Judging Food From Fair to Great

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In this corner … the TASTI CHIPS!
And in THIS corner … the TORNADO POTATO!

“Are you ready for a Chowdown?” I asked Stasha several weeks ago.

“Don’t you mean Throwdown?” she replied.

“No, that’s Bobby Flay’s line. I mean Chowdown, as in the OC Fair Food Truck versus Fair Food Chowdown.”

I could tell from Stasha’s puzzled look that she needed an explanation.

“We’ve been invited to be judges at the OC Fair Chowdown on Aug. 4, in which a Fair food vendor competes against a food truck challenger. We’re scheduled for the Fried Potato Chowdown—Tasti Chips versus Tornado Potato.”

“Sounds right up your alley – or palate,” said Stasha. “Unfortunately, I’m taking my vacation that week and will miss the event, but I’m sure you’ll tell me all about it.”

“Too bad – but I’ll gladly eat your share.”

“I’m sure you will. Better bring some antacid, you may need it.”

“What? With my cast-iron stomach? Not a chance. Besides, this isn’t an eating contest. I’ll be judging the food on taste and presentation. It’s a serious assignment.”

“Since when did the OC Fair get serious?”

“Hmmm…good point. But you have to admit it sounds fun.”

“Good luck, Mr. Cast-iron. Fill me in on the details when I get back.”

I arrived at the OC Fair on Aug. 4 minus antacid but armed with an appetite. I made my way to the judging area, where I saw my two fellow judges already seated. They were both wearing bibs. Upon being seated, I too had a bib placed around my neck so that it covered my upper body.

“The judging can get messy,” explained the emcee.

“Only if I do it right,” I quipped to the throng of fairgoers that had gathered to watch the competition.

Once we were introduced to the crowd, the first competitor, Tornado Potato, brought out their star food item: an ornately skewered potato that had been cut into a long spiral, then deep fried a golden brown. The edges of the potato were dusted with cheese toppiing.

We three judges admired the potato kabob and began scoring. I rated it 4.5 for appearance and then dug into the center of the potato.

“This looks like an ear of corn to me, and this is how I eat corn,” I explained to the crowd as I continued munching away.

The potato was soft on the inside, had a subtle flavor and was fun to eat.

Next up, came competitor two: Tasti Chip’s basket of thinly sliced potatoes that had been deep fried and slathered with a jalapeno cheese sauce on top. It was accompanied by ranch dressing and more cheese sauce, plus sliced jalapenos.

I admired the presentation—not as fancy as the first one, but still nice. I dug into the dish by scooping up the sauce with the potato slices and shoving the ensemble into my mouth.

I was hit by a burst of flavor with a defined kick. Now this was more in line with what I thought fair food was all about.

Just to make sure, I poured the ranch dressing and cheese sauce on top of the potatoes, added some jalapenos, and scooped up another mouthful.

“This is how my dad taught me to eat nachos,” I told the crowd between bites.

The potatoes were messy, fun to eat, and packed a punch. Exactly what I thought fair food should be.

We completed our scoring and turned in our sheets. It didn’t take long to tally the scores.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner for our Fried Potato Chowdown: The OC Fair’s very own Tasti Chips!” exclaimed the emcee.

I smiled and would have made a comment, except I was still eating the winner’s messy potato nachos.

The owner of Tasti Chips came forward to claim his medal, while the judges shared the remains of their food with the audience.

So how good are Tasti Chips? You be the judge. The OC Fair runs through this weekend, so go try some and see what you think. Just make sure to grab some extra napkins.

           ***

We’ve written about Rustica Restaurant in Fashion Island several times, so imagine our surprise when Rustica closed last month only to reopen a week later with a new name (Great Maple: Libations and Seasonal Plates), new menu, and a new chef: Laurent Ferre, the former chef/owner of Pleasant Peasant Restaurant in Newport Beach (now the site of Il Barone restaurant).

I decided to have a look at Great Maple and ended up sampling several menu items.

Among the standouts: Creamy Polenta with Pancetta and Shaved Figs, Seasonal Melon and La Querica Prosciutto with Rustic Bread Crostini, and East Coast Pulled Pork Sandwich with Sweet Onion and Mixed Peppers.

The dessert  was a Peanut Butter Banana Split, which put me in peanut butter heaven. The banana came baked in phyllo dough, while the peanut butter ice cream adorned with peanut toffee and cherries was bursting with peanut butter flavor. Chef Ferre even came over and poured hot chocolate sauce over the dish!

For more information and a look at the menu, visit http://www.greatmaplefashionisland.com.

 

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