Last Friday night was near-perfect weather with clear, blue skies and temperatures at a comfortable, nonhumid heat for this time of year. So, I decided, “What a perfect evening for a leisurely stroll in downtown Chattanooga!” I could get some much-needed exercise, and the Riverfront is so picturesque and relaxing during this time of year. For some reason, however, I was having a hard time finding somewhere to park-and parking prices were being unusually gouged-and mobs of people were also heading to the Riverfront area, who, I guessed, must have had the same idea I did.
Low and behold, I found myself belly-deep in the full-on flapdoodle known as the Riverbend Festival. There were more cowboy boots and hats than you could crack a whip at with Eric Church in town, and the air was filled with sounds of music, drunken slurs and smells of strong perfume, body odor, alcohol and fried foods.
Even more mentally questionable than if I had actually been hanging out downtown not realizing it was Riverbend-that was satire, by the way-was the reason I was really there: I decided to take on the challenge of going through several food vendors on Friday and Saturday to give the lowdown on food options at the festival, meanwhile sacrificing my arteries, digestive system and sanity during those two days for the sake of food journalism.
While researching my preliminary attack strategy beforehand, I noticed there was barely any info online regarding menu options, so I complied a list of several vendors with reviews of what I sampled. I have taken into consideration that many of these are pure festival vendors, and I was not expecting full-fledged quality food trucks in these critiques, but some did impress. Though I couldn’t possibly review every vendor (I left off Moe’s and Chick-fil-A since most are familiar with them), I hit most of the major ones. Note that menus are subject to change, however, as I noticed happening already during my two days there.
The list of reviews is below (and while I’m happy to say I’m still alive and kicking, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go eat some oatmeal, miso soup and leafy greens, and run several miles to make up for all of this).
Funny Face Foods
This vendor had an eye-catching stand with a colorful carnival vibe and an interesting menu (no, the BBQ sundae isn’t ice cream). I’m a big fan of mac and cheese (who isn’t?), so I went for the fried mac and cheese-I didn’t get into this Riverbend food review to tippy-toe around these menus, so why not go for the gusto?
Although it was a sure-fire artery clogger, this was very good. Although I was just having small samples of each item I tried at the festival, it was hard to back off of this one. The crispy batter coating the soft, creamy mac was flavorful, and the sauce on top was tangy and complemented the dish’s flavors well.
While keeping an eye out for items that looked remotely healthful, I spotted the veggie gluten-free panini at this vendor. Although I received a gluten-free panini, it was not veggie, however, as it had turkey on it. It was loud, and they only caught the gluten-free part of my order, but I’m obviously not a vegetarian, and they didn’t skimp on the turkey, so I just went with it.
The gluten-free bread was obviously crumbly without having gluten to hold it together, but it was toasted firm and held up well to a huge amount of deli-sliced turkey with lettuce, mozzarella, tomato and mayo. My main complaint with this is that the lettuce was a little wilted, but overall it was good. This is a good option for those with gluten sensitivity, but if you want the vegetarian version, make sure to speak loudly.
Thibodeaux’s Louisiana Cajun Cookin’
I stood in this line for almost 30 minutes, which would have been longer had I not realized there were two lines that others didn’t seem to notice. Thibodeaux’s was celebrating their 20-year anniversary, and their fried chicken on a stick is noticeably one of the most popular items at the festival. While I was standing in this massive line, I didn’t see one person go for the pork; it was all chicken, and they were cranking these things out. The women running the windows were probably the jolliest vendors at the festival as they gleefully pumped up the crowd waiting for chicken.
This whole deep-friend chicken breast was ridiculous, but when I say that, I mean it in a good way, as after standing in one of the two long, twisting lines-and seeing thousands of these golden fried chicken breasts being carried around all over the festival-you should already know what you’ve gotten yourself into and don’t need me to tell you it’s a massive heart attack on a stick.
That being said, the thick batter coating the outside was fried to an extra-crunchy consistency and had a good spiciness to it. The meat itself was juicy and flavorful, and the roll was warm and soft. This thing was massive, and though I only sampled it, I’m sure if you ate this whole thing you should probably skip a few meals afterward.
I’m dedicating this one to Nooga.com columnist colleague Sean Phipps, who stated in his Riverbend column a couple of weeks ago, “Choosing to eat a giant corn dog on a stick is a decision made by a person who has decided to give up on life.” Although there were many of these hopeless souls scouring the festival-as these Pronto Pup stands were everywhere, so a corn dog was never far away-I went for the small corn dog rather than the giant one, so there may be a smidge of hope for me yet. And though there wasn’t really anything that stood out about it, it was indeed a corn dog if you want a corn dog.
Wells Roasted Corn
Corn in its purest form, the buttery roasted cob from this vendor was refreshing, and having a charred husk to use as a handle was a nice touch rather than the typical stick-being roasted rather than fried was also nice. There is also a table to the side with a multitude of herbs and spices to flavor it as you wish, but even without those, it was a well-cooked cob of corn.
This is one of the most recognizable vendors-with a huge towering balloon saying “Pizza & Breadsticks” that can be seen from clear across the festival-and is also one of the most popular. I wanted to switch it up, though, and instead of grabbing a slice of pizza, I went for their pizza quesadilla.
There were gobs of melted mozzarella and pepperoni pressed inside this quesadilla with some sprinkled cheese and pepperoni slices on top. It was made to order, and the molten cheese oozed out with each bite. There was no sauce inside, but marinara was served on the side for dipping. It was a good dish.
Funnel cakes and elephant ears are certainly a major festival pleaser for those with a sweet tooth, but the thing that really impressed me about this vendor was that they had a sugar-free option for both. I went for the sugar-free elephant ear, and though I’m not a big sweets-eater, it was enjoyable. It wasn’t too sweet or extremely greasy, and the interior was moist and fluffy with a crispy outer shell with sucralose (Splenda) sprinkled on top rather than powdered sugar (they have a good amount of other fruit and sugary toppings as well). This was about as healthful as fried dough can get.
Tater twirls are made with a special machine that slices the potato into long ribbons as it twirls it around. This vendor deep-fried the twirls to order, so they came out fresh and crispy. Although the twirls had a good seasoning, I couldn’t resist some bubbling nacho cheese on top-it’s a criminally guilty pleasure. This came in a very large portion, which would be good to share-eating the whole thing yourself wouldn’t be a very good idea-and is something different from your typical fries or nachos.
One of my favorite traditional festival foods is a turkey leg, and getting one smoked rather than deep-fried is even better. There is something that feels very primal about grabbing hold of a large limb and tearing off chunks of meat with your teeth-followed by deep Neanderthal grunts. Kenny’s turkey leg was juicy with a good smoky flavor, and there are many barbeque options at this vendor if you’d like to get away from the fryers.
Hanner International is a prominent local taekwondo school, and my little brothers actually took lessons from Master Terry Hanner when they were kids-Hanner is well-known in the martial arts world for his record-setting, more-than-9-foot-high flying sidekick.
The menu options from this vendor were a bit lower-priced than some others carrying similar items. I grabbed a burger since I had not yet had one in this festival food journey, and though the patty was obviously not hand-formed, it was well cooked, and the tomato, onion and lettuce were crispy and fresh. I held off on the mustard and just went with mayo slathered on the fresh, steamy bun. (For all the belligerent Riverbend drunkards out there, a word of advice: Don’t mess with this vendor because they can kick your ass.)
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 9:04 a.m. on 06/12/12 to correct an error in the list of vendors.