SANTA CLARA -- Hickory smoke mingled with the smell of slowly roasting meat at Santa Clara's Central Park Saturday, drawing thousands of area residents to the third annual Silicon Valley Barbecue Championships.

The sprawling park had been taken over on Friday by nearly 70 professional and amateur barbecue teams.

They slow-cooked in shifts over night, and by late Saturday morning were putting their first entries into plain Styrofoam boxes that would be opened and scored by judges for appearance, tenderness and taste.

Co-sponsored by the Santa Clara Rotary and the city of Santa Clara, the event is in its third year. Teams compete to make the best pork ribs, pulled pork, chicken thighs and brisket. Proceeds go to the Santa Clara Rotary Club's projects for youth and the needy.

"It's fun for them to travel around" to competitions, said Rotary member "Diamond" Mike Beach. Many competitors have restaurants or catering businesses, or market special sauces and rubs, while a third are retired, he said.

"The secret is patience," said Joshua Regal of Woodside, a professional chef and grill master of the Holy Smokes Barbecue team.

"Let time do its thing," he said. "A good rub helps, but you can't rush it. You can't force good barbecue."

Regal and teammates Eric Spencer, of Redwood City, and Ari Lawrence, of Sunnyvale, were cooking over apple, hickory and oak in a borrowed cylinder of rolled steel with a firebox and three temperature zones.

The crowds arrived at noon.


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"It's the smell," said a smiling Doug Drummer of Santa Clara, explaining what drew him back for the third year in a row. Drummer said he plans to enter as a competitor next year.

"I thoroughly enjoy eating," said Stefanie Wong, of San Jose, as she and two friends surveyed the improvised barbecue village.

"I'm trying to get as many of their secrets as possible," said Wong, who does the barbecuing in her family.

The event is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, so winners get points to compete in larger events.

Garry Howard, of Antioch, an entrant in the professional class with his Smoke Ring team, said he started cooking at 10 p.m. Friday with his wife, Irene. Both are retired software engineers.

"I still do low and slow," said Howard, who moved to Antioch from Santa Fe several years ago to be closer to a daughter and grandchildren.

Darry Smith, of Santa Clara, presided over a phalanx of high-tech Kamodo cooker he sells at his store, Eggs by the Bay.

"We travel the country," he said. "We've been competing for 10 years, including 2010 representing California in a world championship in Lynchburg, Tenn., he said.

His secret?

"A lot of stuff goes into making quality food," he said. "And you have to execute."

Nearby, the "backyard" amateur R&B Barbecue team of Charles Brown and Eric McCarter from San Jose were grilling tri-tip and chicken on a pair of Webers.

Brown and McCarter are drivers for the VTA and friends for two decades. They were on their first competition.

"I believe it's all in your rub," Brown said. "I believe sauce is a coverup."

Ron Sendejas of the RonJohn American Dry Rub team out of Gilroy said his grandmother made her own barbecue sauce, which was an inspiration to him.

"Everybody loved it," he said. When she passed, nobody could duplicate it. I've come close. I wish I would have gotten that recipe."

One of the youngest entrants, Zach Galiste, 16, a high school junior from Manteca, competed last year and took third place in the professional class. He was also named "Rookie of the Year."

Clad in a black T-shirt with "The Kid" in gold letters on it, he said he barbecues every weekend.

But he has no plans to become a chef. "I want to become a firefighter," he said.

Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey