By Marwa Eltagouri & Maki Becker | BuffaloNews.com
At first, Liz Allen was skeptical. A burger with bacon jam and peanut butter was anything but conventional.
But then the Washington, D.C., native took a bite out of The Roaming Buffalo food truck’s signature burger, and her eyes widened.
“It’s pretty delicious,” she said, midchew. As she swallowed, she lifted the top bun of the sandwich to reveal the warm, gooey peanut butter. “It’s the crunchy peanut butter that does it,” she said, nodding.
The Roaming Buffalo was among a cluster of food trucks present at Saturday’s opening salvo of the 29th annual Taste of Buffalo food festival. A huge, hungry crowd got to sample the diversity of this region’s dining options. Dozens of Western New York restaurants and wineries were present for this year’s Taste, serving up samplings of their finest menu items to ticket holders.
This year marked the first year in which food trucks – the up-and-coming lunch option for many Buffalonians – were allowed to participate. This year is considered a “trial year” for the mobile eateries, and the success and popularity of the trucks will determine whether they become a mainstay of future Tastes.
But so far, they’re a hit.
“Look at the long lines, it’s gotta be good,” said Melissa Hill, who came up from Binghamton with her family. It’s her first time at the festival, and Hill said she preferred the food trucks.
“We’re simple people,” she said. “We don’t really like complex food.”
Chuck and Lisa Cwiklinski of Cheektowaga brought their twin 9-year-old sons Justin and Cody just for a chance to sample food trucks.
“This is the main reason I wanted to come,” Lisa Cwiklinski said of the food trucks. “It’s wonderful food,” she said, before biting into a gooey “Lucky 7” grilled cheese made with a blend of seven Italian meats and cheeses.
“Delicious!” she said.
Husband Chuck was at first skeptical of the food trucks.
“Are you sure they’re sanitary?” he asked.
However, his apprehensions dissolved at first bite into a taco from the popular Lloyd Taco Truck.
“That was really good,” he said.
Peter Cimino, co-owner of the taco truck, said people often have difficulty accessing food trucks, which roam the city. The festival, he added, offers a chance for people to become more familiar with them. Cimino said he isn’t worried about not being represented at next year’s Taste. “This is a testament to how much people want food trucks at this event,” he said.
To participate his year, food truck vendors had to pay $100 more for registration than restaurants did.
Renee Allen, owner of R & R BBQ food truck, said this policy confuses her.
“At first I thought it was because we took up more space, but actually they have more space,” she said. “We operate on our own and don’t use the festival tents either. It doesn’t make any sense.”
She hopes not only that food trucks get to stay at the festival, but that their registration fee becomes equal to that of restaurants, as well.
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown was among the Taste of Buffalo judges sampling the fare Saturday. He said he was happy to have food trucks as part of the restaurant landscape of Buffalo.
“They add something new,” he said. “I think it’s good.”
The mayor also made sure to tout the 200 recycling bins that the city put out for the festival, part of the city’s push to increase the amount of material it sends to recycling centers.
Cesar Del Valle, 33, and his wife, Cindy, 30, who just moved to Buffalo from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were delighted by the food they ordered from The Cheesy Chick food truck.
“It’s not bad,” said Del Valle, sinking tooth into a crunchy triangle of grilled cheese. “It’s actually good.”
Food trucks are commonplace in their old hometown, and the couple was happy that the trend was catching on in Buffalo as well.
The festival also featured live music, and contests and prize giveaways from Tops Friendly Markets, which sponsored the festival. Among the main attractions was the Nickel City Sous Chef Battle, where chefs James Gehrke of the new Mike A’s Steakhouse at the Hotel @ The Lafayette faced off against Dustin Swaciek of Shango Bistro on Main Street in the University District.
Their challenge: to create two courses using Furmano’s canned tomatoes.
For his first course, Gehrke created a four-part “tomato tasting” – a Blood Mary, tomato bisque, tomato-braised pork belly on crunchy baguette and a deconstructed caprese salad garnished with balsamic vinegar “caviar.” For his second, he made a cioppino with lobster, scallops and clams with pasta made from tomato puree.
Swaciek whipped up a Cajun-influenced tomato bisque topped with blackened shrimp and corn ceviche and some tomato “air.” For the main course, he hand-made ricotta and truffle gnocchi with a roasted garlic and tomato marinara.
Gehrke, the reigning champ, won the competition but both sous chefs drew praise from the panel of judges. Gehrke said he was relieved, considering how nervous he was. “I had lost a lot of sleep prior to this, the build-up’s really stressful,” he said, referring to the pressure of cooking a meal outdoors in a limited kitchen. “But once you get there, you’re fine.”
Though Swaciek lost, he said the competition was a learning experience. Next time, he plans to prepare more in advance.
For Julia Holmes of Buffalo, the festival never gets old. “I’ve come here several times, and there’s always a variety of food,” she said, chewing on a spicy chicken kabob. “But there’s always something new, something up-and-coming – and that’s what brings me back.”
The best of the best won awards during judging Saturday. One award, the AT&T Fan Favorite Food, has yet to be determined.
Following is a roster of the winners:
* Chairman’s Choice: Eddie Ryan’s – pot roast sandwich.
* Children’s Choice: Fat Bob’s Smokehouse – macaroni and cheese
* New York Award: Buffalo Tap Room – sausage cacciatora.
* Pat Sardina Memorial Award for Best Comfort Food: Francesca’s – eggplant fra diablo.
* Lou Billitier Memorial “Rookie of the Year” Award: Cabaret.
* Best Overall Item: Orazio’s Restaurant – brasciole sliders with sauce and cheese.
* Best Meat Item: Papi’s Family Restaurant – beef and cheese pastelillos.
* Best Seafood Item: Ms. Goodies – Junkyard Dog.
* Best Vegetarian Item: Delhi Chaat Sweets and Restaurant – samosa chaat.
* Best Dessert: Landies Candies – chocolate-dipped strawberries.
* Best Red Wine: Merritt Estate Winery – 2010 merlot.
* Best White Wine: Glenora Wine Cellars – 2011 gewurztraminer.
* Independent Health Foundation’s Healthy Options: first place, Kabab & Curry, Malai tikka; second, Orazio’s, Faye salad; third, Applebee’s, grilled jalapeno lime shrimp.
Today’s finale of the Taste of Buffalo runs from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., along Delaware Avenue, from Chippewa Street to Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo.
For more information, visit www.tasteofbuffalo.com