The 2014 Taste of Wheaton has charcoal and citrus in the nose, with a sweet corn bouquet; it hits your palate with a blast of graphite, hints of soy and fish sauce, and meaty undertones, before receding into a lingering, feral, umami-saturated finish.
All of which is to say, and I think Comic Book Guy would agree, this was the best Taste of Wheaton ever. But why? After all, the usual suspects were mostly again accounted for. Well, there were three key differences this year, all better than previous years:
One, the vast majority of dishes were available for $1, or else $2, and the $2 portions were mostly quite large. Only a few offerings were higher, like the Limerick Pub’s $5 crab cake sliders. In past years, many dishes were in the $3-5 range, but it’s much better to have cheaper options, for maximum diverse sampling. The organizers must have pushed for this, and it is a big improvement, glad all participants played along.
Two, the cooking demo is a great addition. I only caught the first one, with the Thai Taste folks making pad thai, but there were others throughout the afternoon. The setup was in a tent with plenty of seats and a mirror for viewing the cooktop. Sponsored and MC’d by Yelp (!), there was a good mix of action and discussion, and patient viewers got samples of the finished product. I hope they keep doing this in future years. At the Thai Taste demo, they were heavily cross-selling Hung Phat, the grocery store behind which TT lives, and it truly is an excellent twofer. The most interesting part of the demo was when she put salt in the pad thai at the end, despite having already added a fish/tamarind sauce. There was also talk of a “secret ingredient” but I’m not sure what they meant by that, might have been kidding but who knows?
Three, it seemed less crowded this year. Still plenty of attendees, enough to feel like a big outdoor party, but easier to maneuver than in the past, and manageable lines. Can’t control this, of course, but it was a nice atmosphere – “nice” in that classic, ferally urbane Wheaton way, of course.
Some details on the food: Hollywood East, Ming Tree, and Saigonese each offered orange chicken, among several other $2 plate options from each place. Hollywood in particular was serving enormous portions. I settled for a delicious pork dumpling, which I doused in chili sauce.
Charbroiled pork or chicken was also available from several tents. I chose Thai Taste, since (a) they are a first-year Taste participant and (b) Mrs. Me and I had already tried and loved their pork-on-a-stick. I could have just stood next to their grill for hours, it smelled so good. Popular too, they were having difficulty keeping up with demand, with a large line building, waiting for the pork to finish cooking. Thai Taste also sold me a $2 cup of Thai iced tea — I did not need any convincing, and it was the perfect beverage on a warm day for someone who didn’t have quite enough coffee this morning.
I also tried an empanada from Pollo Campero, where I have never eaten but clearly need to. The empanada had gone soft from hanging out in the warming oven, but was otherwise delicious, plump with tender stewed chicken and just enough creamy, zesty tomatillo sauce. They were also selling a lot of “campenitos” – little buckets of fried chicken pieces, kind of like those KFC bites buckets except I think with a better chicken-to-coating ratio.
Other $1 options, all good or better quality too:
Cobanos: pupusas, tamales, chicken taquitos
Pollo Sabroso: pupusas, fried chicken wing, saltenas, plantains
Umbertos: tacos (also $2 quesadillas already sold out by noon, if I was reading their sign right)
Limerick: potato croquettes, Irish meatballs
Moby Dick: various sushi
Marchone’s: Italian sub sections
Ledo and Little Caesar’s each had slices for $2, and IHOP was there too, and while I don’t usually eat at those places, they were doing a solid business, and I have to admit it’s good to have them participate, more options for more people. We like options. I also didn’t try anything from the Ana G. Mendez Culinary School or Green Plate Catering, both of which were also doing cooking demos later in the day. Green Plate’s food looked good but far too healthy for me. The Mendez School is a new and interesting local food scene addition, related to this Puerto Rican entity, and more info on the new local digs here.
Other notes: the wine tent (with food pairings) was huge, and evidently hugely popular despite charging extra for tickets. Kids seemed to be enjoying the rides. Orquesta la Romana sounded great, especially the tight brass section, and lots of folks were grooving on the lawn. Soul Crackers had just taken the stage and had launched into a heartfelt rendition of Take Me To the River as I was leaving.
All in all, a fun, happy, tasty, well-done event. Thanks and congrats to the organizers and sponsors. Next year, my expectations will be even higher!