Nestled below the scenic, snow-capped (occasionally) San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Anita Park is one of the premiere sites for horse racing in the country. On Saturday, March 21st, it also becomes the location of the prestigious 4th Annual Winner’s Circle BBQ Championship, enabling the winner to attend two of the top invitational BBQ events in the world. Ben Lobenstein, BBQ aficionado and co-producer of the event, thinks Santa Anita is a perfect location for this tasteful day. “Santa Anita is one of the most amazing horse race tracks in the world”, Ben said. “It is a facility that was built in the ’30s, it is a very Art Deco style type of building. The insides of the grandstands have so many different amenities it’s unbelievable! They spent $100 million in the last year remodeling just a handful of areas inside the grandstand, including the Chandelier Room and other places that are very, very elegant. It looks like it is from an old Clark Gable movie, it is like WOW! The actual grounds that we are on is around six and a half acres of plush grass in the infield. The horses are racing around the barbeque competitors about every half hour starting at 12:30pm. Santa Anita has had the same announcer for years, the races are started with the traditional bugle to post. Two thousand horses are housed at Santa Anita on a regular day. It is one of the most unique venues on the BBQ circuit, hence we have people coming from seven states, including Maryland, Kansas, Missouri, Washington state and New York”, he added.
The Santa Anita Winner’s Circle BBQ Championship is set up so it is not just a contest. In fact, it is geared more towards the guests than just about any similar event. “We came up with the idea of doing the ‘Rib Row’ concept not by accident but by design”, Ben said, talking about one of the highlights of the event. “From an outsider’s perspective, people come to a BBQ cook off, I would wouldn’t say only to eat ribs, but if ribs were not on the menu, you would get a lot of grumpy folks. We decided that we would invest in the idea of making ribs a specific element of the contest. The ‘Rib Row’ is not a contest, there is no winner of ‘Rib Row’ other than the people coming to the event. This is what we see as some of the next steps in a BBQ contest. We know that in a KCBS BBQ contest, if it was just the BBQ contest, it isn’t as interesting to an outsider as someone might think. You can walk around, see them cooking the meat, preparing the boxes, see food demonstrations……it’s not generally a public-friendly event, given the fact that Californians are such a foodie culture. You wouldn’t go to a BBQ contest without being able to taste the food! Certain events have a portion called ‘A Taste of Barbeque’. We’ve taken it to the next level with ‘Rib Row’, which gives the public ribs because that is what they are out there for. We see this as the evolution of the event”, Ben concluded.
They brought the same concept to their style of ‘People’s Choice’ challenge too. Each pack of 10 tasting tickets includes a single VOTE ticket, to be used at the guest’s favorite place. The concept of being able to sample from many more BBQ vendors means that lines will move quicker. “ We are trying to structure a People’s Choice event where it’s really a taste and stroll. And while there may be lines, because all the serving sizes are smaller and the menu limited, a team cannot have sixty items on their menu. They should be able to have some samples and one featured item, which is their ‘Star of the Show’. That should move the lines quicker. While the lines may still be long, they will move quickly because there is not a complex menu”.
According to Ben, “Everything is based on a small plate or sample size format. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy more than one of an item, it just means that everything should be six tickets or less. That way, you don’t get so full from one BBQ team that you can’t try food from another. So that’s the structure behind the structure of this. You could still do a slider, some mac and cheese, cole slaw, beans, but it is going to be a small portion size. I don’t mean so small that it will leave you hungry, although there are certainly tastes of pulled pork, we call them ‘shot cups’ of pulled pork, pig candy, which is candied bacon, or other delicacies like moinkballs that are one ticket and just bite-sized portions. A single bite, a little taste. The objective there is to give these guys a little creative leeway while not creating a scenario where you spend all 10 tickets at one place and never eat another item”.
There are two main contests at the Championship, both sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and the California BBQ Association (CBBQA). The State Championship gets the winner an invitation to the American Royal BBQ Championship held at the beginning of October in Kansas City, Missouri. It also gives the winner a draw for the honor of representing California at the Jack Daniels Invitational World Championship of Barbeque, also held in Kansas City but at the end of October. The Jack Daniels is the most prestigious event in barbeque, often called the ‘World Series of Barbecue’, with approximately 110 teams in the running, of which 90 are teams from from outside the United States.
The other big contest at Santa Anita is the Kid’s Que, an event that is very dear to Ben’s heart. “The Kid’s Que event is going to be run through the KCBS scoring system, they will turn their entries in inside of a standard 9×9 inch styrofoam container, it will be judged by the KCBS judges. My very first certified barbeque judging experience after I was trained was a Kid’s Que event. It was an open event, meaning that they used whatever kind of meat they wanted. I tell you, for years after the Kid’s Que I told people this was the best food I ever ate! I just can’t imagine how kids did that. The Virtual Weber Bullet, a website dedicated to everything you wanted to know about your Weber, but not affiliated with Weber, is the sponsor. They are sponsoring the grilles, so everybody gets to take home their brand shiny new cooking device that only they have cooked on. It is a nice touch. It is great for the kids, thirty-five dollars to get in and you get a grill worth thirty-five dollars or more. The kid’s adult ‘assistant’ will supervise and coach them but will not do the work unless they feel it is something risky to the child such as knife handling, live coals, that sort of thing. The idea is that we are going to set a fire in a Santa Maria style pit and then scoop up the coals and dispense it to the kid’s grills”.
There will be lots of special guests at the Santa Anita Winner’s Circle BBQ Championship. As Ben said, “Our Kid’s Que emcee and host is Troy Glass, he is from Master Chef Junior Season One, he was a semi-finalist for Master Chef Junior. He is likely going to do beef ribs as his demo. In addition to having him on the demo stage, we will have Chef Rahm Fama. Chef Fama has a book which has the same name as his Food Network show, ‘Meat and Potatoes’. His show is kind of like ‘Diners Drive Ins and Dives’ but focuses in on things that people are doing uniquely with meat. He’s going to do some demos. Then Chef Bev, a Hell’s Kitchen Season 12 Chef, who runs an online blog called ‘Coolinary Trends’ and also has a Sriracha bottle tattooed on her arm, will be doing some demos”. Notable teams include Big Poppa’s Smokers who won the 2012 American Royal Invitational and the 2012 Jack Daniels Invitational, Three Eyz BBQ, out of Maryland, who was the 2012 Kansas City Barbeque Society United States Team of the Year, last year’s California Team of the Year, Simply Marvelous and BigMista’s. Also Barrel and Ashes, a Los Angeles high-end barbeque restaurant will be there.
There will be a live band performing and also a kid’s zone as well as many vendors selling everything from BBQ sauces and rubs to scented candles and purses. All attendees will have access to the grandstands if they want to water the races from there or wager on the ponies. Ben suggested also to “Come early! Being there early gets you the best selection, and the least amount of line. That would be number one. Number two, if you are coming as a group, split up and reconvene once you have some food. You can bring your own chairs, camping chairs for example and that really helps. You always have a seat if you bring your own chair! Vote early and vote often, because you can!”. Ben knows what tastes he’ll be going for, “I’m a brisket or a beef rib kind of guy, through and through. Brisket is easily right up there with the beef ribs”. He added one other bit of advice for attendees of the event. “Teams that don’t have lines don’t have good barbeque. Not true! Everybody in barbeque is different and probably worth trying. You may find that you like the one that you waited in line LESS than some of the others, but that’s the fun of trying all of the different things”.
The 4th Annual Winner’s Circle BBQ Championship takes place on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at Santa Anita Park. The Park is located at 285 W. Huntington Drive, Arcadia. Gates open at 10:30 am, live horse racing starts at 12:30pm. Event admission is $5.00 and includes admission to the Santa Anita Grandstands. Free children’s admission with each paid adult. Free parking through Gate 6.
For information and tickets visit the website, http://santaanitabbq.com.