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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Food Festivals :: Ribfest

Verdict: Go early, go hungry, and go with a group! 
Meal: Lunch & dinner 
Price: $20-22 for a full rack
Location: All around Southern Ontario. Upcoming fests include Mississauga (NOW!), Kitchener, London, Milton and The Big Kahuna: Burlington.

One of the great perks of living in Toronto are the food festivals! Every summer, I discover something new and exciting to try. The best part? It's a fun day outdoors with friends who are just as excited as I am to try some good eats. What up Food Fests! Everyone gets caught up in the excitement and before you know it, you're all running around looking for the best vendor to sample from. Finish off on a patio with a cold pint, and you can't argue that wasn't a great day.

I've done quite a poor job at documenting my shenanigans at these festivals and I won't be able to hit as many this year as usual - but that doesn't mean I can't share what I know, whatever little it may be. Let's start by seeing what's on this weekend...There's still time to hop on the TTC/your bike/car and make your way down!

Friday: 11am-11pm | Saturday: 11am-11pm | Sunday: 11am-7pm - Living Arts Centre (next to Square One)

Friday: 6pm-12am | Saturday: 12pm–12am | Sunday: 12-8pm - Harbourfront Centre

Saturday & Sunday - Centre Island

Saturday & Sunday - Gerrard street East between Greenwood and Coxwell streets.

Saturday: 11am–7pm | Sunday: 11am-7pm - Nathan Phillips Square

Horrifyingly, I've only hit 1 of these...Mississauga Ribfest. I heard that the Festival of India is not worth the trip to Centre Island (not many food vendors) but I wouldn't know from personal experience. Skip at your own risk.

Om nom nom nom...Ribfest!
I've learned that every Ribfest has its own flavour (I need better puns) and require a different strategy to reap the most benefits. For instance, Etobicoke's Ribfest at Centennial Park always lands on Canada Day weekend which means it will be PACKED. However, the plethora of vendors gives you a huge variety and they always have a fireworks show in the evening - what a great way to spend Canada Day!

Particularly for Etobicoke, the earlier you go the better. Case in point:
Etobicoke Ribfest at 11AM
Etobicoke Ribfest at 6PM

That's quite a difference! (Thanks, Captain Obvious!)

While I'd only go if I happened to be in those areas, Guelph and London Ribfests are great because the crowds are considerably smaller - leading to shorter lines & quicker om nom nom'ing. Vendors seem less keen on purposely slowing down their service. Last year I overheard a guy ask employees to let the line grow in Etobicoke - a strategy that targets those who think the longest line means the best ribber. Experience has taught me otherwise!

Pulled pulled sammy, baked beans, and coleslaw from Camp 31
Last year, I enjoyed Mississauga more than Etobicoke. The crowd was smaller, my favourite vendors were there, and the only mishap was when I spilled all the fruit from an elephant ear on my pants. One minute I'm happily balancing a full rack of ribs, cob of corn, and elephant ear with my friend's car in sight, the next it looks like I'm doing a weird interpretive dance because there's fruit and syrup sopping all over my khakis and I refuse to lose the ear, ribs, or corn. I kept my greedy little paws on all three, sacrificing my pants as I frantically tried to save the ear from sliding off the plate and into the backseat of the car. All this while keeping a stubborn grib on my ribs.

The fruit was sulkily left behind on the parking lot pavement, mixed with dirt and tears and it took quite a bit of scrubbing to get the purple stains out while everyone enjoyed some fight on TV (as if I ever pay attention anyways). Worth it. I crammed every last bit of that elephant ear, and it was delicious. Sans fruit, but still oh-so-good.

So what makes Ribfest a fest? Well lets start with the goodies:
Butterfly Fries
Bloomin' Onion
Elephant Ear
Ribfest isn't complete without a Blooming Onion (the extra dipping sauce is always needed...they know that one won't be enough!). Love love love the blooming onion, get it every year. New this year were butterfly fries - essentially chips, no biggie. You're better off getting the elephant ear topped with fruit! I always wished they had a Nutella or chocolate ice cream option but peaches, blackberries, and strawberries never fail to hit the spot.

Pistol Pete's big, beefy ribs
While the deep fried snacks are great, you are going for the main attraction:  
It's a vegetarian's nightmare, really. By midday, garbage bins are ridiculously overflowing with cardboard containers, gnawed rib bones, and unfinished bloomin' onions that people couldn't finish (maybe because they didn't get the extra dipping sauce - I'm telling you that it's a must!). This year, I saw many full plates of butterfly fries in the mountain of garbage - as I said, they're nothing special. 

Children are hopped up on sugar, faces covered in sticky sweet marinade while the adults are rubbing their bellies that are completely void of any vegetables other than strips of ridiculously deep-fried onion. There's the occasional person noshing on a slice of pizza and french fries instead, but if you aren't chowing on something that clucked, grunted, or mooed then you aren't at Ribfest. You're eating Pizza Pizza at a park, surrounded by a haze of smoke, and thumping loud music. You might as well be in a high school parking lot.

Watch out, you're covering your keyboard with drool!
Ribfest can be a little overwhelming for first-timers. If you don't go with a big group, you're more or less stuck with 1 or 2 vendors and when you get there, there are many to choose from. In my experience, consistently good ribbers are Camp 31 and Billy Bones BBQ. I am particularly fond of Billy Bone's marinade and Camp 31's ribs are always nice, soft, and juicy. I have found Kentucky Smoke House to be consistent too - consistently overcooked and dry.

Generously slathering back ribs
So, what to do? If you can swing it, go on the first day, because that's when ribbers are judged and awarded prizes. They will be giving it their all! I'm quite convinced that the quality of the ribs were much better on opening day in Etobicoke (Ribfest '08) than post-judging days (Ribfests '09 and '10). If possible, go right when it starts, grab some friends/co-workers/anybody who is hungry (i.e. ME) and fan the area for different ribbers. Relax at a table or on the grass with a nice cold beer (yup, they serve beer!) and enjoy comparing different sauces and ribbing skills. The more variety the better, I say.

Can't find a carnivorous group of friends? Everyone occupied with relatively unimportant matters like family commitments, work, or non-food-related activities? Stomach growling from these pictures, and you just need your fix now? If you have to go on your own, you'll probably just pick 1 vendor. Depending what my appetite wanted, I would pick one of the following:

Billy Bones' Chicken & Rib Combo
I am a fan of their marinade and every time I tried, their chicken was nice and juicy. Compared to Gator and Bibbs, I would definitely pick their chicken. They also make decent ribs, although not as tender as Camp 31. I like their sauce because it's pleasantly sweet and tangy, but also has a good smokey taste to it (moreso from the way they cook it)
Camp 31's Pulled Pork & 1/2 Rack
The picture shows their chicken, 1/3 rack, and pulled pork deal, a good sampling of everything! I found the chicken a little dry this year, but the ribs (as usual) were tender and left me wanting more. The pulled pork was good...but I've had better (Lou Dawgs!!) . Still, I'm a fan and I'd pick this combo over just getting their full rack for the variety. Skip the chicken.
Pistol Pete's 1/2 Beef Ribs 1/2 Pork Ribs
Mmmm...this year I decided to try their beef ribs. I have fond memories of eating giant beef ribs in Alberta (fresh from the market then immediately cooked over the campfire - Amazing). Pistol Pete's did not disappoint! Large, meaty beef ribs piled on top half a rack of pork ribs was a solid choice. The dark horse of this year's Ribfest, Pistol Pete left me quite satisfied.

Other decent (but not my favourite) ribbers include Bibbs BBQ and Uncle Sams. Ones that I tend to avoid include Kentucky, Gator, and Crabby.

Verdict: Go early, go hungry, and go with a group!
Meal: Lunch & dinner 
Price: $20-22 for a full rack
Location: All around Southern Ontario. Upcoming fests include Mississauga (NOW!), Kitchener, London, Milton and The Big Kahuna: Burlington.

I'm off to kayak my heart out and enjoy lunch by the river! It's hard to beat a good sandwich and a day of paddling with great company. If we stop by Ribfest on our way back to Toronto, I think I'll give Silver Bullet a go...but I also have a hankering for some Portuguese Chicken. Until next time!


Vince said...

You forgot about the one at Woodbine Park that happened about a month ago. It's a small one, but it's subway accessible and there was a free pig ride!

Erin said...

Free pig ride?! Sounds like I missed out! I was competing at the Toronto Islands Dragonboat Festival that weekend, so I couldn't go. I enjoyed some beef murtabak, one of my favourite food festival treats...but I'm not sure if that makes up for missing a pig ride..haha

Al said...

Bumped into your website after seeing your post the the Chow Google Group. Nice photos, though I'd like to see larger images. I'm adding your rss feed to my daily browsing. My food notes are at
Keep eating!


Bearsie said...

You missed the best Ribfest of them all. On Labour Day weekend in Burlington, more than 16 ribbers participate in Canada's largest Ribfest. In addition to the ribs, there are many other vendors with all of the prerequisites... bloomin' onion, corn on the cob, taters, pierogies, etc. In addition, there is an excellent pub area with great entertainment (live bands) on throughout the day. A word of caution, after 5:00 on Friday, or past 4:00 on Saturday and Sunday, the place is jammed. Makes the Centennial Park Ribfest look like a desert island. Great food, Great fun, Great time!

Erin said...

That's because I'm never been around for Labour Day! It's usually a weekend full of beaching, camping, or cottaging. If I'm around this year then I'm definitely going to check it out

Erin said...

Free pig ride?! Sounds like I missed out! I was competing at the Toronto Islands Dragonboat Festival that weekend, so I couldn't go. I enjoyed some beef murtabak, one of my favourite food festival treats...but I'm not sure if that makes up for missing a pig ride..haha

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