Judgment Days

Two 'Chronicle' writers, two culinary contests

'Cue Ball

Pigging out at the Taylor International Barbecue Cook-off

I got a call from my old pal Mike Quinn wanting to know if I'd join him as a judge at the Taylor International Barbecue Cook-Off on the weekend of Aug. 20 and 21. "I'd love to do it, but I'll only do it if you go with me," he said. After calling him a wuss for needing a fellow smoked-meat glutton to lean on, I told him it sounded like a hoot, and I'd be there Saturday.

The Taylor contest is nationally known – famous along the Texas barbecue cook-off circuits – and capturing a prize here carries with it serious bragging rights: After all, this was to be the 27th annual, and there would be 102 teams competing. It's hosted by the Taylor Jaycees in Murphy Park, plagued this day with herds of fire ants angered by two straight nights of heavy rain.

We showed up for judge's registration in the adjacent VFW hall to join a throng of serious barbecue critics, most of whom looked like they had been raised on a steady diet of smoked sides of beef and racks of pig ribs. There were big-bellied old-timers that sported vests with dozens of badges from previous years' competitions, and there was an undercurrent of excited salivation coursing through the crowd.

We took a stroll among the competitors (who filled the entire park), and, after looking at their set-ups, you could tell that these guys were serious. Every team had huge portable smoking pits on trailers, piles of wood, power generators for their refrigeration, RVs, dually trucks. Many of these teams are "on the circuit," traveling all over the state like itinerant gypsies to compete every couple of weeks or so. Most of the teams are white, and most are male. It's an expensive hobby, and one dominated by the good ol' boys.

The judges are assigned categories to critique (we got lamb and pork ribs), and there's a rigid schedule for the competitors to deliver their meats sequentially for judging, anonymously sealed in a coded Styrofoam to-go container. Each table has six judges, and each entry gets passed around, with marks assigned by each judge for smell, appearance, smoke ring, seasoning, and, most importantly, taste.

Our lamb entrants were off the mark, although I did grade one 9 (out of a possible 10) for one of the entries. Lamb tasted like they were an afterthought to the majority of these teams. Most were there for the brisket and the pork ribs, but they entered something in every category to try to capture the Best Overall crown.

When we sat down at our pork rib table, they loaded us up with 19 entries to judge. Eating the better part of 19 pork ribs is not something I'd recommend for the amateur nibbler. This is the realm of the true barbecue fanatic and the serious carnivore.

We both waddled away confident that we had done our duty for the Jaycees, and we got a bellyful of some pretty damn good 'cue out of the deal. I'm not sure, but I think I agreed to judge the upcoming Texas Women's Chili Championship. Uurrp ... - Mick Vann

Cocktail Cruise

The official drink of Austin contest

The challenge for bartenders from Austin's finest hotels: Come up with unique recipes using Tito's vodka to create what would become Austin's "official" cocktail – the Batini. Eileen Reid-Buesing of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau invited me to be one of the judges. The event on Aug. 19 was sponsored by Capital Cruises, Live Oak Brewing Co., Tito's Handmade Vodka, Sweet Leaf Tea, Mix 94.7, Bat Conservation International, and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

We boarded the party boat from Capital Cruises and set off just before dusk. We snacked on Ranch 616's famous grilled quail, fiery camarones Ixtapa from Vivo, and homemade focaccia from Chez Zee. Members of Bat Conservation International were onboard the upper deck to answer questions regarding the bats. With Lake Austin's gusty breeze on our backs and a glass of Live Oak Pilz (may I suggest it as the Official Beer of Austin?) in my hand, we watched the bats emerge as we floated in the middle of Town Lake. It was an amazing experience.

We judged the drinks according to taste, presentation, and originality. Personally, I also considered two more things: 1) Would I order and enjoy this drink at a bar; and 2) how representative is this drink of Austin and its culture, vibe, people? After all, it was to become the official cocktail of our city, one that I should proudly push on my out-of-town friends. Each and every one of the skilled bartenders participating put their heart and soul into their creations. It was quite difficult picking a winner, since all the cocktails were very different and very good in their own right. The contest this year was such a hit that the ACVB plans on making it an annual event and opening it up to more participants.

The Marriott's apple martini was nicely tart and less sweet than the average found around town, with a fresher apple taste and a slight bite of chile at the finish. The caramelized apple slice garnish looked elegant and was tasty. The Hilton made a blueberry martini garnished with fresh blueberries and a floating bat cut out of a fresh apple slice. The Driskill, well-known for their martinis, made a deliciously refreshing blender martini with fresh lime juice, a Chambord floater, and fresh raspberries. The Renaissance's bartender outdid himself with a marvelously dry, well-balanced port-and-Tito's martini with a squeeze of fresh lemon. My pick was the Stephen F. Austin's wildly creative martini of ice cold Tito's with a dash of Sgt. Peppers' Chipotle del Sol sauce and a spritz of silver tequila, served with a spicy and savory sangrita chaser. I want this to be my official drink, OK? The winner, now Austin's official Batini, was the spectacularly presented, elaborately layered blue and pink martini from the Four Seasons, dubbed "Dusk 'Til Dawn." Congratulations to Chris Moore, the hotel's talented bartender.

All of these spectacular drinks should appear on their respective bar menus. I, for one, will come drink them. After all, there's an official drink for every occasion. - Claudia Alarcón

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More by Mick Vann
Guantanamera Cuban Cuisine
Guantanamera Cuban Cuisine
Good things come in small packages

May 8, 2015

On the Cheap: Taquito Aviles
Taquito Aviles
Getting our goat on Braker

Feb. 20, 2015


Taylor International BBQ Cookoff

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