Any lingering thoughts that Fort Worth will never support a yearly food festival went up in flames last night, literally, as the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival kicked off its fourth year with a sold-out barbecue celebration.
The first of the festival's five planned events, “BBQ Showdown” was, like usual, both a showcase and a competition. Fifteen restaurants from around the city, region and state set up serving stations on the dirt floor of Will Rogers' Watt Arena, offering up samples of brisket, ribs and other barbecue edibles to an estimated 1,200 attendees, who, in turn, voted for their favorite.
To much gnashed teeth, 18th and Vine — a white-tablecloth barbecue restaurant in Dallas — won last year, beating Fort Worth on its own turf. This year, Fort Worth can proudly pound its chest again, as local upstart Heim Barbecue took the trophy back for its acclaimed bacon burnt ends.
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If there were an award for longest line, it would have gone to Black's, the storied 'cue joint from barbecue Bible belt, Lockhart, Texas. Pitmaster Barrett Black, whose grandfather opened the restaurant in 1932, served excellent moist brisket outlined in a midnight-black crust. But what drew the most cheers was his jalapeño sausage, which he blowtorched.
“I'm using maple syrup to caramelize it,” he said between blasts of flames. “It gives it a bit of sweetness.”
While the festival featured many restaurants that have participated before, from Black's to Cousin's BBQ to Meat U Anywhere, there were three new arrivals: Kreuz Market, also from Lockhart, which served two kinds of its acclaimed housemade sausage; regional chain Hard Eight BBQ, whose chicken poppers attracted repeat customers; and nearly 60-year-old Fort Worth 'cue institution, Angelo's, which served ribs and classic potato salad.
“We're really trying to reach out to the next generation of barbecue lovers, the young ones,” said Angelo's pitmaster Jason George, the grandson of restaurant founder Angelo George. “We have a long history in Fort Worth, and we want to keep that history going.”
Also making a debut appearance this year was Fort Worth celebrity chef Tim Love, owner of three of the city's most popular restaurants, Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Woodshed Smokehouse and Love Shack. Love also serves as a host of CNBC's “Restaurant Startup” series.
While his food has had a presence at past Fort Worth Food + Wine festivals, last night marked the first time Love has personally turned out for any of the events.
“I've always had some sort of conflict, but this year I put everything aside so I could make a point to be here,” he said, hovering over his showcase dish, a hickory-smoked short rib in a chimichurri sauce. “I've been doing this for a long time, and it's just so amazing to see how the city's food scene has changed, and it's really amazing to be a part of that change.”
Some of the highlights from last night:
Biggest surprise: Culinary students from North Side High delivered what had to be the best side dish: bacon-and- bell-pepper-studded mac and cheese.
Biggest bummer: BBQ on the Brazos, the popular barbecue joint housed in a gas station in Cresson, had to pull out at the last minute; pitmaster John Sanford was sick.
Best ribs: Dallas' 18th and Vine delivered beautifully cooked ribs drizzled in a potent glaze made with Rieger's whiskey.
Best beef: The best piece of beef I had came from local chain Cousin's BBQ. It was a tiny end piece of brisket, perfectly layered with a ribbon of fat, darkened crust and moist meat.
Biggest piece of good news: Meat U Anywhere, the barbecue joint open morning, noon and night in Grapevine and Trophy Club, may open in Fort Worth. “I'm looking at a couple different spots,” said owner Andy Sedino. “Nothing's set in stone and it's going to be a while, but it'll happen.”
Biggest hope for next year: The event threw the spotlight on some of the city's most well-known barbecue joints. I'd love to see more under-the-radar 'cue joints participate — Kip'z, Smokey's, Sausage Shoppe, places that aren't as well known but are certainly on the same playing field as the city's heavy hitters.
The festival continues on Friday with Main Event and Desserts After Dark, and on Saturday with Rise + Dine and Burgers, Brews + Blues. For more information, visit http://fortworthfoodandwinefestival.com