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The Best in the West: Nugget Rib Cook-off in Sparks, Nevada

"Pitmasters here represent the entire nation."

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[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

I had the most perfect Labor Day planned, a lazy afternoon next to the smoker filled with pork, some beers, and close friends. That was until I received an invitation to visit the The Best in the West: Nugget Rib Cook-off in Nevada. After a second pause contemplating whether I wanted to alter my ideal holiday, I thought better of my reservations, and before I knew it, I was on a plane headed for a weekend of pure barbecue bliss.

If you're an East Coaster like myself, the Nugget Rib Cook-off may not sound familiar, but for the pitmasters and attendees alike, it's the biggest event of the year. The six-day cook-off, put on by the John Ascuaga's Nugget hotel, is in its 21st year and is comprised of 24 barbecue teams, a handful of other food vendors selling everything from grilled corn to elaborate candied apples, as well as live music, and a large array of craft stalls all occupying a strip of road about seven blocks long in Sparks, Nevada, just steps away from the Biggest Little City in the West.

The festivities kicked off with a competitive rib eating competition, this year won by Pat Bertoletti who downed 5.8 pounds of ribs in 12 minutes (the famed Joey Chestnut was a close second with 5.7 pounds), and culminated with the much anticipated announcement of the year's best-tasting ribs.

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Pitmasters here represent the entire nation, spanning from Butch's Smack Your Lips BBQ in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, to Armadillo Willy's in Los Altos, California, and everywhere in between, all of whom are vying for the coveted title of "Best Ribs."

To level the paying field, all barbecue teams receive the same St. Louis cut of ribs from a single supplier, leaving the combination of smoke, rub, and sauce to be the defining characteristics for judges. A $7,500 prize is on the line but the bragging rights are probably just as important. Last year's winner, Bill Wall from Bone Daddy's BBQ in Midland, Michigan, enjoyed three times the sales of his previous year.

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The amount of barbecue teams and vendors have stayed somewhat consistent throughout the Nugget Rib Cook-off's lifespan, but each year it draws more and more of a crowd. On Saturday night, the pork supplier said they were on-par to match what they sold last year (150,000 pounds of St. Louis ribs) only to catch up with me Sunday morning to up that figure to 200,000 pounds (roughly 100,000 slabs).

Unlike the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, where long waits for barbecue can be daunting to say the least, the immense crowds are manageable here, with lines more dispersed because of increased space and more vendors.

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Though the ribs are the main event, the pitmasters' menus vary widely—it's possible to get almost any type of barbecue or side your heart desires. Along with Mike Mills's famous ribs, the Memphis Championship Barbecue team was offering pulled pork, tri-tip, chicken, beans, and sublime fried dill pickles. You could also get your hands on world-class hush puppies from the Checkered Pig, beef ribs or brisket from Carson City BBQ, or grilled shrimp from Aussom Aussie's, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

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Even though my eating focus was on ribs (more on that in a later post), I couldn't help but partake in a few of these extras, none standing out more than the Kick Ass fries (they must be ordered by name), the brainchild of Jay Rathmann at BJ's Barbeque. These thin-cut fries, made from flavorful Nevada potatoes, are twice-fried then topped with juicy cherry wood-smoked pulled pork, cheddar cheese, and a sweet Louisiana-style barbecue sauce, a seemingly odd combination that defies explanation in the best way possible.

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Clockwise from top left: Jay and Kayce Rathmann from BJ's Barbeque, Ray Gill from Razorback Cookers, Amy Mills from Memphis Championship Barbecue with Butch Lupinetti from Butch's Smack Your Lips BBQ

Despite the competitive vibe, there was also a sense of camaraderie. The crews here travel the barbecue circuits all summer, some stopping at 26 different events a year. A sense of family comes along with spending so much time together. The day was filled with sharing food and stories, all served up by a cast of characters that out-shown the bright lights of the casino.

For me, although the setting and cast had changed, my Labor Day weekend of barbecue and friends became a reality. I couldn't think of a better way to spend the holiday than at Nugget Rib Cook-off.

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