A clerical error created a confusing twist in this year’s Asheville Food Truck Showdown. Farm to Fender clearly claimed the People’s Choice Award, but naming a winner for the Judge’s Choice Award proved to be a bit more complicated. Latino Heat initially received the trophy for wooing the judges’ tastes, but in the end, the points showed that Root Down would continue its reign as the judges’ choice for Best Overall Food Truck.
Spring peeked through the clouds, steam still rising off the street from the morning’s rain, as the food trucks circled up around the Masonic Temple lot, setting up shop for the event on Saturday, March 14. In addition to 11 food trucks offering their own unique fare, DJ’s blasted tunes, people played with puppies at the Asheville Humane Society tent and Pabst doled out cans of cold PBR.
The event, now in its second year and organized by JR Yarnall of the Asheville Tattoo Convention, serves as a fundraiser for local charities. The competition was divided into two categories: the popular vote and the judges’ vote. Attendees could vote for the People’s Choice winner by buying a ballot with the proceeds being divided among the Asheville Humane Society, the Montford Park Players and the Masonic Temple.
Outside, voters stood in line as names were shouted from the windows of the trucks. “Buck! Your food is ready! Buck!” shouted one vendor. “I swear I’m not cursing; his name is Buck,” she clarified to the line of customers.
Last year, organizers estimate that around 1,500 people attended the rally. But as the crowds drifted in and out of the grounds, it became clear there were a lot more in attendance this year. “After talking to the food trucks and looking at our ticket sales, we had around 4,000 people there this year,” says Yarnall.
When the crowds had dispersed and the generators were silenced, Farm to Fender drove away with the People’s Choice Award. Having delivered a fiendishly good dish of pork belly with corn and potato hash, it was a worthy choice for the popular vote. Inside the Masonic Temple at the judges’ table, however, things went a little differently.
Three judges sat at the head of the room, chef Patrick O’Cain from Gan Shan Station, radio DJ Sam Steele from Rock 105.1, and myself. One by one, the vendors came to the table to explain and present their dishes. Gypsy Queen delivered a delicious lamb kibbeh and Pho Ya Belly dropped a crispy, spicy and delicious pork belly bahn mi. Perhaps the biggest standout to me was Latino Heat’s incredible spread of chicken with a fantastic, bitter mole, Mexican rice and a tamale.
The weakest parts of the competition often came in sandwich form. Bland chicken and mushy bread uninspiringly toasted in a panini press, or a Philly cheese steak with sweet peppers, overcooked beef and an overly generous helping of gooey, grainy, sour cheese that drenched the bread so heavily that it more resembled a soup. (“There is just absolutely no way to eat this,” one judge remarked.)
One particular offering was nothing more than deli meat and apple butter on bread, lightly warmed in a sandwich press. I don’t think that one got much above a 3 on any of our score cards, even with the point boost for the category of “truck appearance.”
But there were other disappointments as well: out-of-season salads with nearly translucent lettuce, house-made pita chips that were greasy and undercooked, and in one particular case, a delicious short rib that seemed like an afterthought to its accompanying tasty Asian pickles, but was served over a butchered, overcooked heap of rice. “It just drives me nuts when people mess up rice,” one judge commented. It was a dish we all really wanted to like, but it just fell short in its execution.
In the end, there was a sticky mess. Latino Heat was announced as the winner, and while it was a clear favorite of two of the judges, it turned out to be a clerical error on the part of Yarnell. “I’ve been eating crow about this one all day and for good reason,” he lamented later.
Instead, the actual winner, by a pretty clear margin of 93 points to 87, was Root Down, which was a definite standout among the other offerings. Chef Dano Holcombe of Root Down delivered a perfectly cooked lamb shank with a tangy green tomato relish. One judge’s note summed it up the best: “This is the best meat preparation we’ve been served all day.”
After the dust had settled, all but two of the five puppies brought to the event by the Humane Society had either been spoken for or adopted, $1,600 had been raised for the three charities and a few thousand folks walked away with full bellies. Not a bad way to spend a warm spring day.
Photos by Pat Barcas