First up was the wood-fired pizza, and we got a pepperoni. Maybe it was the fact that we had just come through the gates at theÂ time of opening on the first day â€“ hence the oven may not have been hot enough â€“ but the result was a little doughy and took an age to cook. The sauce was fine, the pepperoni a light portion. It was an inauspicious start, but perhaps early mid-afternoon jitters were the cause.
That early setback was countered with a quite nice rendition of bourbon chicken. A bed of rice was topped off with tender and succulent chicken that had been slow cooked with the aid of Evan Williams bourbon and soy sauce. It was wholesome, filling and a good value. But after the bourbon chicken came a letdown.
The â€œSteak on a Stickâ€ was that letdown experience. It stared at me, and I stared back,Â and we both understood right there and then that it wasnâ€™t going to be a happy marriage. I expected something more, and by â€œmoreâ€ I donâ€™t mean in the metaphorical sense or the realm of taste (both of which were lacking), but literally more. When it comes to bang for the buck, this was the worst. Small, over seasoned and tough â€“ it was lacking, to put it kindly.
Things got a little betterÂ with the staples, but thatâ€™s only because you knew there would be no surprises. The Kingâ€™s Tater was fine,Â as was the cheese dip. Itâ€™s a long potato chip â€“ what else do you expect? For those looking for other fare, the usual suspects are aplenty with turkey legs, burgers and gyros.
Without wanting to totally rip into The Chow Wagon, the atmosphere is great. The Kentucky Derby Festival works hard to ensure that. Live music at the far end of the grounds is a great compliment, and at night time, itâ€™s special because of the backdrop of the river and bridge. But weâ€™re here to talk about the food, so onto dessert.
The red velvet funnel cake was probably the most enjoyable thing to consume (a low bar, admittedly). The downside was seeing something of that color being arranged in that shape. A cartoon brain drizzled with creamy, milky colored icing. Get past that, and itâ€™s fine, and what you totally expect: dough thatâ€™s been fried. Itâ€™s sweet, filling and washes away the disappointment of everything that came beforehand.
The Chow Wagon has a reverence to it, because nostalgia tastes better than reality. Itâ€™s the MSG of our imagination, and that makes the food that more palatable. But the reality is that itâ€™s pretty much the same every year. When you step through those gates you know what youâ€™re going to get, and for some reason,Â people keep coming back. But hereâ€™s the thing: when you have a city thatâ€™s so proud of its food, why is this offering the one that so dominates year in and year out? Where are the great tacos, for example? Where are the food trucks that we see downtown and lap up so much?
If you want to eat your weight in childhood nostalgia and hydrogenated fats and corn syrup, go for it. But if you want to ring in Derby and the Kentucky Derby Festival, walk somewhere else â€“ anywhere else â€“ and enjoy that. VT
The Chow Wagon isÂ situated on the Waterfront and runs until May 1. For more information about the live concert series, visit discover.kdf.org/chow-wagon.