Editor’s Note: The Reading Fire & Ice Fest was discontinued after 2019.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My 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.
Another 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.
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.
One 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.
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.
All 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.
There 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.
More From Berks County Eats