My Washington State Fair grazing has included just about every category: Deep-fried desserts, burgers piled with onions, stuff smothered in cheese, other stuff covered in bacon and even a tour of food-on-a-stick. One year, even healthy food got a turn.
But there was still one category of fair food I had yet to tackle: pork.
Ribs and pulled pork sandwiches, to be exact. Last week, I spent two days eating my way through the fair to find the tastiest standouts in the fair’s porky realm.
I found pork sandwiches in an array of flavors and styles, and I stopped by a few booths that were smoking ribs using the slow-and-low method over wood smoke.
Here’s a tip. Whether coincidence or not, the booths with pulled pork and ribs also happened to provide some of the best covered seating for fair dining.
Here’s where you should head if you’ve got a hankering for pork at the fair, which operates through Sept. 21 in Puyallup.
PULLED PORK SANDWICHES
Pulled pork sandwich, $8
Location: On Midway Boulevard
Tasting notes: Winner for best flavor and portion size.
I found this fork-and-knife sandwich more satisfying than any of the fair burgers in the same price category. Pulled pork sandwiches typically are made with pork shoulder that’s cooked slow and low until all that meat has dissolved into a delicious pile of meat.
At Murph’s, the meat had been cooked down quite a bit, meaning the texture turned a touch stringy (I didn’t find fault with that, but lovers of chunkier pork pieces might).
Flavorwise, the sandwich offered a Carolina-like pucker from the addition of what tasted to be vinegar in the barbecue sauce, which had been lightly applied to the meat. Sweet red bell peppers threaded through the meat were still snappy — a nice touch.
While there: Watch the pit masters cook the meats over a cherrywood-fueled grill. Mesquite and cherry fuel the smokers in the back.
Seating: Two adjacent covered seating areas make this among the best destinations for booth dining.
LADY LUCK’S COWGRILL UP
Carolina pork burger, $9
Location: Behind the south end of the Skyride terminal
Tasting notes: Winner for snappy texture. This sandwich could fit right in at any Carolina barbecue. The sandwich came with an authentic hit of pucker in the sauce. (Depending on which part of the Carolinas you’re in, that pucker will be from vinegar or mustard, or both.)
That sweet, tangy barbecue sauce played well with meat that was thoroughly seasoned and heavy on porky flavor.
The portion size was substantial, but a third of that was griddled onions, which helped soften the texture of the sandwich. Here was the best part: The sandwich was topped with coleslaw — another hallmark of a Carolina pork sandwich — which added a much-needed snap to cut the rich fat.
Seating: Covered area for all ages, with a separate cantina for diners 21 and older.
BBQ PETE’S WOOD PIT BARBECUE
BBQ pork sandwich, $7.49
Location: Near the W.H. Paulhamus Arena (just look for the smoke)
Tasting notes: Winner for smokiest flavor. This sandwich looked to be about half the portion of Murphy’s sandwich, but it held double the dose of smoke. This fair institution smokes its meats over an open wood pit fueled with alderwood, which gives the pork and chicken deep complexity.
Still, the pork here tasted under seasoned, which some diners will like (not me, though). You must be a fan of molasses-sweetened, tomato-based barbecue sauce to appreciate the thick slathering of sauce.
Seating: Tidy covered picnic benches in a large covered area.
Pulled pork sandwich, $8
Location: Near the Gold Gate
Tasting notes: Winner for meatiest pieces of pork in a sandwich. Slow-cooked juicy pork was sizzled on the edges. Pork here came in much larger chunks and tasted lightly hit with smoke. Even better? No discernable sauce on the sandwich. If you prefer yours slathered, housemade barbecue sauce is available in two flavors on the condiment table.
Seating: Lovely room that was continuously cleaned with covered seating at communal picnic tables.
Diners can head to two booths for racks of ribs cooked low and slow: I evaluated ribs at BBQ Pete’s and Longhorn. Here’s what I found.
BBQ Pete’s: The three-bone rib dinner ($14.49) tasted lightly of smoke. These ribs hadn’t cooked long enough — the meat proved truly tough to free from the bone. We had to gnaw our way through the bones. The seasoning also had not penetrated the exterior and the slather of barbecue sauce made me wish I had ordered the ribs the purists’s way: “naked.” Meat here is slow-cooked over a pit fueled by alderwood.
For sides, the baked beans tasted mighty fine, but the corn on the cob was chewy.
Longhorn: The four-bone rib dinner ($15) came with ribs that had been cooked almost to the point of perfection, but not quite enough to make for an easy release from the bone. They were easier to chew through than BBQ Pete’s, though. Ribs here tasted fully seasoned to the bone with a nice showing of smoke. Meat here is pit smoked using a combination of fruitwood, birch and alder. Longhorn ribs were served the purist’s way: just a finishing sauce glaze.
For sides, the baked beans were tasty, but select the snappy slaw over the potato salad — it had been made with undercooked potatoes.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals – even the terrible ones.