone will yell something along the lines of "Big tipper!" and clang a bell. This, I'm guessing, encourages more people to tip.
When you pick up your order, go over to the eating tools table and roll out a long length of paper towel for yourself. You'll need it. Maybe bring along wet wipes from home if you want to avoid the lineup for the handwashing stations.
Throughout the summer, the rib crews travel to festivals devoted to ribs, such as Esquimalt Ribfest, and to fairs. Many of them were recently at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver. Several of the outfits are family-owned and staffed. They hire a few more people who travel with them, and often supplement with two or three local people to round out a workforce that might number from around a dozen to 20. In the off-season, many of them offer catering at homebase and cooking lessons.
Best of this and best of that contests are part of ribfest culture. That's why you get that ballot when you enter.
Beer is also a big part of ribfest. There's a line of beer tents selling local brews near the stage. There are also booths for ice cream, baked goods, frozen treats, and many other things.
You eat at communal tables where, in my experience, the strangers are eager to chat about their barbecue adventures, their assessments of what they're eating, and their travels in search of good barbecue. I happened upon a group of really eager barbecue people last year.
After you eat, you can take your debris to stations that have three containers: one is labeled for drink containers, one for garbage, and one for organics.
Esquimalt Ribfest continues runs Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Parking for cars is very tight. You can get there on bus routes 15, 25 and 26.
More information is at the Esquimalt Ribfest website, which wasn't working well when I tried it Friday afternoon.
I plan to go to Ribfest again this weekend because I enjoyed the ribs so much, despite overindulging. I will be more restrained on my next visit. Probably.
My post about the 2014 Esquimalt Ribfest
Full rack of pork ribs from the Gator BBQ booth at Esquimalt Ribfest.
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