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October 21, 2014

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No longer chicken, Las Vegas barbecuers to compete at Jack Daniels world championship

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A poster advertises the 2012 Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

For years, Steven Overlay and his competitive barbecue team, the Sin City Smokers, struggled with the chicken.

Overlay and his team, which includes his wife and her parents, compete in barbecue contests across the country. Overlay does the cooking. His ribs and pork shoulder always earn high marks; striking a balance of flavors from the apple-wood-chip-smoke, spicy dry rub, sweet sauce and velvety meat. His brisket is solid, with its salt-and-pepper garlic rub and hickory-cherry wood smoke flavors.

But when it came to chicken, Overlay couldn’t find that balanced “backyard flavor.”

That all changed during a two-day contest last December in Mesa, Ariz., when Overlay finally heeded the advice his wife had been telling him for months. What did he do differently?

“I’d tell you,” Overlay said. “But then I’d have to kill you.”

That secret adjustment has helped the team earn higher marks in the chicken category. The improvement played a key role in helping the Las Vegas-based team win a competition in Holbrook, Ariz., to earn a spot at the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

On Saturday, the Sin City Smokers will represent Nevada at the competition in Lynchburg, Tenn. They will compete against 68 U.S. teams and 20 international teams in ribs, pork shoulder, beef brisket, cook’s choice, dessert and Jack Daniel’s sauce categories. It will be their toughest competition, but Overlay said they plan to stick to their routine.

“We just plan to do what we always do, and dance with the girl that brought us here,” Overlay said. “In the end, we hope to hear our names called.”

Overlay has boiled the art of barbecue down to a series of spreadsheets, notes that dictate how best to cook the meat. He has spent 30 years in the food business, and the past 12 years learning the art of the slow, smoky, Southern-style barbecue from barbecue legend Mike Mills at Memphis Championship Barbecue in Las Vegas.

Everything relies on patience and balance. Overlay keeps the temperature low, and lets the smoke and meat intertwine until the meat becomes tender and sizzles with juices. A good brisket, he explains, could take up to 18 hours to smoke.

“We like the meat and smoke to dance around and form a relationship that we feel provides the best taste in meat,” Overlay said.

Overlay has been competing on the competitive barbecue circuit since 2005. That year he was asked to judge a Boulder City barbecue contest. After tasting the winners, he realized his barbecue was just as good, if not better.

He decided to borrow equipment and enter one or two contests a year. Along the way, Overlay introduced his wife to the competitive barbecue scene, and then her parents. They loved the camaraderie and people at the events and became hooked — thus forming the Sin City Smokers.

“It’s the people and friendships you make,” Overlay said. “You never meet a bad soul at a barbecue.”

In 2008, they won $5,000 in a contest and decided to buy their own barbecue trailer and equipment, diving whole hog into their new hobby. They compete in about eight contests a year, schlepping their barbecue trailer to places like Bentonville, Ark., and Mesa, Ariz.

The team used to practice so much they became sick of barbecue, but now it has all become routine. Overlay says his wife and mother-in-law’s smoked pineapple upside down cake and chili are feared on the barbecue circuit. Overlay’s father-in-law helps feed wood to the grill to keep the fire burning and the smoke rolling.

With their new chicken technique in hand, Overlay hopes to claim a barbecue world championship for the Silver State.

“Now we’re representing Nevada,” Overlay said. “We hope to bring the big, bad one home, and bring respect for the West and Nevada.”

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