October may be a popular month for outdoor festivals, but it's not the most reliable. Caught in an annual tug-of-war between summer and fall, October promises states like Indiana the first snow of the year, while in Arizona we cross our fingers that it will mean the end of three-digit temperatures. Still, like kids after Halloween candy, we brave whatever the weather throws at us to fill our plates and cups.
For the crowds at Saturday's TASTE. Chandler's Culinary Festival, held in the middle of Historic Downtown Chandler, that meant braving what turned out to be a very hot day. Spray bottles became impromptu misters, stacks of crisp napkins were dis-assembled to wipe the sweat from volunteers' brows, and by mid-afternoon the fire department had been called to respond to a case of possible heat exhaustion outside one of the "Experience Lounge" tents.
Find out which sandwich stole our hearts - and which pasta didn't - after the jump.
Murphy's Law Irish Pub & Restaurant -- promoting their re-branding and franchising as Irish Republic Public House -- quickly won us over with their proactive response to the heat. Handing out flyers offering $1 Irish Republic Ale (we even found one on our car later), they urged attendees to head to the pub for a break from the sun.
Meanwhile, they served samples of Spicy Meatball Bangers and Chicken or Beef Shepherd's Pie. The Chicken Shepherd's Pie, definitely a standout at the festival, was all warm, gooey, comfort food topped with a flaky, pastry crust. Even the carrots tasted fresh and crunchy. It was so good, you forgot that it was about as well suited to a hot day as cocoa and hot-cross buns.
The "Best of TASTE" surveys asked us to rate restaurants on originality, and we were particularly surprised by the less conventional offerings of NYPD Pizza and Iguana Mack's. In addition to a plain cheese pizza, NYPD offered samples of their White Spinach and Cheese pizza. Iguana Mack's seemed to go completely off-book (chips? salsa? anyone?) in their presentation of White Truffle Hummus w/ Pita Bread. Those are two plates that went into the bin completely clean.
Not every restaurant was a hit. BJ's served a Cajun Chicken Pasta that had long lost its punch, if it ever had it, and the Majerle's Boneless Chicken Wings were relatively bland without the necessary pairing of a good game or, better still, one of the beer tasting booths. The chilled lettuce of Latitude Eight's Chicken Lettuce Wraps was the best ingredient (though their Thai Iced Tea, liberally poured, is still the best we've found).
In the category of presentation, two restaurants stood out: The Keg Steakhouse and Bar and AJ's Cafe at the Crown Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort. AJ's Cafe's booth boasted a festive fall spread, with samples available of St. Louis Ribs, Beef Short Ribs, and "N'Awlins" Shrimp. The Keg went even more posh, crafting a trio of mini-delicacies like Steak Skewers with Dijon Horseradish and Onions and Goat Cheese Crostini with Tomato Basil Salsa.
The three Experience Lounges (The Reserve Wine, Brewmaster Craft Beer, and Mix & Mingle Spirits) offered wine and beer tastings, cooking demonstrations, live entertainment, and even chair massages throughout the event, but it was clear what the real "experience" was: shade. These overpriced tents ($10 on top of the $35-45 entrance fee) were oases in the middle of the desert, and seating (about the only seating you could find) was extremely limited. Inside, the taste of the tasters was still driven by the heat: Volunteers at one of the wine tasting tables noted that of all the California wines available, the Cherry on Top Sweet White Wine - chilled, light, and refreshing - was a clear favorite.
Outside, Paletas Betty - serving Mexican fruity ice pops known as "paletas" - ran out early, while BLD couldn't pour the iced coffee (a special house blend of French Vanilla and Irish Cream) fast enough.
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But the buzz we overheard mostly revolved around Yoli's Cafe, which served a Luau Pork with Hawaiian Jalapeno Slaw sandwich that the newly crowned Food Network Star "Sandwich King" would no doubt approve of. Spicy, sweet, and layered with flavor, this sandwich was our pick for the star of the festival. Let's just say it was worth the heat.