The BBQ King of Pleasant Hill

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KQED's BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area's multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1. 

Black-and-white images of a man grilling pork ribs, sitting next to a smoker. The text reads, "The BBQ King of Pleasant Hill, by Raynato Castro (Color by Alex Culang).

A man loads boxes into the truck of his car. Text reads, "It's early, Saturday morning. Everyone's asleep." "Aagh, I need a bigger car." "OK, if I win this cook-off, I'm selling the hatchback and buying a truck."

A cooler and other equipment sit in the trunk of the car in the half-darkness. Text reads, "Today is the 'Back 40 Texas Barbecue 5th Annual Amateur Rib Cook-Off' in Pleasant Hill. Rolls off the tongue." "It's my third barbecue competition ever."

Illustration of a group of barbecue hobbyists lined up in a row. Text reads, "My first one was only a month ago at the King of the County Cook-Off in Martinez. My team placed 7th out of 24 teams." "Not bad for a first showing."

The same row of people as the previous panel, but all but two men have faded away. Text reads, "The second cook-off was two weeks later at the Clayton BBQ Cook-Off. My team had shrunk down to just me and one friend." "We placed 12th out of 28 teams."

One remaining man looks fearfully in both directions. Text reads, "This time, I'm on my own." "But I'm kind looking forward to it."

Side by side illustration of the same man: on the left, he's a grillmaster holding a pair of tongs. On the right, he's wearing a dentist's white coat and holding a giant toothbrush. Text reads, "You see, when I'm not doing barbecue, I'm actually a full-time dentist." "I'm constantly busy, trying to keep patients and staff happy."

A giant set of dentures holding a pork rib between its teeth. Text reads, "When I compete in this cook-off, I get to do it all by myself. I won't be anyone's captain or boss. No training anyone, no setting of expectations. If I win, it's all me. If I lose..." "'s all me."

A dentist wearing magnifying eyeglasses peers under the lid of a barbecue smoker, only to see a 7th place trophy. Text reads, "Aw, crud." "Dentists have to be detail-oriented to work on people's teeth. I carry these high standards over to my cooking. I like to think that this is my secret advantage in BBQ." "Though it hasn't panned out in the last two cook-offs."

In a dark bedroom, a man kisses his wife and baby, who are still sleeping. Text reads, "Smooch." "I'll see you later."

The sun is rising between two purple-blue hills, as a single car with its headlights on drives down the winding road. Text reads, "Years ago, I was driving my sister-in-law down the same road I'm driving on right now. Sister-in-law told me, 'Ray, Lindsey is so beautiful. And you, you're so ugly!' That's how she makes conversation." "At family barbecues, she also made sure to let me know what she thought of my cooking."

Three pieces of meat on a grill, glowing as orange flames come up through the grate. Text reads, "Ray, everything's burnt. Who's gonna eat this?!" "Aiyah! So stupid." "Hey, the first batch always gets kinda burnt...the coals are hot!" "She was right. I sucked. No one else had ever pointed that out."

Spotlight shines down on a queen sitting in her throne while a man in an apron holds up a bone-in hame over his head. Text reads, "I saw it as a challenge. It was for honor! I had to save face." "My wife thinks it's hilarious that my sister-in-law is my inspiration for getting good at BBQ." "But it's true." "Thank you, sister-in-law, for being my BBQ tiger mom." "Good. You're still ugly."

A car pulls up to a old-fashioned saloon style restaurant with an orange facade. Text reads, "All right, I'm here!" "I make it to Back Forty Texas BBQ. It's a popular restaurant that made its name by winning lots of People's Choice competitions, like the one in Reno attended by 400,000 people!" "Every year they host an amateur cook-off to let regular guys like me feel like rock stars for the day."

A stack of $20 bills and a gold plaque that reads, "1st Place 2019, Your Name Here, Amateur Rib Cook-Off." Text reads, "First place wins $600 and a gift card to the restaurant. Even more impressive, the winner's name is etched on a plaque at the front of the restaurant for all to admire." "Don't they know that dentists don't like plaque? Sorry, everyone."

Two older men clink glasses while standing in front of their own respective smokers. Text reads, "Why would a person even want to compete? Because of the camaraderie. Because of the rivalry. Because it's fun." "Because after doing a hobby for so many years, you want to see how your skills stack up."

The same two men from the previous panel, now battling against each other as though in a arcade fighting game. Text reads, "It's like playing the multiplayer after finishing the singleplayer in a video game. It keeps it fresh!" "You can compete in literally anything, so why not BBQ?"

Man unloads crate from his car in the early morning light. Text reads, "Oh boy, there are those guys that won 3rd place at Clayton." "The competition takes place in the parking lot of the restaurant. Everyone's unloading their trucks (and not hatchbacks). "This is the chest-puffing, ego-checking part of the day."

Man looks nervously at a table covered with first place trophies. Text reads, "I walk past the other tables and try not to get too distracted." "Look at these trophies. Wait—they put me right next to last year's winner? Uhh... I'm not nervous! I'm not nervous." "Whoa! Look at that smoker! I thought this was for amateurs!"

Man walks away from a tented station set up with barbecue equipment and walks toward a small crowd that has gathered. Text reads, "After setting up, I head over to where the organizers go over the rules." "...No marinades. No offering of samples to the public. Racks must be submitted by 1pm. Fires out by 2 pm... and have fun!" "There are lots of smiles, but also lots of poker faces."

A 19th century-style tycoon runs away carrying a golden piece of brisket (marked "A5 Wagyu") while a regular guy chases him holding a burning torch. Text reads, "At cook-offs, competitors usually bring their own meats to cook that day. To get an edge, many teams will use the best, most expensive cuts available." "Fortunately, this cook-off is nice for regular guys like me because the organizers provide all the meat."

Four barbecue competition contestants look frazzled but determined. Text reads, "'Let the competition begin!' The moment we've all been waiting for is finally here! The racks of ribs are set on tables against the side of the restaurant. It's a Black Friday rush to get the best ones." "How many racks are you gonna cook?!" "Hey, these ones! Not those! Put those back!" "I'm gonna need a bigger grill!" "I feel like I'm on Chopped!"

A barbecue competitor watches while one of his rivals squirts lighter fluid onto her grill. Text reads, "We're all getting our fires going. Chimneys, charcoal, pellets, wood chunks, lighter fluid. The smell of smoke fills the air, like a new Pope has been chosen." "Lighter fluid, eh?" "Yeah, what's it to ya?"

The man's arms are a whirlwind of movement as he prepares and seasons his raw rack of ribs. Text reads, "And then... quiet. The chatter stops. Anyone who's into a craft knows this feeling. Zen takes over. You don't even feel like you're working or that there are others around you." "Doing the thing you've done a million times."

Man sits in a chair facing a barbecue smoker, with a gorgeous blue sky in the background. Text reads, "Before I know it, my ribs are on the smoker. Now it's a waiting game." "If there's one thing you miss about having a teammate, it's being able to pass the time with someone." "So, you come here often?" "You know I'm an inanimate object, right?"

The man finishes seasoning his ribs as a couple of fancy-looking chefs in chef hats stride past. Text reads, "Some hours go by and there's a murmur in the crowd. It's the judges; they've arrived. They are all local chefs and restaurant owners. They know their stuff." "It's time to start looking at which ribs to submit." "Oh man, it's getting real."

Hands holding an open box of ribs over a bed of greens. Text reads, "Judging is inherently subjective, but just like with any good food, the taste should be a balance of salt, sweet, acid, fat and heat." "Thought has to be given to presentation as well. Do the ribs look tasty? Red, not gray. Glossy, not dull. We eat with our eyes first."

Hand holding a single rib with a bite in it. Text reads, "Last , but definitely not least, the texture has to be spot on. You want a crusty bark that gives way to tender meat that bites cleanly off the bone, but does not sloppily 'fall off.'" "It's a misconception in barbecue that mea has to be 'fall off the bone' to be good. This isn't a crockpot competition!

Barbecue competitors are handling meat with tongs and passing boxes of samples to the judges. Text reads, "'One hour remaining! Get your trays ready!' It's the moment of truth. Teams are slicing their racks, sampling, trying to decide which is the best of the bunch." "I evaluate mine: Nice glaze. Sweet & salty. Just a little heat. Tender. My best yet.

Hand holding a playing card: the jack of clubs. Text reads, "The organizers give you a playing card that they'll use later to identify the winning team." "I get the Jack of Clubs."

Three smiling men taking a bite out of a rib. Text reads, "We start crowding into the main hall for the awards ceremony. Near the entrance, a group of competitors are sharing ribs. ...Sure, why not?" "Ray, let's try yours. ...Whoa, damn!" "You really haven't won before?"

Man sits at a table with his wife and child, making a shushing motion with his hand to tell the kid to quiet down. Text reads, "Everyone's seated. The organizers thank us all for being here. We give ourselves a round of applause for a long day." "My wife arrives just in time to enjoy the atmosphere." "You smell really bad." "Shhh... It's about to start." "They begin announcing the winners."

Man with baseball cap pulled low so his face is in shadow. Text reads, "Third place. Five... of hearts." "Second place. Queen... of diamonds." "Chef's choice. King... of Spades." "Welp, I haven't been called yet. Maybe I need a new hobby..." "And... first place... Jack... of Clubs!" "Holy crap, that's me!"

Man stands in the spotlight with arms upraised in victory as the audience claps. Text reads, "I shoot up out of my chair. My wife is surprised, but proud. She gives me a lil' kiss. Everyone's just kinda looking at us." "Then, genuine applause, starting with the fellas who tried my ribs earlier." "After two other competitions and a whole lot of self-prescribed stress, it was finally all worth it."

Man holds a trophy with a delighted smile. Text reads, "The BBQ King of Pleasant Hill."

A red and gold first place trophy strapped into the carseat by a seatbelt. Text reads, "I pack up my tiny little hatchback. Turns out, it fits plenty. All my equipment and a 1st place trophy."

Raynato Castro is a dentist, cartoonist, good barbecuer, bad guitarist and, most of all, a dad. He maintains a dental practice in San Pablo, California, and is also the co-artist of the webcomic, Buttersafe.