Last Saturday, the owners of some of Reading’s most beautiful properties opened the gates for the Centre Park Gourmet Garden Tour.
The annual event showcases Reading’s Centre Park Historic District, and the unique landscaping found in the city’s hidden backyard getaways.
And while my wife was gathering ideas for our own gardens, I was enjoying free samples from some of the area’s best eateries as five Berks County food vendors were offering free samples to tour-goers.
We started our self-guided tour with a stop at the Feeney Funeral, which is actually a beautiful century-old mansion along North 4th Street. No restaurants were on site, but there were hamburgers on the grill and some excellent apple strudel for dessert.
After a short walk to Oley Street, we encountered a low-maintenance lawn made up entirely of AstroTurf. As intriguing as the faux grass was, the samples from Reading’s Aashiyana Indian Cuisine were the real stars. Along with some very flavorful rice, Aashiyana brought along chicken makhan walla and khum matter paneer.
The former was a delicious chicken served in a soupy tomato gravy while the latter was a flavorful combination of cottage cheese, green peas and mushroom cooked in cashew sauce and tomato gravy. Both were loaded with traditional Indian spices, but the vegetable dish had a little more kick.
From India to the West Indies, our next tour stop featured the Latin flavors of Reading’s Sofrito Gastro Pub. The pulled pork was tender and moist, and topped with an unexpectedly sweet guava barbecue sauce. I only wish I could have had more than the small spoonful that was dripped atop.
The next stop offered a quaint backyard that was too small for a food tasting. Instead, West Reading’s Say Cheese! was set up in the next garden just a few doors down. Unfortunately, the restaurant brought only simple tortilla chips and Triscuit and a few cheese cubes. When asked what kind of cheese was on the table, the young man helping responded, “if Say Cheese! were here, they would probably have a fancy name for it, but I call it Swiss.”
Following the disappointment of the cheese, we wandered to Windsor Street to one of the larger gardens on the tour. It also happened to have one of the better food vendors as Vietnamese Delights, a stand at the Boscov’s Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market, was handing out chicken cabbage salad and a vegetable spring roll. The spring roll was exceptionally good thanks to a generous portion of bean curd and a tasty peanut dipping sauce.
The last residential garden on the tour was the most unique, as we were carried away like Alice to Wonderland, complete with the full tea party and Cheshire Cat grin. The lemonade and Lorna Doones being served may not have been gourmet, but this was one stop where the garden was actually the star.
From here, there were two remaining stops, the Hendel House, a mansion owned and operated by the Berks County Historical Society, and the soon-to-open Inn at Centre Park. The two beautiful buildings along Centre Avenue were open for touring, with the Inn’s spacious backyard hosting the Terrapin Trio folk rock band, as well as samples from Food of the Mediterranean.
Mediterranean Delights, another Fairgrounds Farmers Market stand, served two hummus options, a mild and a spicy, as well as artichokes, chickpeas, and a feta and olive salad. The spicy hummus was a hit, especially with the artichokes, but after having that, the chickpeas seemed redundant.
The Centre Park Gourmet Garden Tour is one of my favorite events every year because the organizers are able to bring in a world of flavors from popular local eateries while showcasing a side of Reading that those of us in the suburbs rarely get to see. And the $25 for tickets ($23 if you order in advance) goes toward preserving this beautiful neighborhood.