How often can you eat pulled pork, pad thai and pink grapefruit sorbet in one place? Hardly ever. It was supposed to happen at last weekend's 22nd annual Chew Chew food fest on the Burlington waterfront. Unfortunately, scheduled participant Parima was mysteriously absent; hence, so was the pad thai. Luckily, the festival offered plenty of other yummy foods.
The festival's slogan is "Be daring & try them all!" — an imperative that posits patrons who are serious gluttons. Twenty-one businesses were represented. Have you ever eaten a 21-course dinner that included six desserts? Do you want to? A friend and I shelled out 40 bucks for tokens and shared 22 items from 13 different vendors. That was plenty.
On Saturday afternoon, the ultra-diverse throng milled around to the soothing sounds of a steel drum band called Limbo Loco and a blues group called Left Eye Jump. The weather was perfect and spirits were high, as evidenced by people's politeness as they waited in line. The abundance of chairs — 500 more than last year, according to the event's organizers — may have contributed to the good mood. Not a single overheated person had to wait for a seat in the shade before she could chow down on her Belgian waffles or buffalo wings.
Other good news: Nothing we tried was bad or inedible. True, there were a few lackluster items. The sweet & sour chicken from Hop Sing was just what you'd expect: deep-fried, battered chicken with a radioactive red sauce. The crispy exterior of the turkey and veggie samosas from Samosaman Natural Foods tasted a bit bitter, as if the chefs used the same batch of oil too long. A Cajun pork stick from Cajun 'n More wasn't a strip of grilled meat with a spicy rub. It seemed to be ground pork mixed with barbecue sauce and stuck to a stick.
What did we get excited about? The juicy, sweet Italian sausage from Kevin's Wicked Mountain Sausages, which came in a sesame bun with a pile of sautéed onions on top. Another standout: the offerings from Café Mediterano in Essex. Both the stuffed grape leaves and the ground meat cevapi were full of flavor, and served with grilled pita and a portion of thick, garlicky tzatziki. Big Fatty, in his first year at the festival, was dishing up pulled pork and pulled chicken. Both were smoky, spicy and good. Nectar's had some passable 'cue, too, though their brisket is cooked 18 hours to Fatty's 22. The celebrated downtown bar did boast the most vocal and probably the only rhyming staffer. His fave phrase: "If you're gonna risk it, risk it on the brisket."
After risking it on the brisket, we moved on to dessert. Island Homemade Ice Cream's pink grapefruit sorbet masterfully balanced piquancy and sweetness. My friend loved the coffee chip ice cream. And we braved the long line at The Skinny Pancake to get our hands on a strawberry "shortcrêpe" and a chocolate crêpe made with Nutella. Mmmm.
Overall, the Chew Chew provided a good way to try a slew of foods for around $2 an item while spending an afternoon outdoors. The extra chairs were a boon. What was missing, besides the pad thai? More culinary diversity. This year, there were three places serving ice cream. And why did Samosaman and Ming's get two booths each?
At the same time, our non-Chinese Asian restaurants were underrepresented: no Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or Indian food could be found. I hope to see them all there next year. Then I'll be able to say that Chew Chew offers pulled pork, pad thai and pink grapefruit sorbet in one place, along with ponzu sauce, pho and pakoras.