Vibes & Vices: Chili Cook-Off @ El Rio BBQ

An imprudently scheduled dental appointment precluded my attendance of 2018’s edition, so I had been looking forward to the 7th edition of the Chili Cook-Off at El Rio BBQ for quite some time.

You see, I’ve loved chili since before I left the Old Country–sure it’s more Tex than Mex, but when it comes to pure deliciousness I could really give a fork–and the setting for the competition couldn’t be better. This time around, I managed to talk my way into a press pass for the hotly anticipated annual event at this relaxed riverside retreat…lucky me.

The Vibes: That morning I had resolved to arrive at the restaurant by 12 sharp in the hopes of snagging some early samples, and after a short ride from downtown Vallarta into the Paso Ancho neighborhood, route R-4 pulled up directly outside the gates of El Rio.

I’d certainly been to worse bus terminals. Inside, the verdant street-level dining area was already filling up with hungry attendees. Down a flight of stairs, a second scenic clearing offered more seating as well as a stage where the first act of the day’s music lineup ran through sound check…but what held my attention at the moment were the rows of tables near the entrance, each with the signature savory stew of local bars and restaurants entered into the competition.

The area was cordoned off with a sign reading “Do Not Enter,” so naturally, the first thing I did was enter because press pass.

Once I slipped by the heavily armed chili guards that only existed in my overactive imagination, I stated to chat up the contestants, many of which I knew from previous entries into this space. I was able to leverage my rapport directly into chili, and it wasn’t until my third cup of chili that my conscience reminded me that there were other people here to enjoy chili as well, which they could not do if I had eaten it all before the contest even started.

Of course, by “my conscience” I mean an event staffer who spotted my gluttony in its early stages. To quote the famed chemist Walter White, “ya got me.”

The Vices: I suppose as an amateur (but experienced) evaluator of chili, I should start this section by outlining what I’m looking for in a savory meat stew. For me chili is comfort food, so my ideal bowl of chili is unapologetically rich, with meat and spice to spare. At the risk of losing friends in the long-standing debate, beans are welcome in my chili as well. Generally, if I stick my eating utensil into the bowl, it should stand upright or the chili was made wrong.

Each of the 18 contestants in the Chili Cook-Off brought their own vision of chili to the table, and it was a privilege to experience them all. Some used cheese and sour cream to distinguish themselves, which is controversial in many chili competitions but all good in my book. Others were made with unique touches like imported spices and craft beer, even chocolate.

Plate partners such as tortilla chips and cornbread also made appearances, although extra points went to the entry with a side of tequila. There was even a pot of vegan chili somewhere in the mix, which was labeled “not for judging” in what I consider to be an inherent admission that the vast majority of vegan foods are objectively inferior.

Entry to the cook-off also included a couple of El Rio’s famous ribs, the specialty of head chef Hollis. We sipped on shots of fine tequila as he gave me a little insight on his process. “It’s my personal recipe, a different style than what people are used to. Most barbeque is either Kansas City or Memphis style, I call mine Pacific style. We use a special local wood, slow-smoke them for at least 6 hours…people love ‘em.”

I may be a late addition to the club, but you can go ahead and count me as a new fan.

As I finished off my last cups of chili, the lively sound of the Texas Embassy Blues Band helped me fight off the mild food coma. The 9 piece band juiced up the joint with jazzy jams, and one couple of eternal lovebirds in particular put on a show of their own with a performance that could almost be described as acrobatic. It was a master class in enjoying life, and I was honored to be a student on this day.

The Verdict: When the competition came to a close last year’s champion was dethroned, but the real winners were those in attendance. El Rio BBQ is one of the city’s true standouts, delivering great food and an animated atmosphere in a picturesque setting. It may require a definite decision to make the trip, but at least it’s a good one. Maybe I’ll catch you there.

Info: Felipe Angeles 245, Paso Ancho

7th Annual Chili Cook-Off Winners

February 21, 2019

Popular Vote

1.Captain Don’s

2.Escondida Sports Bar

3.Nacho Daddy

Professional Judging

1.Murphy’s Irish Pub


3.Nacho Daddy

AJ Freeman on Email
AJ Freeman
AJ Freeman is an adventurous spirit, serial friendmaker, and general enthusiast. He lives his everyday life hoping to demonstrate the nearly infinite potential for discovery and wonder on this small wet rock orbiting a dim yellow star in the backwoods of the Milky Way.