Gasoline Alley cook-off team is known for sweet wood smoke, friendships and award-winning barbecue
When members of the Gasoline Alley Cookers go shopping, the list might look something like this: 150 pounds of sausage; 160 racks of ribs; and 50 cuts of brisket. And that’s just the beginning.
The cook-off team, founded 35 years ago and initially consisting of refinery workers, is known regionally for award-winning barbecue that comes off a red oak-fired grill.
As good-natured jokes mingle with the sweet wood smoke and strains of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” Gasoline Alley Cookers founding member Arnold Ybarra explains the secret of the group’s success.
“Persistence,” Ybarra said, adding that three years ago, he also was able to recruit a not-so-secret weapon in the person of Arnold Garza, owner of La Marque’s Texas Pit Stop BBQ.
“I had to break two of his arms and both his legs, but I finally convinced him to join us,” Ybarra said with a smile.
In addition to Garza, who acts as head cook, the group recently welcomed Sous Chef Rick Anderson, whose background includes working with NASA as a spacecraft technician. Anderson is the detail man, and his duties include watching the clock, Garza jokes.
“Timing is everything,” said Garza, noting that this is among the factors that make cook-offs more difficult than restaurant cooking. “My buddy Rick keeps me on my toes.”
Although Gasoline Alley members refer to themselves as a team, in many ways they’re more a family, with everyone pitching in wherever needed.
“We are all about volunteerism,” Robert Ruiz, co-director and group historian, said.
Ruiz, who also is a founding member, stresses that the team not only values quality food but also quality work.
“Everyone here is donating his or her time and talent,” Ruiz said.
Even the background music is provided compliments of Albert Ramirez, owner of the entertainment company D.J. Force, Ruiz said. Ybarra’s wife, Susie, and Ruiz’s wife, Ida, also help, organizing the details of serving, arranging for side dishes and handling other management details.
In these parts, cook-offs are almost as big as football.
The history of the term “cook-off” is uncertain, although the first known official chili cook-off took place at the State Fair of Texas in 1952, and the Pillsbury company had introduced the concept of its now famous “bake-off” three years earlier in 1949. The difference between a cook-off and cooking competition also is open for discussion, although everyone agrees that cook-offs usually involve friends and are always much more fun.
Justifiably proud of the group’s accomplishments, Ruiz shares a rundown of Gasoline Alley’s most recent honors, which have included scoring third place against 144 other contenders in the brisket category at the 2016 World’s Championship of barbecue cookery, held in conjunction earlier this year with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The team did even better a few months later at the Galveston County Fair and Rodeo, winning two trophies and taking third place in both the ribs and crabcakes categories and fourth place in brisket. Most recently, at the Texas City Funfest, the group won first place in the ribs competition, and second place in both the chicken and pulled pork categories.
Despite such awards, the real satisfaction for cook-off team members comes through their participation in such projects as the Black Drum Fishing Tournament, held yearly by Turning Point Gulf Coast, an organization dedicated to providing physically challenged adults and children an opportunity to enjoy outdoor sports and other events that have been specially adapted to their abilities.
“To have a prize-winning team like Gasoline Alley come in and cook such quality food for some 600 participants and guests is invaluable,” David Gaston, executive director of the organization, said. “Even more remarkable, however, is that they do it simply out of the kindness of their hearts.”
For Ruiz, however, the blessings go both ways.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done for any charity,” he said.