I was pretty excited for all the glamour of my first Food and Wine Classic, especially since it’s the big finish for Top Chef except in Aspen, not Chula Vista, for all you fans out there. Tickets are $75 for non-members and $65 for members, which may seem steep, however it includes a shuttle ride, a fancy etched wine glass, all the food and spirits you want, celebrity chef cooking demos, swag bags and more freebies than you can shake a stick at, so it ends up being a pretty good deal. Not to mention your money goes to the great cause of preserving and enriching San Diego wildlife (so you get to feel all warm and fuzzy inside).
After taking the shuttle over to the picturesque newly renamed “Living Coast Discovery Center” (formerly know as the less glamorous Chula Vista Nature Center) you are greeted with some Z Pizza while you wait to check in. I opted for what I assumed was the Margherita pizza; it was nothing to write home about, but rather cold since it had been sitting out and it was pretty chilly out anyways. Probably not the best representation of the company and it didn’t help that you knew there was warm, delicious food on the other side of the check-in table. After you are confirmed you are given a decadent raspberry liqueur in a chocolate shot glass (which I may or may not have accidentally spilled all over the white table cloth). The liqueur surprisingly tasted like fresh raspberries, not too artificial-y and the classic pairing with a milk chocolate shot glass was a great idea for a dessert, however I would opt for dark chocolate so it offsets the very sweet liqueur.
Entering the event there are animal handlers placed all over the large space with various birds of prey (that are too cute to handle), after all it is Where the Wild Things Are. You are then given the key to sheer bliss: a commemorative wine glass that you can fill until it runneth over then drink it and fill it up again (a great policy that I advocate for everywhere). The main indoor rooms have tables lined with baskets for the silent auctions that you can bid on that range from yacht outings, to local artists to more upcoming food events. They are great to fantasize and drool over, but perhaps not for thinner wallet people, since most start bidding at $300 and can end somewhere in the thousands.
There are over 38 vendors, mostly local, for food, wine and spirits, which pose a challenge to sample all of them. However, I am willing to take the bullet in the name of journalistic integrity.
Rubio’s was one of the first you encounter. I was initially a little wary since it’s a chain fast-food restaurant, but to its credit Rubio’s was one of the few food vendors that made food to order on their grills. They were offering a zesty shrimp taco with avocado and lime on a corn tortilla. A very refreshing and light dish that maintains the integrity of So Cal Mexican that I highly recommend.
Allure’s cupcakes were a gem. I must admit there is a special place in my heart for well-executed cupcakes, especially with pearls, glitter and liquor (my favorite things). They offered red velvet and chocolate with chocolate icing, but the standouts were the strawberry with vanilla icing and the “lemon drop,” a lemon cupcake with a lemon-cream cheese icing and (best of all) a dropper with a mini-shot of Absolut vodka that you shoot and chase with the cupcake. Best. Idea. Ever. Unfortunately, they aren’t San Diegan, but do deliver and cater. You can look them up if you are in North County!
Eastlake Tavern and Bowl is often voted best place to bowl in San Diego and if you’ve ever been there you know why. A hip and modern bowling alley with a grade-A bar and small plates, it is an anomaly in the world of bowling alleys. They were there to debut their new menu they are offering at their locations. They chose to serve a pulled pork slider on Hawaiian bread. Not bad, but the combination of the sweet bread and ketchup-heavy pulled pork was a bit one note for me and could’ve used some acid like more vinegar or pickles. However, just for visiting their table you got a $5 credit for any of their locations.
Edible Arrangements never fails to deliver fresh, chocolate dipped fruit decorated to wow the lucky recipient. This event was no exception. The chocolate dipped strawberries ran out after an hour or so, but chocolate dipped green apples were still available with almonds, coconut or just plain chocolate. Refreshing, sweet and great for any red wine you may be enjoying.
Halpen Red Burgers is a local company that I assume are known for their special burger sauce. Unfortunately, their station was unmanned and only had cold burgers as samples with their signature sauce. Personally, I don’t really care for creamy sauces on my burger so the combination of cold mediocre burgers and a mayo-based sauce was underwhelming.
Roberto DePhillipi’s Steak House is a local Chula Vista steakhouse, who was also cooking some of their meat to order (brownie points!). I had the opportunity to speak with the head chef there and he told me about the processes involved in their steak and chicken dishes that were being offered. The steak was braised in a sauce that consisted of five wines, most notably port and chardonnay, which gave it an intense richness and tenderness. The chicken was cooked in a chardonnay cream sauce; it was a little tough and heavy on the cream served with seasoned mashed potatoes. If ever in the area I would be inclined to try the steak dish again since it was a warm plate of comfort, but skip the chicken.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill was once a decent Italian restaurant, however it has become closer and closer to an Olive Garden pseudonym. They offered a sun-dried tomato, mushroom cream chicken pasta, pretty salty and one note. The spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and garlic was also fairly bland and over processed. They also offered their signature wine, which was a standard table Chianti.
Trader Joe’s, a Southern California staple, was offering their Orange Chicken (many a lazy meal of mine) and debuting their Kung Pao Chicken. The Orange Chicken is always a crowd pleaser, never too fried or syrupy, but a nice balance of spice and sweet. The Kung Pao Chicken is not something I’ll be looking for in a freezer near me. It was the standard Chinese food, salty with no type of spice, which is an integral part of the signature Chinese food dish. One of the best parts was the colorful Trader Joe’s staff that loved to joke and serve with a smile. Also featured were their wines, red and white, which are a personal cheap go-to of mine.
Villa Capri Italian Restaurant is another local Chula Vista restaurant who was offering Chicken Penne Alla Vodka and vegetarian pasta with tomato and broccoli. The Penne Alla Vodka was decent and a crowd pleaser, but I would pass on the vegetarian option since it was dry and lack luster.
Leonardo o Roberto Gourmet Blends were a much-welcomed departure from large, cream heavy dishes. They are a company that focuses on different oils like balsamic and olive and pairing them with other flavors, so it takes some skill. The staff was knowledgeable and pleasant. One of my favorite combinations was a white balsamic, which is very sweet, but lighter than a traditional balsamic and a Blood Orange oil, with great citrus notes. A delightful balance of acid and sweet. A very popular oil was the Pomegranate Balsamic, rich and tangy oil with vibrant notes of pomegranate. My favorite was a Vanilla Fig Balsamic, which was a deep, sweet oil that would be fun to pair with dessert or a rich roast. If you are into oil tasting, I would highly recommend playing around with the one-of-a-kind oils.
Sprout’s, another Southern California favorite, paired up with Kerrygold cheddar cheese for a lovely cheese and fruit table, and let’s be honest, isn’t that what you need with all that wine? Sprout’s brought strawberries that seemed bigger than my hand, but so sweet and succulent I wished they were bigger, and paired with the sharp white cheddar it was a fantastic combination. They also had baked Brie with apricots, cranberries and Spout’s own fig preserves. I’m a sucker for baked Brie, especially with wine, so it was amazing. I’m even planning on going over to Sprout’s to find some giant strawberries and fig preserves for my own personal food and wine classic.
Los Arcos is a Mexican Chula Vista establishment that offered Ceviche and fish in Queso Creama. I’m not a big Ceviche person, but there was nothing extraordinary about it. The unknown white fish, which I was told was like Tilapia, was in a green cream sauce with cilantro and peppers. It was rather heavy and not fantastic. Perhaps Los Arcos is indeed a great Mexican establishment, but based on its table I will not be finding out.
Blender’s BBQ Sauce seemed a little out of place considering all it offered were tortilla chips in BBQ Sauces. The table was manned by a volunteer, who asking me to describe the sauces since I had been asking her about them, which was a rather humorous experience. None of the proclaimed Kansas City Style BBQ sauces left an impression so I will not be looking for them in grocery store.
Via Lago Trattoria by Busalacchi is a Chula Vista native and out of all the Italian offerings, the one I would most likely seek out. Yet another Penne Alla Vodka, but with Salmon and topped with fresh Parmesan. A very flavorful and creamy pasta and I don’t even like Salmon.
Tarantino Gourmet Sausages is a supplier of Bratwursts to places like Costco, and they served a wonderfully seasoned Brat with delicious peppers and onions. I knew Costco was known for its dogs, but now I will be looking for a different kind.
Coconut Bliss offers coconut based ice cream products. I’m a big proponent of ice cream incorporating coconut because it makes me feel like it’s summer vacation somewhere under a palm tree. Hence my new obsession with this company is no surprise. Naked Almond Fudge was like an Almond Joy in ice cream form. I’ll be looking for the Pineapple Coconut flavor in a Whole Foods near me ASAP.
Meringues Light is a new and up-and-coming company that boasts only 4 calories per piece. Even if you aren’t a meringue fan, you might be pleasantly surprised with the airy, melt-in you mouth treat. Offered in three flavors: cappuccino, coconut and vanilla, it is bound to become a quick and light treat. As a surprise to no one, coconut was my favorite, but cappuccino was a close runner-up.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Where the Wild Things Are Food and Wine Classic experience…