The Ow! Wagon

Kings TatersThe Chow Wagon is here. In other words, state fair-lite is upon us. So we walked down to the waterfront to see what was new, what was old and what’s the enduring appeal of The Chow Wagon.

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 the time of opening on the first day – hence the oven may not have been hot enough – 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.

Bourbon Chicken

Bourbon Chicken

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 “Steak on a Stick” was that letdown experience. It stared at me, and I stared back,  and we both understood right there and then that it wasn’t going to be a happy marriage. I expected something more, and by “more” I don’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 – it was lacking, to put it kindly.

Steak on a Stick

Steak on a Stick

Things got a little better with the staples, but that’s only because you knew there would be no surprises. The King’s Tater was fine, as was the cheese dip. It’s a long potato chip – 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, it’s special because of the backdrop of the river and bridge. But we’re here to talk about the food, so onto dessert.

Red Velvet Funnel Cake

Red Velvet Funnel Cake

 

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 it’s fine, and what you totally expect: dough that’s been fried. It’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. It’s the MSG of our imagination, and that makes the food that more palatable. But the reality is that it’s pretty much the same every year. When you step through those gates you know what you’re going to get, and for some reason,  people keep coming back. But here’s the thing: when you have a city that’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 – anywhere else – and enjoy that. VT

The Chow Wagon is  situated on the Waterfront and runs until May 1. For more information about the live concert series, visit discover.kdf.org/chow-wagon.