Soon after bragging last week that I was excited to be judging this year’s Taste-of-ALL Charleston food-a-palooza once again, I learned that festival organizers forgot to tell me they weren’t doing the Delmer Robinson Food Critic and People’s Choice awards this year.
But I wasn’t about to let that little setback keep me from attacking this year’s offerings with gusto in an attempt to declare my own winners.
It was impossible to sample every dish at every booth, not that I didn’t try. Before throwing in the towel, I managed to taste 23 different items at 18 of the 24 restaurants on hand — both inside the Four Points by Sheraton and outside on Kanawha Boulevard — throughout the course of Saturday’s event.
My takeaway (besides a very full belly and a pledge to exercise more) was that this year’s re-imagined event was a resounding success, more or less.
Yes, it was super crowded inside the hotel. So much so that food lines were overlapping, people were bumping into each other and many were sitting in hallways, on stairways or leaning against walls to enjoy their food. And yes, it would’ve been nice to have live music down on the levee, where many folks migrated to find extra seating.
Yet shaking up this year’s event with a new date, venue and indoor-outdoor format was a risky move that seems to have paid off. People still came out in droves on a sunny day to sample some of the best food the Kanawha Valley has to offer.
Speaking of good food, the Taste-of-ALL lineup seems to get better each year, and this year’s event was no exception. I enjoyed most of it, but here’s a roundup of The Food Guy’s picks for the best of the bunch this year:
n Best Single Dish: This year’s new host venue takes top honors. The Sheraton’s lobster roll with Appalachian ramp slaw on a butter-grilled bun was the day’s runaway hit, creating the longest lines and the most praise from everyone who came up to me offering an opinion. And they were right. It was SO good!
n Second-Place Dish: Coming in a close second for me was Black Sheep Burrito & Brews’ mirin-ponzu glazed pork belly slider with pickled onions. That glaze was ridiculous.
n Third-Place Dish: A previous Taste-of-ALL winner, Quarry Manor’s fried-green tomato BLT cannot be denied another mention here. Tangy fried tomato, salty bacon, crisp lettuce. Delish.
n Best Overall Menu: With an almond gazpacho and Matcha tea mussels with coconut and ginger, I thought Black Sheep might take this category. But the Sheraton wins here, too. In addition to that award-winning lobster roll, they also served a mini Cajun shrimp boil with juicy shrimp, sausage and fresh corn atop outstanding dirty rice. Two solid offerings.
n “What Might Have Been” Menu: The Block could’ve been a contender for best all-around lineup, but they ran out of two of their four items within the first hour of the event. That’s too bad, because their braised short ribs with orange marmalade were decent and the pesto-roasted vegetables on a polenta cake sounded promising.
n Best Appetizer: Keep in mind here that I passed on three different appetizers I already know are good: Adelphia’s deep-fried feta, Ichiban’s Almost Heaven maki and Embassy Suites’ pimento cheese spring rolls. (I’m not even worried about losing “serious food critic” cred on that last one, because these are THAT good.) So the winner here is Big Joe’s Bar & Grill for a tangy sausage and kale tortellini soup, whose only flaw was being a tad too salty.
n Best Dessert: The Marriott’s Brick Salt Bar + Kitchen delighted many with their candied bacon bourbon ice cream served in a salted caramel cone. Me included. But I have to give the edge to The Block’s creative lemon olive oil cake with kumquat compote, so delicious in its simplicity.
And by the way, thanks to all of you who came up to say hello, recommend dishes to try and, more often than not, ask which city I plan to declare as “West Virginia’s Tastiest Town” this month.
Now, now — you’ll have to wait until June 19’s big reveal for that news.
But in the meantime, you can visit www.wvgazettemail.com/life/tastiesttown to catch up on the first five cities I’ve covered (Charleston, Shepherdstown, Lewisburg, Morgantown and Parkersburg), then check out the next two Sunday papers for the final two in the hunt (Fayetteville and Huntington).
We’re getting close to the finish line, folks!
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I’ve received so many positive comments regarding this past Sunday’s profile of Parkersburg, but it sounds like a return trip will be in short order.
“Read your article this morning and it was very good, thank you,” wrote Sarah Jalbert. “You went to all the places and ate what I usually eat at each of them. As for the donuts, I live less than a mile from The NET and JR’s and eat their donuts when I’m needing a sugar/carb fix. However, I’m also friends with Napoli’s owner and stop there whenever I’m in the area of one of his shops.”
I saw Napoli’s Pizza as well, and wondered how it might stack up against The Pizza Place, which I did fall in love with. Ah, next time.
And another reader’s nice note filled me with immense food regret.
“My wife and I have become avid readers of your food column during the last several weeks and enjoy it very much. We especially enjoyed your report on your recent visit to Parkersburg,” said Bill Gainer. “We are familiar with all the places you visited and agree with your comments. However, we can’t believe that you failed to visit our Der Dawg Haus on 7th Street.”
During my Parkersburg research I heard a lot about both The Root Beer Shack and Der Dog Haus and was hoping to try out both. But then I ran out of time (and room in my belly) and decided I would just have to try them out on another trip. That’s when I passed The Root Beer Shack and stopped in on a whim.
Now I have to go back for a comparison.
“Der Dog Haus has a complete menu and the food and service are top-notch,” Bill added. “They have daily specials like spaghetti, delicious ribs and steaks grilled outside, and the atmosphere is great.”
He said it’s even often compared to the old TV program “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name.
“If you have lived in this community as long as we have (over 50 years) we can assure you that you will see everyone you have ever known at the Dawg Haus! I know you are very busy, but I really hope you can find the time to make a short trip back to Parkersburg and check this place out. You won’t regret it. Keep up the great work you are doing!”
Bill, consider it done!
Steven Keith writes a weekly food column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and an occasional food blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/foodguy/. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Facebook as “WV Food Guy” and on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WVFoodGuy.”