The Wilson Education Foundation held its second annual Wilson Iron Chef competition on Sunday, March 22. Berks County Eats was there among the sold out crowd of more than 800 hungry patrons, all of whom got to sample food from more than 40 vendors and enjoy a friendly, but intense, culinary competition.
The doors opened at 1 p.m. and hundreds of people had poured in to the Wilson High School gym by the time I arrived a few minutes later. For the first two hours, vendor lane was open with more than 40 area restaurants and food businesses offering free samples of food and drinks.
As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted by a server from Paolo’s Restaurant & Bar on Lancaster Avenue with an inviting dessert. It was the same mini pie shell and cream as last year, this time with chocolate chips (because, why not?)
At the first booth, Paolo’s was handing out samples of a pair of their dinner favorites: stromboli and garlic knots. I only wish they could have brought just a little sauce for the ham and cheese stromboli.
Eating dessert first is just something that seems to happen at Iron Chef as the next stand along the way belonged to Pat’s Hawaiian Shave Ice. The vanilla flavor tasted just like the vanilla twin pops I used to eat as a kid.
Next in line was Pilsudski Polish Style Mustard with samples of mustard, mustard with horseradish, and horseradish. I went for the mustard-horseradish mix, and that was more than strong enough for me.
Thankfully the perk-up truck was there with some smoothies to help calm the taste buds. I had their banana smoothie once before at the VF Outlet Food Truck Festival, and was more than happy to enjoy it once again.
The Penn Werner Hotel, one of the participants in the actual Iron Chef competition, kept it simple with a tasty corn chowder at its booth.
Moe’s Southwest Grille was giving out some of the largest portions of anyone with 1/2 beef burritos up for grabs. As much as I love Moe’s, I had to refrain from eating the whole thing and ruining my appetite for the rest of the day.
Velata Kitchen Products had a variety available at their stand. Popcorn was seasoned with its brand of seasoning mix, pulled pork with Velata’s barbecue sauce, and crepes made with one of the company’s crepe makers were all available as the friendly staff talked about Velata’s home parties.
One of the best things I had while touring vendor lane was the pulled pork taco from Station House Grille. It was topped with the restaurant’s signature slaw, with a creaminess that really complimented the pork.
Another newcomer at this year’s Iron Chef was Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza who brought along samples of both their baked wings and meatballs. The meatball was a lot bigger than it looked so I decided to pass on the wings (and I had tried both at the restaurant a few weeks ago and loved everything I had).
The most impressive stand on vendor row had to be Elevation Burger, who actually sent a cook to grill sliders to order. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of holding up the line, which because of placement, was actually two lines coming together. The burger was good (a little greasier than what it would probably be at the restaurant), but I can’t say that it was worth the wait.
If you’re going to have a burger, you might as well have a hot dog too. The Reading Fightins’ were handing out half-portions of their famous ballpark hot dogs, still one of my favorite ballpark snacks.
Offering slightly smaller samples, Anita’s Biscottis was back with samples of their delicious Italian cookies.
East-West Kitchen, a Fairgrounds Farmers Market stand specializing in Asian and American dishes, had samples of some delicious chili and pulled pork with Asian barbecue sauce.
More pulled pork was available from Dickey’s Barbecue, one of the newcomers to Berks County, which also offered samples of their ham and baked beans, as well as several of their sauces.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to every stand as it was just too full (both the lines and my stomach). Other vendors included Subway, Edible Arrangements, Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, Slush Puppie, Mays Sandwich Shop, New York Bagelry, Mamas Pizza, Outback Steakhouse, the Pampered Chef and Sweet Ride Ice Cream.
The People’s Choice competition is probably my favorite part of the Iron Chef event. Fans got to choose their favorite dish from nine area restaurants, all of whom had to use the same ingredient: sweet potatoes.
The Crowne Plaza had the most visually appealing spread with sweet potato puree, sweet potato crusted almond chicken, a balsamic salad and sweet potato-infused lemonade. Everything was amazing (even the lemonade) except the salad, which really didn’t need to be there in the first place.
Ganley’s went with an opposite approach and kept things simple with an Asian sweet potato dip with five-spice kettle chips. It was a very good dip (the chips were phenomenal) but it was always going to be hard to compare it to the other restaurants that went bigger.
The Hitching Post went really small, offering sweet potato bites: a sweet potato disc with roasted jalapeno and cilantro crema, and finshed with crispy bacon crumbles and chives. It packed a lot of punch for such a small dish, but it was a literal “bite” as it was gone in a hurry.
One of the best items I tried all day was Dan’s at Green Hills “famous” sweet potato soup. It had lots of flavor, a great texture (with little diced sweet potatoes still inside) and a nice finish from the sour cream and chives on top.
Adelphia Seafood, who won the People’s Choice at the Hamburg Iron Chef earlier this year, brought sweet potato gnocchi in a lobster Newberg sauce. I loved the gnocchi, but I am just not a lobster fan (I know I am in the minority).
Canal Street Pub brought a pair of items: sweet potato corn chowder and sweet potato beer bread. The chowder was good, but wasn’t quite on the same level as Dan’s. The beer bread was also good, but I didn’t taste much sweet potato in it.
The Tavern on Penn brought some pulled pork sliders with pickled slaw and sweet potato. I loved the sandwich, but I really couldn’t taste the sweet potato through the rest of the ingredients.
Another one of my favorites from the day was the sweet potato flan from Bernville Eagle Hotel.The flan was topped in bourbon-maple butter sauce with a candied pecan. It was great to get a sweet dish among all of the savory choices, and it really delivered a lot of flavor for such a small dish.
The final entrant into the People’s Choice competition was Beverly Hills Tavern with sweet potato encrusted salmon fritters. I’m not a seafood guy, but I loved the sweet potato crust. If this was chicken, I probably would have fallen in love with this dish, especially with the brown butter and pumpkin sage sauce.
My vote went to Dan’s at Green Hills, but it was a tough choice between Dan’s, Crowne Plaza and Bernville Eagle Hotel. Dan’s took home the top spot with Crowne Plaza second, meaning those two restaurants will be competing in next year’s Iron Chef.
Iron Chef Competition
The main event of the day was the Iron Chef cooking competition which pitted three of the area’s top chefs against each other in a 35-minute battle. The three chefs who competed were Jason Hook of H2O Kitchen, Raffale Cirandine of G.N.A. Ristorante, and defending champion David Shefter of the Penn Werner Hotel.
The chefs all had to prepare a dish and side using four secret ingredients: turkey tenderloins, quinoa, patty pan squash and the real kicker, gummy worms.
After 35 minutes of cooking, Chef Cirandine did not have his dish completely plated, which resulted in a points penalty on his final judging. That essentially left just two chefs with a chance to win, with Chef Jason Hook claiming the top prize.
That means that Jason Hook will compete next year against the chefs from Dan’s at Green Hills and the Crowne Plaza during the third annual Wilson Iron Chef competition, scheduled for next March.
If you were one of the more than 800 people in attendance, what was the favorite thing you tried? What did you think of the competition? Tell us in the comments section below.