This is a long one, kids. I hope you’ve set aside some time…
If I remember the promotional info correctly, this is the 18th year for the Boise Soul Food Extravaganza, said to be the biggest in the Northwest and the second oldest of its kind in in the country. All I knew is that if I wasn’t going to be at the Warlock Pinchers reunion shows in Denver or camping with my family this weekend, I at least wanted some decent food. My weakness for street food is well-documented, and fairs and festivals are a prime (if overpriced) place to get it.
|Brother Brown’s BBQ, I’m hoping their restaurant in Caldwell is still open|
This is how I found myself at 11:30 AM on a Saturday, children safely deposited elsewhere to enable “grown-up time”, driving all over Julia Davis Park looking for a parking space. We finally found one down by the “lagoon”, which is a fair walk from the bandshell under normal circumstances, let alone in 90 degree sun after a marathon eating binge. But at this point, we were hours away from that walk and headed happily and hungrily towards the smells of grease and smoke.
There was a kind of neo-soul act called Soul Serene playing as we approached. The girlfriend kinda dug them, myself not so much. Let’s just leave it at that. After a little searching we located the ticket booth. This is an important thing to mention: the tickets were for the food vendors, not the event itself. We could have packed a picnic lunch and listened to bands play with no additional expense, but what fun is that? So you buy tickets, which are a dollar each, and all the food is priced in tickets with no vendors allowed to take cash. Tickets not used are, of course, non-refundable. I’m sure there’s a logical and perhaps even honorable reason for this, but the thing that makes the most sense to me is that if you walk up to a table full of individually-priced food, ten tickets doesn’t sound as bad as ten dollars.
Anyway, we walked the loose circuit of vendors and I ended up making my biggest mistake of the day. We stopped at the table of Dubbs Grub where the words “seafood gumbo” caught my eye. I decided if I was going to have any seafood gumbo, now would be the time as the already rising temperature would make eating a hot soup more uncomfortable as the day went on. What I should have done was wait a minute and look around, pay attention to what the different tables were putting out and how the people eating it were reacting. But no, I saw seafood gumbo and my mind was made up. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to be getting because the last person I had seen walk away with a bowl, it was crowned with a crab claw. The woman handling my order, however, was spinning and leaning back and forth talking to her co-workers, and spilling about a quarter of my food into the grass at her feet in the process. I decided not to make an issue of it since it was just the first plate of many.
|Some kind of gumbo from Dubbs Grub|
The flavor of the soup was fine, and so spicy that it actually gave me a little bout of hiccups. There were some big chunks of veggies in it, and the sausage was good (all four slices of it) Eventually it dawned on me though that there was no seafood in this gumbo. Not a flake of crab, not a piece of shrimp, nothing. Just sausage and what might have been ground pork. Now I didn’t specify that I wanted seafood gumbo because there were no other varieties listed on the menu, and I was charged the eight
dollar ticket price for seafood gumbo. And while we’re on the subject, I’ve eaten gumbo in Louisiana. It’s pretty substantial there. Even my first attempt at making gumbo myself was better than this. Just look at the Wikipedia entry for gumbo to see what I’m getting at. So, right out of the gate I was in a pretty bad mood. The music was getting on my nerves, I had paid eight bucks for a cup of soup (after spillage) with no seafood and a hunk of cornbread. My gal was already starving and so opted to start her feasting at Dubbs as well: a hot dog combo with potato salad and baked beans. I think this cost her six tickets, and I wish I had gotten a picture of it because there was literally less than a quarter cup each of beans and potato salad on that plate. The hot dog was, well, a hot dog. She did really enjoy the potato salad though, enough to be upset about the lack of it (the small amount being her reason for not letting me taste it).
My attitude was already causing my companion to despair, and the only thing that was going to help it was finding decent food, and that’s how we found ourselves standing in the rather long line at Chef Roland’s table while I agonized over whether to get ribs or shrimp. Chef Roland actually operates a restaurant on Boise Avenue in, you guessed it, Boise. I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews and heard one personally from a woman who said that her daughter had gone there and wasn’t impressed, and they’re both from Louisiana themselves. Still, the people walking away from Chef Roland’s table seemed to be generally happier and getting more food for their money…ahem…tickets than at most of the other vendors, and it was being served up by “Mrs. Boise”, so how could I resist? By the time I reached the front of the line, I’d decided that if the ribs were pork I was going to have those, and if not I was going to order shrimp. Mrs. Boise, unfortunately, did not know the origin of the ribs. She asked the woman next to her, who was also unaware, and furthermore felt compelled to volunteer that she doesn’t eat meat herself. She asked one of the cooks who turned out not to know either, and he in turn asked another worker who happened to walk past at that moment. That man shared this surprising mass ignorance regarding the type of protein they were serving, and was in a hurry so he couldn’t stay to help unravel the mystery. By this point I was feeling like I had walked into a comedy sketch, but around that time someone tracked down Chef Roland himself and was able to tell me assuredly that the ribs were indeed pork, so that’s what I had.
|Chef Roland’s Cajun BBQ ribs with red beans and rice, jambalaya and hush puppy|
I have this odd habit of eating one thing at a time on my plate, in order of least favorite to most. It’s a sickness, I know, like I’m teasing myself or something. I started with the red beans and rice because they looked the least impressive, and indeed that’s what they ended up being. The jambalaya was a little better, with some decent flavor and even a little heat. The hush puppy…honestly, I doubt they were fresh and that makes all the difference. I’d rather have a fresh one from Long John Silver’s than a cold, dry, crunchy one, even if it was prepared by a Cajun chef. The girlfriend had her first hush puppy ever here, and didn’t seem impressed either. Finally I came to the ribs, which perked me up quite a bit. Not enough to distract me entirely from the horrid electro/hip hop act that had taken the stage at that point, but at least we were on the right track. They were a little colder than they should have been, but the sauce had truly penetrated them. All of them had those wonderful, almost crunchy “burnt” edges covering delightfully tender and moist meat underneath. One of them even seemed to have had some skin attached and had basically turned into something that wasn’t exactly a pork rind but wasn’t jerky either. My main complaint here was that, aside from the jambalaya, there was no real spice or heat to any of this food, which surprised me since they were really touting the whole Cajun thing. Perhaps he was dumbing his food down for the lowest common denominator? I might have to swing by his restaurant at some point to verify this. Still, I had enjoyed my meal, and even at a cost of eleven tickets I was feeling pretty good. Well, actually, it was twelve. I had twelve tickets in my hand because that was the cost of the shrimp dinner and I hadn’t made up my mind at that point. Then my gal gave me a ticket so I could order a hush puppy for her. So I overpaid Mrs. Boise by a ticket, which she didn’t notice or maybe assumed was a tip? Either way, I had only cashed in $20, so I was now out of tickets.
On the way back to the booth to exchange the rest of my ready cash for more tickets, the girlfriend stopped at D’Arcy’s Catering and dropped two tickets on a piece of grilled corn on the cob, literally painted with butter, which she ate while we were in the ticket line. I’m not too keen on grilled corn so I didn’t try this, and by the time I thought to whip out the camera, the corn was no longer very photogenic. She proclaimed it good and had finished it by the time my transaction was concluded.
Leading up to the festival, I’d reviewed the vendor list online and had read people’s notes on previous festivals, and I’d had some chuckles at the expense of one business in particular. They call themselves A Piece of Cake, and the menu item that had caught my attention was their “Flintstone smoked turkey leg”. I don’t know why the mental image of people waking around gnawing on giant turkey legs amused me so, but it did. However, I was now seeing this in person, and that along with the accompanying scent every time we walked past their booth finally convinced me that I had to have one, so I traded eight tickets for the privilege.
|The “Flintstone” from A Piece of Cake|
I guess the girlfriend was inspired by the name of the place and opted to try their lemon layer cake for four tickets, which I didn’t get to try due to the fact that I was about to become so engrossed in my turkey leg.
|Lemon layer cake from A Piece of Cake|
The second I bit into that turkey leg, I was in a state of bliss. If there was anything better available at that festival, I didn’t have the good fortune to find it. The first bite was so smoky that it was almost overwhelming (Track likes this), but also revealed the biggest problem with the thing: the skin. When you smoke the hell out of something like that and the skin is left on, it basically turns into thin leather. Not knowing yet how to deal with this skin problem other than chewing it until it was mushy and then swallowing it mostly intact, I decided to attack the top where the was no skin to interfere. Subsequently, the meat had really absorbed the smoky flavor and dried out, basically becoming a gourmet jerky. Next, I cleared some of the skin out of the way and went after the soft meat beneath, which was basically like concentrated Thanksgiving turkey flavor. No two bites of this thing tasted the same. We walked while I gnawed, and along the way my gal managed to put another four tickets down on a couple of scoops of coffee ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s (tasty, but I was in turkey land so no picture). Eventually, we found some empty seats under a gazebo-type-thing, and I was actually enjoying the latest musical act, a local reggae group called Candread and RiZing ReZistance. I was, for the first time all day, really happy. The problem is that the turkey leg was so heavy and rich that I was quickly approaching “the wall”. Not without sorrow, I relinquished the remainder to the nearest trash can, vowing to hit that booth first next time.
While I debated on whether to continue assaulting that monstrous turkey appendage, my gal had inquired of the woman sitting behind her as to the quality of the red velvet cake she was consuming. The answer was pretty positive, so we headed back in that direction. First things first, between the heat, salt and starch we were both pretty dehydrated. Interestingly, the food vendors didn’t have drinks, so those had to be purchased from a special truck. On the way we passed Dubbs again, and my beloved decided that the meager smattering of potato salad with her hot dog hadn’t been enough to satisfy that craving, so she exchanged another two tickets and this time received a much more reasonable portion. Finally to the drink truck, where for a ticket each the girlfriend got a Pepsi and I got a Cherry Crush. These were the most reasonably-priced items of the entire excursion. This time I got to try the potato salad and, though still bitter from the seafoodless gumbo incident, I begrudgingly had to admit that it was indeed pretty good.
At this point I pulled out the remaining tickets and counted them. Eleven left. We already knew that we were getting a piece of red velvet cake (my personal favorite type, German chocolate being a close second) with three of them. That left eight tickets to use. All day as we’d walked back and forth, my senses of sight and smell had been repeatedly drawn towards the table where Brother Brown’s BBQ was set up. They had the huge smokers going, and everything they put out was looking and smelling delightful. Stuffed near to bursting though I was, I had exactly enough tickets left for a pulled pork sandwich, another personal favorite of mine. I decided to consider it fate and made my way to the line, procured a sandwich and some sauce, and joined my lady on the side of a small hill to dig in.
|Brother Brown’s BBQ’s pulled pork sandwich with potato salad and a puddle where the baked beans used to be|
I don’t care much for baked beans (too sweet for me), so after a taste I donated them to the girlfriend’s side dish collection. I also got her to try the potato salad, and while we both agreed that Dubbs’ was nicely creamier and the potatoes cooked perfectly, Brother Brown’s had the better flavor. And the sandwich, my god, it was almost as good as the turkey leg. Smoky, juicy, falling-apart tender, the sauce good but still allowing the flavor of the meat to come through, enclosed in the kind of generic white bun that holds it together and keeps your hands mostly clean without mucking up the taste. I’ve looked and there are mentions online of Brother Brown’s having a restaurant in Caldwell as recently as last year. I intend to find out if it’s still around.
By now, we were tired, sweaty, stuffed, and wanting to stretch our legs and then lie down for a bit before picking up the kids. Our last act before leaving was to pick up a piece of the aforementioned red velvet cake from Memphis Cooking & Catering.
|Memphis Cooking & Catering’s red velvet cake|
Even though the last thing I wanted now was more food, I couldn’t resist trying a bite (like I said, it’s my favorite). This was quite possibly the best red velvet cake I’ve ever had. Very chocolatey. I’ve been content over the years to deal with the boxed mixes, but this has me wanting to dig up recipes and make it from scratch. The girlfriend dug it too, and it was responsible for the two funniest moments of the day. Okay, dehydration and the fact that all the blood that was supposed to be in our heads was aiding our digestion might have had something to do with how hard I laughed, but still…
The first moment was when she asked me “Can you hold my soda? I’ve gotta eat this now”, referring to that last piece of cake. There was no joy or anticipation or even liveliness in her voice. She might as well have said “Well, I gotta finish sanding and varnishing the deck now”, it would have had the same tone. My sweetie is amazing, she can put away ungodly amounts of food and still retain a not only distinctively human shape, but one that is pleasingly female even from a distance. The second moment, I’ve been laughing about that one ever since. She actually managed to finish the red velvet cake, and having done so said “It is accomplished.” I lost it immediately, and once I came back to my senses and stopped laughing enough so that she could understand me, I got to explain to her that she had just unwittingly quoted Christ’s dying words, more or less, and with almost certainly the same “weight of the world on my shoulders” gravity. It was a perfect end to the festivities.
All in all, a very good day. Three and a half hours and sixty dollars…sorry, there I go again…tickets later, there were a couple of things I wish I hadn’t tried, and some things I wished I had eaten in a different order. I would have liked to have tried the shrimp potatoes from Ella Mae’s Cuisine (or even have found out what the hell they are), the jerk chicken and Louisiana hot sausage from Top Dog Grill, and definitely Brother Brown’s spare ribs, if only my wallet and my stomach lining would have allowed it. I’m already looking forward to next year.
I have to suggest you try Dubbs Grub again. I personally have had Dubbs Grub cater several events with the most recent being last week for my daughter’s graduation and the first being in 2008. His food always is good, the sauce he makes is finger licken good, the ribs are meaty not like some of these places that give a sliver of meat and mostly bones. He makes these chicken kabobs that melt in your mouth. I have, had the pleasure of tasting not only his seafood gumbo but a variety of other foods too long to list and I have never had a bad experience. Just talking about his food makes me hungry and it never fails I always have several of my guests ask for his information to cater for their events.