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Mayor Betsy Price opened a champagne bottle at FWFWF kick-off event at The Modern. Photo by Jeff Prince.

I spent this past weekend on a deep dive with the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival. I’ve done this sort of thing with the Van Cliburn Competition and the Lone Star Film Festival, but eating is not like listening to piano music or watching movies. I wouldn’t recommend five all-you-can-eat events in four days to anyone except food-industry professionals, but I did find some restaurants to frequent now that it’s all over. Last Call has a recap of the dessert shindig (see: pg. 27), but here’s what I learned from the others.

Tacos + Tequila

I’ve never been to the taco event, but people told me it was unequivocally better than last year’s, so I’ll just have to take their word for it. I was able to sample Patrón’s Extra Añejo tequila, which is aged in oak barrels for at least three years. It did not convert me into a tequila drinker, but the smooth brandy-colored liquor did make me feel quite refined while I was sipping it.

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This year’s tacos had some duds: Both of Mariachi’s Dine-In’s tacos were overwhelmed by the amount of jalapeño in the sauce, while Alma’s Paleteria (which partners with Tokyo Café) put out a nopalito taco with sweet pickled scallion, and the Mexican-Japanese fusion didn’t come off. Better stuff came from the savory brisket taco of Willow Park’s Drake’s Yoke, and the Fort Worth’s campus of Dallas-based Mesero went them one better by topping their brisket taco with a tomato-less pico that complemented the meat well. Four Sisters — A Taste of Vietnam presented a nice Asian alternative with its bánh mi báo, sporting a pillowy rice bun as a shell covering grilled pork, butter, and pickles. The Black Rooster Cafe did themselves proud with a shrimp empanada, where the filling was upstaged by the delicate, flaky, perfectly seasoned pastry drizzled in a tangy crema. I could eat a bunch of those. The best taco I ran into was bartaco’s pork belly taco with maple glaze and an árbol chile sauce. Those little chunks of caramelized meat were pure decadence.

Out behind the tent was an open area with The Three Amigos being projected on a sheet, with the subtitles. Let’s see if this becomes a theme.

Main Event

Looks like the movies weren’t a theme. The Main Event had a live band playing in that space instead of a movie screen. That’s a perk of moving this thing outdoors: the possibility of live music. Plus you don’t have to go between floors like you did when the event was at Pier 1 headquarters. 

The Capital Grille played it safe with lobster mac ’n’ cheese, while Eddie V’s Prime Seafood put out smoked salmon. I like those things, so I didn’t mind so much. By the same token, I didn’t care for Bonnell’s pozole, but I’m sensing that I’m not a pozole person. 

Fixe Southern House had lollipopped lamb chops that made me wonder why more restaurants don’t serve this cut of meat that can be so delicate in the right hands. (Although, why was the pineapple salsa on only one end of the chop? Very curious.) An almighty jolt of smoke came from Cane Rosso’s pastrami slider, which was as good as any brisket I’ve ever had. B&B Butchers & Restaurant was handing out their house-made bacon. I’ve eaten my share of bacon, but this gave me the feeling that a mountain climber must feel upon first seeing Everest. This meat had everything good about bacon, except more of it.

While all the restaurants were trying to grab my attention, Grace went in for understatement with a scallop and a comparably sized chunk of pork cheek on glass noodles with cilantro and peanuts. I loved it. This restaurant always seems to deliver at this event.

On the alcohol front, Panther Island Brewing’s Sweet Fang is a chocolate-peanut butter milk stout, a combination that I don’t think came off, even though the beer expressed the peanut butter precisely. 

Culinary Corral

To my surprise, the festival did not switch locations after the heavens had dropped all kinds of rain in the early morning hours. I suppose moving that many people and that much food would have been a logistical nightmare. The big tent stayed up, and the decorative bales of hay in the background were broken up and strewn over the muddiest patches in the field out back, because no food festival needs that Woodstock vibe. The rain returned in the middle of the event and drove everyone underneath the canvas.

That was too bad for the restaurants set up outside the tent. That included Waters Restaurant, which provided the highlight of the event with a grilled scallop that was nicely charred on the outside without losing that briny delectability inside. Also caught out there was FunkyTown Donuts, whose trio of donut holes with different kinds of glaze on them showed off their abilities (if not the shop’s famous creativity).

Inside, Café Modern did not disappoint with their Korean barbecue sliders, whose sweet pickles and pineapple slaw worked well against the meat’s richness. Boopa’s Bagel Deli didn’t have any of my preferred bagel flavors, but their cinnamon and raisin with a honey walnut spread is making me consider a trip over. The kids at Granbury High School put out a pretty decent carnitas taco, even if the Texas-shaped tortillas were a bit excessive. Knowing that I’d be attending the burger event later today, I leant toward the sweet stuff, and Pearl Snap Kolaches gave me a nice, toasty pecan pastry, while Press Café’s walnut coconut-chocolate chip cookie was as dense as you’d expect.

Burgers Brews + Blues

The tent was removed for this event, which makes sense: The weather was clearing up, and it wouldn’t do to have that structure out there for the barbecue event the next day, so it was a big open field and the smell of grilled hamburger that greeted me. Sadly, The Impossible Burger did not make an appearance.

Cast Iron Restaurant’s burgers had bacon and peach chutney, which wasn’t too shabby for the part of the burger that had those things. Kincaid’s Texas Firecracker burger was dressed with a jalapeño cream cheese and habanero honey, and the chile heat did well to counteract the richness of the cheese and the sweetness of the honey. The event’s panel of celebrity judges chose Knife Burger as the best of the night, and I will say that they had the best pure beef patty. They put only American cheese slices and grilled red onions on those, and there’s something to be said for a simple approach.

Yet my pick for the best burger was from Hooker’s Grill in the Stockyards. (The Oklahoma-based chain’s motto is “Support Your Local Hooker’s.”) They smashed a bunch of onions into the beef patty, and it made for a uniquely tangy experience that also didn’t need much in the way of fixings.

As for the beer, I liked Panther Island’s Allergeez (honey and rose hips) better than their aforementioned stout. I found other good beers, too, in Rabbit Hole Brewing’s JubJub Hefeweizen, brewed with tangerines, and in Franconia Brewing Company’s complex Honey Spelt beer that practically qualified as a dark beer. My favorite, though, was Martin House Brewing Company’s Lemon Icebox Pie, which tasted quite like the summer treat. I’m going to track some down when the weather becomes hot.

Ring of Fire

Despite overcast skies, the weather held for the barbecue event. I didn’t see any exotic barbecue like I hoped, but there’s always next year. Austin’s Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden represented Eastern Carolina ’cue, with pulled pork seasoned in vinegar and spices, mixed with pork skin, and topped with chicharrones. It worked better than I expected, even if their sample was too big. Cousin’s Bar-B-Q put out a delectable brisket and Brix Barbecue served their tacos on Caramelo Tortillas out of Lawrence, Kansas, that were so translucent, they looked like spring roll wrappers. That was cool.

Still, the truly addictive stuff came from adjoining stalls, as the pork belly chunks from Waxahachie’s Meat Church had a brown sugar-and-habanero glaze that absorbed the floral flavors of the pepper without overpowering you with heat. Original Black’s Barbecue from Central Texas has come through at this event before and did so again with their brisket topped with brown sugar and a whiskey-and-Coke sauce. With my sweet tooth, I’m lucky that these places are too far away for me to eat there every week.

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