The ultimate guide to the Nugget Rib Cook-Off
To celebrate the Nugget Rib Cook-off, here's everything you ever wanted to know about pork ribs . . . but didn't know to ask.
Updated Aug. 29 at 2:30 p.m. with additional interviews
The 29th annual Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off will run Wednesday through Monday at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks.
The region's largest barbecue, music and craft festival opens from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday. Admission, parking and entertainment are free. Each of the 22 booths charge for menu items.
"Behind the scenes it’s a lot of work, but we make it look easy," said Tom Moua, owner of the Montana Q BBQ team from Frenchtown, Mont.
More than 240,000 pounds of pork ribs were served at the event in 2016. The event, including a carnival area with rides and activities, a beer garden featuring craft beers, an arts and crafts festival and top-notch entertainment draws hundreds of thousands of people to Victorian Square every Labor Day weekend.
This year, the Nugget will not host the World Rib-Eating Championships that previously featured Joey “Jaws” Chestnut and other competitive eaters eating more than 9 pounds of rib meat.
Instead, the resources devoted to the contest will go toward improving the VIP Rib Village and adding more musical guests, a spokesperson for the Nugget said.
Twenty-two rib cookers will feed event-goers while competing for a total cash purse of $19,500 and the title of “Best in the West.”
Moua said he comes back because the competition is addicting. Last year, his team won People's Choice and fourth place at the Nugget Rib Cook-off. This year, they will compete for first place again after only three years running the rib cook-off circuit around the country.
Before that, Moua ran a Chinese restaurant in Montana and made Teriyaki chicken and noodles at festivals. But a friend kept pressuring him to turn to barbecue.
"When I got into barbecue I was so green," he said. "My wife and I laughed at how green we were not knowing a thing, and here we are, years later, knowing everything about barbecue."
In his first year, he treated the rib cooking like he would treat his food truck back in Montana. His team put ribs in early morning and pulled them out in time for the event to start.
But the high volume of people overwhelmed them.
Now, like most of the other cookers, they start Tuesday afternoon and cook ribs half-way at night, then finish them in the morning as back-up before starting another fresh batch.
Some cookers make from 120 to 480 racks at a time for three to four hours each batch, he said.
"When you put a good four-hour smoke on, (the ribs) comes out really good with awesome smoke flavor," Moua said. "With the right seasoning on them, it’s juicy and tender and melts in your mouth."
Moua's team makes "naked ribs" with no sauce and only dry rub; though they offer sauce on the side. They also don't finish the ribs on a grill like others do because grilling is not the same as barbecuing, he said.
"Barbecue definition is low and slow," he said. "If I were to glaze anything I would glaze it in the smoker at 250 degrees. Anything else is grilling."
He said the key to winning is perfect meat since rubs and sauces are mostly subjective. Though he will change the rub a little if he competes in Kansas City, southern Nevada, Texas or the Carolinas since each region prefers a specific style.
In Reno, he sticks with sweet, sticky Kansas City-style sauces.
"What I think is the most important is People’s Choice because those are the ones eating it all day," Moua said. “There are only about 12 or 15 judges to please vs. hundreds of thousands of people to please."
Most people like fall-off-the-bone ribs, so if the meat is perfect, the sauce just adds to it, he said.
Last year's winners were:
- Rasta Joe’s BBQ Inc., of Rochester, Indiana
- Bone Daddy’s competitive barbecue team from Midland, Michigan
- Joey’s Texas Thunder, from Borger, Texas
- Montana Q Bar-B-Que House, from Frenchtown, Montana (also won People's choice)
The 22 rib cookers making their return to the Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off are:
- Aussom Aussie BBQ Company (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by way of Sydney, Australia)
- Austin’s Texas Lightning BBQ (Burr Ridge, Illinois)
- Back Forty Texas Barbecue (Pleasant Hill, California)
- The Barbecue Company (Phoenix, Arizona)
- BJ’s Barbecue (Sparks, Nevada)
- Bone Daddy’s BBQ (Midland, Michigan)
- Bourbon Q (Westport, Kentucky)
- Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ (Mt. Laurel, New Jersey)
- Carson City BBQ (Carson City)
- Checkered Pig BBQ (Martinsville, Virginia)
- Chicago BBQ Company (Burr Ridge, Illinois)
- Desperado’s BBQ & Rib Company (Hinckley, Ohio)
- Famous Dave’s BBQ (Plymouth, Minnesota and Reno)
- Hole in the Wall BBQ (Eugene, Oregon)
- Joey’s Texas Thunder BBQ (Borger, Texas)
- Just North of Memphis (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
- Kinder’s Custom Meats Inc. (Concord, California)
- Montana Q Bar-B-Que (Frenchtown, Montana)
- Porky ‘N Beans (Port Saint Lucie, Florida)
- Rasta Joe’s BBQ Inc. (Rochester, Indiana)
- Texas Outlaw Barbecue (Elizabethtown, Kentucky)
- Uncle Bub’s (Westmont, Illinois).
People’s Choice Award Voting
For the first time this year, voting for the People’s Choice Award will be held online. Attendees can vote for their favorite rib cookers by visiting the official Rib Cook Off website at and then clicking on the “Vote Here” link.
Voting begins Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and ends on Sunday 9 p.m. Participants may vote once per day with a valid email address.
The winner will be announced on Monday at 2 p.m. on the Plaza Stage.
The Nugget Casino Resort will host musicians at several stages throughout downtown Sparks. All the entertainment is free.
Main Stage Entertainment
- Wednesday: The Romantics – 7 p.m.
- Thursday: Night Ranger – 7 p.m.
- Friday: Love & Theft – 7 p.m.
- Saturday: Gin Blossoms – 7 p.m.
- Sunday: Eric Paslay – 7 p.m.
- Monday: A Flock of Seagulls – 3 p.m.
Plaza Stage Entertainment
- Wednesday: Bon Fire (Tribute to AC/DC) – 6 p.m.
- Thursday: Shades of Twain (Tribute to Shania Twain) – 6 p.m.
- Friday: Boogie Nights (Classic Disco) – 6 p.m.
- Saturday: Country Artists (Tribute to Kenny Chesney) – 6 p.m.
- Sunday: Life in the Fastlane (Songs of the Eagles) – 6 p.m.
- Monday: Ultimate Stones (Tribute to the Rolling Stones) – 1 p.m.
Two free shuttles will take rib eaters to and from the event. In Sparks, park at the Iron Horse Shopping Center at 535 E. Prater Way.
For those located near south Reno, the Reno Sparks Convention Center is offering another free shuttle in their parking lot on the corner of Coliseum Way and Peckham Lane.
Shuttles run Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Monday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Shuttles will take event goers to the RTC Centennial Plaza.
The kids’ area will be located with craft vendors on the corner of 14th Street and Victorian Avenue, and will include games and rides for kids of all ages. Ride tickets will be available for purchase outside the kids’ area.