PA BBQ Fest 2017

One of my favorite events of the year, the PA BBQ Fest in Leesport offers a chance to sample some of the finest barbecue restaurants, vendors and food trucks from Berks County and beyond.

Now in its third year, the festival is an annual tradition for Julie and I. We have had this year’s edition marked on our calendars since the date was announced and while we weren’t the first people in line when the gates opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were there by 11 for an early lunch.

This year there was a $3 cover charge to enter the event. I don’t mind paying because I know that in addition to the barbecue there is live entertainment throughout the day, and those bands aren’t showing up for free.

Festival goers can order from their favorite barbecue stands ala carte, or for $10, they can pick up a Pit Master sample card. The sample card includes six tear-off tabs that can be redeemed at one of about a dozen stands for two-ounce samples.

Our first stop was to Backwoods Brothers Authentic Texas Cuisine. I’m sorry to say that they had the most disappointing sample of the six we tried.

Now, I love Backwoods Brothers (you can read about our visit to the restaurant here), but the sample cup they gave us had a half-bite of smoked sausage. And it was cold. At $10 per sample card, that means Julie and I each paid $1.67 for that.

After that, we were a little more selective.

Our second stop was Fire and Spice Competition BBQ and Catering, a Fleetwood based company that we have only ever experienced at the PA BBQ Fest.

They were serving up pulled pork – the go-to sample for most restaurants – with your choice of sauce. Julie went sweet, I went bold. Both were excellent, but I especially liked the bold sauce and its molasses base. It gives it a sweetness but with bigger flavor and thicker texture that I love.

Stop #3 was certainly unique among the festival’s offerings. Ziggy’s Roasters, a food truck based in Harleysville, Montgomery County, was serving samples of their “Krazy Korn.”

Normally served on the cob, Krazy Korn is corn smothered in mayo, parmesan and Cajun seasoning. For their samples, it was taken off the cob and topped with pulled pork in barbecue sauce.

It was like nothing that I have ever tried before. I won’t say that it was the best barbecue that I had all day, but the corn was so different. It was creamy with a little bit of heat. And with the sweet and savory mix of the pulled pork, it just worked. There was a lot of flavor packed in that little sample cup.

Both of our next two stops were offering barbecue that went beyond pulled pork.

First up was Jake’s Place, a Hamburg restaurant that was offering pit beef. I have never had the opportunity to visit Jake’s Place nor had I encountered them at other festivals before.

I was pleasantly surprised by the pit beef. It was cooked perfectly – tender, juicy and all of the other adjectives that you use to describe well-crafted beef. I will definitely have to pay a visit to the restaurant sometime.

The next stop was another restaurant that I had never visited before, the K’Town Pub Taphouse & BBQ.

When I was a student at Kutztown University, the Pub wasn’t much to speak of. At best, it was a dive. But the restaurant is all-new from the place I remember and now barbecue is the focus of the food menu.

Their offering at the PA BBQ Fest was a barbecue meatball. It’s not on the regular menu (according to their website), but it should be. It was a delightful mix of meats, including beef and pulled pork. Topped with a shot of barbecue sauce, it was stellar. I would eat this as a sandwich any day.

Our sixth and final stop for our Pit Master card was an old favorite, It’s Just Barbecue (aka the Pink Pig). We got a sample of their pulled pork, something that we have tasted many times before at similar events.

After we finished with our Pit Master cards, it was time to find one more thing for lunch. Julie loves the Pink Pig so much that she jumped into their regular line to order a beef brisket sandwich.

The brisket is thick, not thin sliced, making the sandwich feel more hearty. She layered on plenty of sweet barbecue sauce for a deliciously satisfying sandwich.

For my course, I had to go back to Ziggy’s for more of their corn. When I got there, I saw that I could order either corn on the cob or a cup o corn that could be topped with pulled pork. There was never any doubt that I would get the option with the barbecue.

I also got to choose my add-ons for the corn. Instead of the Krazy Korn standards, I went with one of my favorite flavor combinations: garlic and Parmesan (with butter, of course). Both the corn and the pork were great, though I think I should have stuck with what I had previously because it didn’t quite have the same affect when it was mixed together.

Still, I didn’t regret my decision and I will definitely seek out Ziggy’s in the future.

And there is no doubt that we will be back next July for the fourth annual PA BBQ Fest. We’re already looking forward to it.

The PA BBQ Fest is held annually at the Leesport Farmers Market in conjunction with the Mid-Summer Craft Fair in early July.

Food Festivals & Events

Wilson Iron Chef 2017

The fourth annual Wilson Iron Chef competition was held on Sunday, March 26. The event pitted three of the area’s top chefs against each other in a timed competition. Chef Josh Haines of Jimmie G’s Beverly Hills Tavern earned the victory over Chef Tim Twiford of the Crowne Plaza and Chef Mike Rauenzahn of the Bernville Eagle Hotel. Each of the chefs had to incorporate four ingredients in their dish: sausage, red cabbage, Greek yogurt and cheese curls.

In the People’s Choice competition, nine restaurants were competing for two spots in next year’s Iron Chef competition. All nine competitors had to incorporate cheese into their featured dish. Don’s Food Products & Melanie’s Medley’s earned first place with its Champagne and Gouda bisque. Second place went to Ganley’s for its smoked bacon and Gorgonzola stuffed dates with spicy Jameson glaze.

Also part of the day again this year was vendor row with more than 20 vendors offering samples of their foods and products. Check out our photo gallery to see some of the highlights of this year’s competition:

Food Festivals & Events

Iron Chef Hamburg 2016

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David Shefter, Sr., Food Service Director for the Hamburg Area School District helps organize the Iron Chef event every year.

For the past three years, I have taken every opportunity to attend Berks County’s two Iron Chef competitions at Wilson and Hamburg School Districts.

Today (November 6) was the sixth annual Iron Chef Hamburg, and another opportunity to sample some great local eats.

One of my favorite parts of these events is the live auction, specifically the bidding for the final judge’s seat. Every year I try, and every year I get out-bid.

I tried again this year. And after bidding up to $360, I finally won.

I was whisked backstage with my fellow judges for a briefing about the scoring and rules of the day. I was, by far, the least qualified of the four who would determine the winner.

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Just some of the additional ingredients available in the pantry

We were split into two tables of two. At the first table was Chef Genaro Delillo, chef at the Downtown Lounge in Lebanon and contestant on the current season of Hell’s Kitchen. With him was Chef Brittany Mattison, former contestant on Food Network’s Chopped Teen Challenge, current high school student at Boyertown, and future student at Johnson & Wales University.

Joining me at my table was Gangi E. Cucciuffo, middle school principal in the Fleetwood School District and the son of a classically trained chef who grew up in the food business.

Then there was the food blogger.

iron-chef-hamburg-panorama

Best view in the house.

The real stars on this day were the three competing chefs: Chef Michael Martino from Melanie’s Medleys and Don’s Food Products, Chef David Shefter, Jr., from the Penn Werner Hotel, and Chef Troy Vance Woytovich from Lake Wynonah Lodge.

One of the coolest parts about being a judge is having the freedom to walk around the stage during the 35-minute competition to watch the chefs in action, ask them questions and get an up-close look at the dishes coming together.

As in many cooking competitions, there were several mandatory ingredients. Each chef had three things that had to go into every plate: fresh sausage, apple butter and Brussels sprouts.

The toppings for a delicious taco.

The toppings for a delicious taco.

Chef David made the boldest choice, creating sausage tacos with apple butter Fireball whiskey reduction and slaw, with a Brussels sprouts, carrot and onion medley on the side.

No one would ever accuse the Shefter family of underseasoning a dish. I wish the taco had just a little less heat to it, though. While delicious, the sausage was lost and we all felt that he could have substituted any protein in it and it would have been very much the same.

Chef David Shefter, Jr.'s, plate.

Chef David Shefter, Jr.’s, plate.

The vegetables added color to the plate, but beyond that, the plating was very simple (tacos just aren’t the prettiest entree) and that inevitably hurt in the final scores.

On the opposite end of the stage, Chef Troy presented a lovely little plate with sausage, pork tenderloin and topped with an apple butter-based sauce atop a bed of Chino Cubano polenta. On the side were pan-seared Brussels sprouts and a pear salad.

Masterpiece in progress: Chef Troy working on his dish.

Masterpiece in progress: Chef Troy working on his dish.

Everything was very good. The meat and the sauce went very well together. The sprouts were cooked well. The pear slaw was excellent.

Chef Troy's final plate.

Chef Troy’s final plate.

Our biggest criticism was that the Brussels sprouts were just there. They weren’t incorporated into anything and there was little extra done to them. Talking with my fellow judges, we also felt that the tenderloin was unnecessary. Adding a second protein to the plate took away from the sausage, which was the feature ingredient.

Then there was Chef Michael Martino. Chef Michael was the defending champion of the event and appeared every bit the seasoned competition veteran throughout.

Chef Michael Martino hard at work.

Chef Michael Martino hard at work.

While his competitors were at times scattered and rushed, Chef Michael and his sous chef always appeared calm, taking their time to craft what was easily the most beautiful plate that we were presented.

I was too excited to dig in to take a picture before I started eating.

I was too excited to dig in to take a picture before I started eating.

The sausage was in what Chef Michael called Hunter Sauce. It was incredible, transforming the sausage into a dish worthy of a high-end steakhouse. Mushrooms and pearl onions added to the composition.

An incredible Brussels sprout salad.

An incredible Brussels sprout salad.

On the side, we were given a dollop of smashed redskin potatoes that was very nice and an incredible Brussels sprout salad with an incredible vinaigrette.

iron-chef-hamburg-11

This is how you score all the points in the presentation category.

You may also notice the dusted fork and spoon outlines, made with Porcini mushroom flakes. By not cooking the Brussels sprouts, Chef Michael had extra time to garnish the plate. It just added to the overall experience.

Chef Michael Martino: two-time champion.

Chef Michael Martino: two-time champion.

Though it was a close match-up, it was unanimous among the judges that Chef Michael had earned his second consecutive Iron Chef championship. We were split on second place, but Chef Troy earned the runner-up spot with Chef David finishing third.

I thoroughly enjoyed every dish that was presented and wish I could have just sat there all evening and finished them (I came close).

It was the most expensive meal(s) that I have ever had with Berks County Eats but worth every penny. Not only did I get to eat some of the best food that I have ever tried, I got to meet some incredible people (I’ve already promised Chef Genaro that I’ll be making a trip to Lebanon in the near future).

And the money goes to the Hamburg Area Education Foundation. Any time I can give back to local schools, it feels good.

This time, it felt really good. And I feel very full.

 

Food Festivals & Events

Taste of Hamburg-er 2015

taste-of-hamburger-festival-1

Of all the food festivals in Berks County, none are bigger than the Taste of Hamburg-er.

Every September, tens of thousands of hungry people descend upon Hamburg for a taste of its namesake dish. But the timing was never right for me, and for 11 years, life got in the way of my attending.

I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from attending this year. September 5 had been circled on my calendar since last fall, and I was going no matter what.

The festival opened at 10 a.m., but we decided to take our chances and wait out the lunchtime rush. At about 1:30, we pulled into the parking lot of Hamburg High School and waited for our shuttle bus to carry us to the festival in the town below.

After a quick stop at the Hamburg Field House, we were delivered to the festival and the throngs of people who packed the streets.

I did a little research ahead of time, but I was no closer to making a decision as we started our walk along Fourth Street.

We passed the deep-fried burgers at Ray’s Catering, the bacon cheeseburgers from Scout Troop #184 and incredible selection from the Penn Werner Hotel (Oscar burgers, Baja burgers,  mac and cheese burgers, to name a few). I was surprised to also see CC’s Wooden Grill, the former Kutztown restaurant that closed more than a year ago, set up as well.

Making a left onto State Street, we saw the Weis Markets stand. Nothing against Weis Markets—we do most of our grocery shopping there—but there was no way that I would choose them over the 33 other stands.

We continued along State passed the Hometown Restaurant and Catering stand with half-pound burgers on pretzel rolls. We also passed Hecky’s Sub Shop, which was business as usual, attracting patrons with the promise of air conditioning.

After skipping the Leesport Lodge and the Inn of Orwigsburg, I found the burger of my dreams.

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Smokey Bear BBQ was set up on the corner of State and Third Streets. I had vaguely remembered reading about them before we left the house, and my memory was quickly jogged when I saw the sign for “The Grizzly.”

smokey-bear-bbq-grizzly-burger

The Grizzly is aptly named because it would comfortably feed a bear. They take a one-third pound beef patty and throw a quarter-pound of brisket on top and serve it on a Kaiser roll. It’s simple, but it works. The brisket was perfectly tender. The burger was juicy. Both had that great smoky flavor I love in my barbecue, and together they made a perfect lunch.

We hung a right on Third Street to find something for Julie. The line for the Deitsch Eck was a little too long (with options like The Luther—a bacon cheeseburger on a glazed donut—I’m not surprised) so we continued on past Uncle Paul’s Stuffed Pretzels to the Chowhound Wagon.

kooper-s-chowhound-food-truck

The Chowhound Wagon comes all the way from the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore to the event. In the Reading Eagle’s Festival Guide, the description merely said, “Serving burgers, fries, and soda.”

I don’t know if this was left intentionally vague, but those five words don’t do justice to what the Chowhound had to offer.

julie-kooper-s-chowhound-elvis-got-the-blues-burger

The food truck had six gourmet burgers, all made with Angus beef, or a build-your-own option with your choice of beef, turkey, veggie, bison, Wagyu or lamb. Julie played it safe with the “Elvis Got the Blues” burger, topped with Maytag blue cheese and apple-smoked bacon. After one bite, Julie was hooked.

kooper-s-chowhound-elvis-got-the-blues-burger-1

As for the fries, Chowhound offered four options: French fries, sweet potato fries, fifty-fifty fries (half regular, half sweet potato) and truffle fries. It didn’t take much convincing by me to talk her into an order of the truffle fries.

kooper-s-chowhound-truffle-fries

They were delicious. Truffle oil makes everything better, but I absolutely love it on French fries. But the addition of the garlic and parsley just made these perfect. We both left with garlic breath, but it was well-worth it.

Somehow after all of that, we still had room for dessert. We had hoped to grab a seat at the soda fountain at Adams and Bright Drugs on State Street, but everyone else seemed to have the same idea.

perk-up-truck-smoothies

Thankfully, one of our favorite mobile stands, the Perk Up Truck, was there to provide cool relief from the 90-degree heat. We each grabbed a smoothie: fresh peach for me, frozen strawberry hot chocolate for Julie.

The only problem with the festival is also it’s greatest strength. All of the participants are bringing their biggest, most creative burgers to the event. Even without the fries and smoothie, I would not have been able to force a second burger. That meant passing on things like Gourmand’s Berks Burgers (with Lebanon bologna, cream cheese, apple butter and Good’s potato chips), Smokin’ Bull Shack’s loaded burger (cheese, pulled pork, BBQ sauce, pastrami, baked beans, coleslaw and onion rings) and Spuds‘ surf and turf burger (crab meat, lettuce, tomato and Chesapeake mayo).

If only I had three stomachs and a full day to try all of them. Still, I left with no regrets about my choices. And after trekking back up the hill to my car, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about my choices.

2015 Taste of Hamburg-er Contest Winners

Best Burger-Restaurant

Grand Prize: Kooper’s Chowhound
Appearance: Kooper’s Chowhound
Taste: Kooper’s Chowhound
Originality: Deitsch Eck
Best Value: Weis Markets

Best Burger-Organization

Grand Prize: Salem EC Church
Appearance: Salem EC Church
Taste: Salem EC Church & Boy Scout #184
Originality: Salem EC Church
Best Value: Salem EC Church

Best Burger-Mobile Unit

Grand Prize: Ray’s Catering
Appearance: Ray’s Catering
Taste: Pop’s Original Screamer Sauce
Originality: Ray’s Catering
Best Value: The Hawg House

People’s Choice Award

1st Place: Uncle Paul’s Stuffed Pretzels
2nd Place: Deitsch Eck
3rd Place: Smokey Bear BBQ

Food Festivals & Events

Where to Eat this Weekend: July 17-19

Celtic Oyster Festival

The annual Celtic Oyster Festival returns to Willow Glen Park this Saturday. Konopelski Katering will be serving some Emerald Isle favorites all day, including oysters and clams on the half shell, bangers and mash, Guiness dip beef sandwiches, fried oyster sandwiches and more. In addition, festival-goers can browse through Celtic craft and gift stands and enjoy live entertainment throughout the day. The festival runs from 12 noon to 9 p.m. Admission is $10 per person.

Breakfast Buffet at Joanna Furnace

The Hay Creek Valley Historical Association is serving a breakfast buffet this Saturday at Joanna Furnace. The homemade buffet includes sausage, bacon, scrapple, cream chipped beef, pancakes, French toast, scrambled eggs, fruit, toast and beverages. A flea market and tours of the historic property are also part of the day. The event runs from 7 to 11 a.m. Admission is $9.00 for adults and $4.50 for children ages 5 to 11. Kids 5 and under are free.

Antietam Valley Street Fair

The Antietam Valley community is coming together this Saturday for the annual Street Fair. The fair is held on Friedensburg Road between Bixler’s Lodge and the Lower Alsace Township Building. Be sure to stop by the “Pork for the Park” contest area. For a $10 donation, you can sample pulled pork from participating vendors and vote for the winner of the Pig Trophy. The donation is toward improvements at Carsonia Park. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes more than 50 vendors, music and pony rides for the kids.

Food Festivals & Events

PA BBQ Fest is this Saturday

ribs-windy-acres

Windy Acres Barbecue is one of eight pitmasters who will be at the PA BBQ Fest.

Eight of the region’s best barbecue restaurants and caterers will be on hand for the first annual PA BBQ Fest, this Saturday at the Leesport Farmers Market. The event, which is being held in conjunction with the annual Summer Craft Fair, aims to bring together foodies from across Berks County.

Festival-goers can purchase a Pit Masters Sample Card which grants them access to samples from some great eateries, including:

  • It’s Just Barbecue
  • Templin’s Soggie Bottom Grill
  • Windy Acres BBQ
  • Hill Billy BBQ
  • Johnny & Hons Smokehaus
  • Woogies Wood Fired BBQ
  • Hometown Restaurant and Catering
  • Quali’s Nest Restaurant and Bar

There will also be a vendor area with more food and drinks for sample and purchase. Access to the vendors area is free. More than 35 vendors will be set up, including:

  • Penn Werner Hotel
  • Big Dave’s Cajun Grill
  • The Hawg House
  • Peters Brothers Meats
  • The Perk Up Truck

Live music, a beer and wine tent, barbecue equipment sales, and plenty of desserts can also be found at the PA BBQ Fest, which runs from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 11 at the Leesport Farmers Market.

Berks County Eats will be at the event on Saturday with plans to do a live broadcast on Periscope. Be sure to follow @MrZachBrown on Twitter and Periscope so you don’t miss it.

Food Festivals & Events

Where to Eat July 4 Weekend

July 4 weekend brings fairs and festivals throughout the county, and that means plenty of good food to go around. Here are a few food-centric events that will help you celebrate Independence Day on a full stomach:

Kutztown Folk Festival

If you are Pennsylvania Dutch, or just love pot pie, the Kutztown Folk Festival is a great place to check out this weekend. Though I’m disappointed that the ox roast is gone (replaced by a pig roast), there are still plenty of Dutch delights like chicken pot pie, funnel cake and more. The Festival is open daily through Sunday. Tip: Check out the Dietrich’s Meats & Country Store stand and sample the smoked meats or pick up one of their fresh-baked pies.

Colebrookdale Railroad

Why go to a railroad for a weekend dinner? In celebration of July 4, the Colebrookdale Railroad is running Star Spangled Express trains complete with pork barbecue and sides from Moyer’s Catering. The Star Spangled Express runs Saturday and Sunday. Tip: The 8 p.m. train on Saturday night will deliver you in Pottstown in time for the 10 p.m. fireworks show and return after the festivities end at 11.

Governor Mifflin Community Days

The Governor Mifflin Community Days continues its week-long run, ending with a bang on Saturday night with a 10 p.m. fireworks show. The street fair features live entertainment and plenty of food. Tip: Community Days turns 40 this year, and they are celebrating on Saturday with an 8-foot birthday cake.

Food Festivals & Events

4 Food Events Not to Miss this Weekend

This weekend is one of the busiest of the year for Berks County, and that’s a good thing for food lovers. Saturday is filled with events that are sure to fill your stomach. Here’s four not to miss:

Centre Park Gourmet Garden Tour

garden-tour-2Aayshiyana

Tour some of Reading’s most beautiful gardens while sampling some of Berks County’s best foods and wines at the annual Centre Park Gourmet Garden Tour. Saturday evening from 5 until 9 p.m., guests can make their way from garden to garden, enjoying samples from area restaurants and vendors, including Panevino, Aladdin Restaurant, Sofrito Gastro Pub and Aulenbach Wines. Also from 6 to 10 p.m., check out the Beer Garden, with free drink samples, food and live music at the Inn at Centre Park.

Tickets are sold separately for the tour and the beer garden and are $23 in advance, and $25 on the day of. Combo tickets are $40.

Art on the Avenue

art-on-the-avenue

West Reading hosts its biggest block party of the year on Saturday with the annual Art on the Avenue. Penn Avenue will be lined with top artists and craftsmen from around the region from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Additionally, many of West Reading’s restaurants will be set up outside or offering specials for the event. Live music and street performers can also be seen throughout the day.

Apple Dumpling Festival / Berks Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival

The 60-year tradition that is the Apple Dumpling Festival is going on now in Sinking Spring’s Willow Glen Park. The festival offers tons of great food, including the namesake apple dumplings, but this year it is adding to that in a big way with the first annual Berks Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival on Saturday from 12 noon to 10 p.m. The special day of entertainment includes live blues music, local microbrews, and plenty of ribs, pork, chicken and brisket. The festival is open from 5:30 to 11 p.m. on Friday and 2 to 11 p.m. on Saturday.

The Truck Stops Here – Mobile Madness!

The region’s top food trucks will all be gathered at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles this Saturday for the first annual “The Truck Stops Here – Mobile Madness!” food truck festival. Local vendors include The Cow and the Curd, Luscious Bakery, Gourmand and Local 215. The Ocean Roll Truck, which operates out of a 1961 Canteen Truck built at the Boyertown Auto Body Works, is coming all the way from Kennebunkport, Maine to serve fresh lobster rolls. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is included with $5 museum admission.

 

Food Festivals & Events

Wilson Iron Chef 2015

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.

Vendor Row

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.

paolo-cannoli

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?)

paoli-stromboli-garlic-knot

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.

pat-s-shave-ice-vanilla

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.

pilsudski-mustard

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.

perk-up-truck-smoothies

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.

penn-werner-corn-chowder-soupThe Penn Werner Hotel, one of the participants in the actual Iron Chef competition, kept it simple with a tasty corn chowder at its booth.

salino-s-meatball-sausage-breadIn a repeat of last year, Salino’s once again brought along some of its Italian specialties including meatballs and sausage in tomato sauce.

moe-s-burritoMoe’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-popcorn-spice-pulled-pork-crepe

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.

station-house-pulled-pork-taco

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.

anthony-s-meatball

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).

elevation-burger

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.

reading-fightins-hot-dog

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.

anita-s-biscotti

Offering slightly smaller samples, Anita’s Biscottis was back with samples of their delicious Italian cookies.

east-west-kitchen-pulled-pork-chili

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.

dickey-s-pulled-pork-beans

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.

People’s Choice

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.

crowne-plaza-sweet-potato-crusted-almond-chicken

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.

ganly-s-asian-sweet-potato-dip

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.

hitching-post-sweet-potato-bites

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.

dan-s-sweet-potato-soup

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-sweet-potato-gnocchi-seafood-newburg-sauce

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-sweet-potato-corn-chowder

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.

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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.

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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.

beverly-hills-tavern-sweet-potato-crusted-salmon-fritter

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.

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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.

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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.

Food Festivals & Events

Food & Festivals: Reading Fire + Ice Fest

reading-fire-ice-festivalThis past weekend, the Reading Downtown Improvement District presented the first annual Reading Fire + Ice Fest, a combination indoor/outdoor festival that featured three days of events in and around Penn Square. I make it a habit to support as many local festivals as I can, which is why I braved the sub-freezing temperatures and headed downtown on Saturday for the Fire + Ice Fest.

The highlight for food-lovers had to be the Chili cook-off. Seven area restaurants and two individuals brought the fire to an icy Saturday afternoon, all competing to win the favor of both the judges (a team of Reading firefighters) and festival-goers.

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The competitors were set up inside the ballroom of the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, a beautiful (and thankfully warm) venue. It’s a place that probably sees more filet mignon and hors d’oeuvres than bowls of meat and beans.

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First in line was the offering from Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar. This was one of the chunkier of the chili that I tried, with a heavy emphasis on the tomato. Through it all, there was a distinct taste of balsamic vinegar that came through, giving it a flavor that was far different from all of the others, and one that I greatly enjoyed.

Callowhill Cafe Coffee Shop would have been the next stop in the rotation, but by the time I arrived, the table was already bare.

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Instead, my second stop was the Mi Casa Su Casa stand. Mi Casa Su Casa made the bold choice to go with a white chicken chili instead of a more traditional beef and bean. The chili had a cauliflower and white bean base with carrots, celery and other vegetables mixed in. In this case, different was better as the restaurant provided a dish that truly stood out.

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With the event in its own building, the Abraham Lincoln Hotel brought their own chili, along with several topping options and a tortilla chip. What set this chili apart was the sauce, which carried a strong barbecue flavor.

fire-ice-festival-boscovMy next stop was Boscov’s Catering. The chili was good, delicious, but nothing to really make it stand out from the rest. The best part of this was the homemade tortilla chip that it was served with it.

fire-ice-festival-judy-sAnother restaurant that opted to be different was Judy’s on Cherry, who went with a pork and black bean chili with a dollop of sour cream on top. The large chunk of pork was tender and delicious, but with a very brothy sauce, it ate more like a soup than a true chili.

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Sofrito Gastro Pub‘s chorizo chili was probably the hottest one that I tasted during the event. It featured a heavy dose of hot peppers. To help cool it off, the chili was served with homemade coconut bread croutons that really complemented the dish.

fire-ice-festival-kauffmanOne of two non-restaurants to enter the competition, the Kauffman family (no relation to Kauffman’s Bar-B-Que Chicken) who came with their own version of the white chicken chili. It was good, but I thought it was just a tad over-spiced and couldn’t compete with Mi Casa Su Casa’s white chili.

The second of the independents was Lauren Kessler, who, like Callowhill Cafe, had already run out of chili by the time I arrived. It’s a shame because the “Three Little Pigs” chili sounded like it could be a winner.

Every patron who entered the banquet hall received six People’s Choice tickets. I spread mine out between four restaurants: The Peanut Bar, Mi Casa Su Casa, the Abraham Lincoln and Sofrito (the Abe and Peanut Bar split my two extra tickets). I was surprised to find out later that Boscov’s had swept both the judged and People’s Choice competitions. Not that I didn’t enjoy their offering, I just thought there were better options.

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After finishing off my last cup of chili, I headed out to the ice sculpting competition. Dragons aren’t really my thing, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the intricacy of the designs on display.

fire-ice-festival-pagoda-festivalAll weekend, Penn Street was lined with sculptures that showcased both sponsors of the event, including a frozen bust of Abraham Lincoln, and Reading landmarks like the Pagoda and a massive train.

fire-ice-festival-entertainmentThere was also live entertainment all weekend, as well as food trucks on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, a Saturday morning pancake breakfast at the Outside-In, a Snow Ball on Saturday night at the Abraham Lincoln, and free ice cream sundaes on Sunday.

For a first-time event, it looked like the Reading Fire + Ice Fest drew a nice crowd, especially at the chili cook-off, evident by multiple places running out of chili before it closed at 2 p.m.

I certainly hope it was successful enough to come back for another year. I’m looking forward to more chili.

Food Festivals & Events