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Championship ribs: Missoula duo’s barbecue has Asian twist

Tom Moua and his wife Mary Hang won “best ribs” at the Best of the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Reno, Nevada, receiving a trophy and $10,000. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

For Tom Moua, building a barbecue business is a lot like cooking award-winning ribs – it takes time and effort.

Of course, Moua never imagined he’d do either: own a barbecue business or compete in cook-offs. But after working in Seattle for a few years, his mother approached him with the idea of opening a small Thai and Chinese restaurant in Missoula.

He took the leap.

“I thought the grass was greener, so I took a chance and was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Moua said. “I put in my two weeks and moved over here. Let me tell you, the grass was not greener. I probably worked harder then than I ever did.”

After 13 years of co-owning the restaurant, Moua and his wife, Mary Hang, followed the advice and mentorship of a friend and started participating in barbecue competitions.

Finally in 2009, Moua and Hang opened Montana Q Bar-B-Que House and began competing. They had little more than a smoke pit from Texas and a tent to shield them from the sun.

They didn’t really even know how to make good barbecue.

Nonetheless, Moua and his small team drove to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and participated in a Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association cook-off.

“We weren’t last, so we were pretty excited,” he said. “After doing that, it really opened our eyes and I was like, ‘This is something that I think I could do, be able to make and perfect a sauce and perfect a rub.’ When we got back home, we just decided to go all in and try it, and that’s when we started competing,” he said.

A few years in, Moua’s barbecue has won more than 30 awards, and at their first sanctioned contest, the duo placed third overall. Since then, their brisket, ribs and chicken have received top rankings from multiple contests, as well as their sauce.

“We have an Asian flair in it, and that’s how we’ve always started. We put Asian spices in our sauce and that’s what makes us unique,” he said. “Everybody adds their own magic touch to it. We have our own magic touch, our own little secrets of how we do things.”

The pair won the coveted “best ribs” title during the national Best of the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off in September in Reno, Nevada, and received a trophy and $10,000. After only four years of participating in the cook-off, the young business took the top prize.

Judges based their choices on the taste, texture, tenderness and presentation of the ribs, while also considering the meat’s unique flavor.

It was the largest competition they’ve competed in, Moua said.

“I’m pretty humble about it,” he said. “In a lot of people’s eyes, it’s a really big deal to take that title of a festival of that magnitude because you’ve got teams coming from all over the country and that’s what they’re chasing for is that trophy.”

Participating in more than 12 contests a year all along the West Coast since their business began, Moua and Hang decided to focus more on local vending and catering in recent years, and even opened a restaurant off the I-90 exit to Frenchtown.

Contests are expensive, Moua said, and along with travel costs, paying top dollar for good quality meat is a necessity when competing.

During the Best of the West Rib Nugget Cook-Off, participants produced about 300,000 pounds of ribs in six days.

“You’re paying premium price for meat. I mean, you’re looking at $120 to $150 for one brisket,” he said.

Pursuing barbecue hasn’t always been easy, and Moua and Hang know that it’s a learning experience.

“For a person who doesn’t know anything about barbecue to be able to come in and be able to do it, it makes you feel accomplished. I feel accomplished,” he said. “In life, you always want to try and do something big, and being able to win like this is huge, it’s a milestone in your life. Not everybody could go out there and learn how to barbecue. There’s people who still struggle doing it.”

The secret to making the perfect rack of ribs or brisket is being precise and timely with smoking and cooking meats. A minute too long or too short will alter the taste and texture of the pork.

Tom Moua’s famous rack of ribs during the Best of the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off.

It’s all about attention to detail, Moua said.

After four years, Moua and Hang decided to close the restaurant, and will continue to focus on catering and vending around Missoula. Moua even sells Montana Q Bar-B-Que House signature sauces at groceries in Missoula.

With the restaurant closed, Moua and Hang can focus on their family, while ensuring that their food remains consistent and high quality.

“We really focus on the quality part, because I really want people to experience barbecue how it should be,” Moua said.

Hang works on the logistics of the business and helps Moua during competitions. She hires employees to cook during contests as well.

“We have about four employees from Missoula that have been with us for about four to five years,” Hang said. “They actually use their PTO time to come and help us. They love it. They love the scenery, [and] they love the customers because their work setting is usually a cubicle.”

Moua encourages others to try barbecuing. It takes time and a lot of practice to get good at the sport, he said, but he’s ready to face anyone in a contest.

“We always try to recruit people but they say, ‘I don’t know nothing about barbecue.’ You can tell them, but you have to be willing to learn and accept your flaws and learn from your mistakes.”