Rib pig-out

Rating: NNNNNMeandering through the down-town core, I notice a sidewalk sign I've never seen before that reminds me of the.

Rating: NNNNN

Meandering through the down-town core, I notice a sidewalk sign I’ve never seen before that reminds me of the philosophical wisdom of Aristophanes. “Don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can’t cash.”

Another slogan, this one posted in front of rib joint the Purple Pig (1 Richmond West, 366-6465), announces that its porkers have been “voted best ribs in North America.”

Closer inspection of the newspaper clippings pasted in the Pig’s front window reveals that it won the People’s Choice Award at the fifth annual Ontario Pork Rotary Ribfest held in Burlington this past summer. The Muskoka-based eatery — located conveniently “right beside the beer store,” according to its menu — skunked a dozen others, including Watertown’s Turtle Jacks, London’s Crazy Canuck and Oakville’s Eskimo Joe’s. Six Yankee rotisseries took part as well.

Too bad Hong Fatt (443 Dundas West, 977-3945) didn’t compete. They’d have knocked off the bunch of them, as I discovered while indulging in an extended ribfest of my own.

Jennifer Convertible’s a bit leery of the cops hanging around the Chinese eatery, but relaxes when she realizes they’re only trying to arrest their appetites. These ribs easily wind up being the best we run into — and the least expensive, at $5.50 a pound.

Slightly fatty, these meaty mahogany-hued beauties are infused with five-spice powder. There’s also first-rate barbecued duck ($6.90/half). The rest of the roster is filled with the usual suspects of noodles and soup, but if you’re doing takeout, cross the street to Famous Seafood & BBQ (444 Dundas West, 206-0692) for the side dishes. While also winners, their pork ribs ($5.95/pound) aren’t as tasty as Hong Fatt’s.

But the side orders displayed at the front of the restaurant make great accompaniments to the ribs — sticky rice wrapped in banana-leaves ($2), dry-fried green beans with minced pork, and deep-fried tofu with Chinese mushrooms (both $3).

Back at the Purple Pig, the Richmond West venue has had several incarnations, most recently as Cabo. Although the food’s changed, not much else has. This Pig’s still a sports bar decked out in autographed Maple Leaf jerseys — Carl Brewer! — and lined with TVs simultaneously playing TSN, stock market updates and closed-captioned black-and-white Andy of Mayberry reruns.

Snagging a booth in the upper cafeteria area, Jennifer and I are about to put the Pig’s claims through our own taste test. I start with today’s soup, three-bean ($3.25), a tomato-sweet mix of legumes, lentils and carrots that could pass for chili if it were a bit thicker.

Convertible flunks the first contestant, the Pig’s Famous Back Ribs ($17.99 full-rack/$11.55 half-rack). Half bone, the ribs are ridiculously over-grilled, and the peanut-sauce coating’s indiscernible. Alongside comes a thimbleful of canned baked beans, a penalty of frozen corn and a hockey puck of parsley-freckled cardboard rice.

My first of two appetizers fares somewhat better. Seven meaty side-cut smoked ribs ($8.50) retain some pinkness, arrive nicely grill-marked and basted with a generic barbecue sauce. The second, dry ribs ($7.25) finds another group of seven, only this time deep-fried to death. Dry indeed. The honey-Dijon dip that sits next to them would feel more at home on a salad.

The Pulled Pig Sandwich ($7.25) should be just that, pulled off the menu. Purportedly pork tenderloin, the meat has none of the slow-cooked tenderness that typifies this dish. Served drowning in sugary sauce on an open-faced kaiser and flanked by industrial coleslaw, these withered shards are joined by crisp oversized McCain fries that Convertible quickly inhales.

Our hopes aren’t high on the hog for Red Devil (14 Duncan, 598-5209), a local spot that lost out to the Pig in last summer’s competition. They’re nowhere near as flavour-infused or mouth-melting as Dipamo’s succulent pork (Toronto’s best in my opinion see listing below) — the College Street beanery wasn’t invited to take part in the cook-off — but the theatre district boite’s efforts are far from losers.

Grabbing a window seat that overlooks Mamma Mia’s stage door, we dig into the Tailgate combo ($19.49), a sampler of the Devil’s handiwork. Although listed as being “bad to the bone,” they’re actually quite good. Comprising two beefy prime ribs, four St. Louis-style side ribs and a half-dozen baby back ribs, all are perfectly grilled, appropriately smoked and basted in just the right amount of barbecue sauce. What were the Ribfest folks smoking?

From the choice of sides, we go with lumpy-correct mashed potatoes dotted with frozen corn (why?) and molasses-rich house-made baked beans. To fire things up further, there are a number of hot sauces with names like “Asbirnin.” There’s even a hot sauce boutique in the foyer.

It’s a good thing Baton Rouge (216 Yonge, 593-9667), a Quebec-based chain, didn’t enter the run-off. Based on the ribs I try at their Eaton Centre outlet, they wouldn’t have won any prizes. Usually, meat is described as falling from the bone. These barbecue baby back bibs ($19) have been cooked so long the bone falls off the meat, a great gray slab o’ dried-out pork.

They get no help from an excess of extra-sugary sauce and a pile of crunchy beans so saccharine there’s no need to order dessert. Salty frozen fries, too.

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