Well, Cowtown hasn’t forgotten how to eat. After two lean years, the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival came back with a full slate of events for 2022 – and even improved on its own recipe for success.
About 7,000 hungry attendees (think: half the capacity of Dickies Arena) showed up to refuel at seven different events at three venues throughout a perfect short-weather spring weekend, from March 31 to April 3.
The range of restaurants involved – Hello, Courtside Kitchen, Il Modo, Funky Picnic, Dusty Biscuit, The Fitzgerald, Paloma Suerte, etc. — showed how much the city’s dining scene has changed since the last full FWFWF, back in spring 2019, long ago, pre-pandemic. Overall, 150 different chefs and vendors participated.
And, in an exciting first for the festival, one of the events was a big-ticket dinner featuring a celebrity chef from out of town.
Called “From Houston to Ho Nai,” the $195-per-person dinner kicked off festival chic Thursday night at the Near Southside BRIK Venue. Chief Tuan Pham of the Sour Sisters of Fort Worth – A Taste of Vietnam collaborated with Houston Chris Bergera James Beard Award-winning chef, for a four-course dinner paired with Asian-influenced Texan cuisine wines.
One of Houston’s most celebrated chefs, Shepherd won his Beard Award at Underbelly, a restaurant that blended local ingredients with culinary techniques inspired by the city’s diverse immigrant community. He is the author of the 2019 cookbook Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change the Way You Cook and See the Worldwith which the lucky guests left.
Shepherd’s participation didn’t just fit a particular culinary theme for the evening; it corresponded to the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation mission to raise funds to help those in the culinary industry. The Shepherd’s Association Southern Smoke Foundation provided millions of dollars in emergency relief to hotel workers in crisis. He is currently focusing on mental health initiatives for the hospitality industry, he told the crowd. Likewise, the FWFWF is offering grants and scholarships to aspiring culinary students and struggling Fort Worth restaurants financially assisted during the 2020 shutdown.
The easy and brotherly camaraderie of Shepherd and Tuan was evident not only in their affable remarks to customers, but also in the complementary dishes they prepared, family-style, for the table. A ‘wow’ moment was when large bowls of Shepherd’s Viet crawfish and Pham’s crab fried rice with fried eggs were placed on the table. Strangers became fast friends remembering how to take apart and eat crawfish “correctly”.
Shepherd’s Vietnamese Fajitas (made with lettuce leaves rather than bread), alongside Baos de Pham, which were both steamed and – in a unique twist, many said they didn’t have never seen before – were another praiseworthy deal.
Cocktails made with the spirits of Fort Worth’s Blackland Distillery began and ended the evening, and glasses of the weekend’s best wines were filled. (The full menu, including wines, is here.)
The best of the party
Always a favorite Fort Worth event, Tacos + Tequila kicked off the festival across town in Clearfork, (perhaps a little sadly) at the same time as the “Houston to Ho Nai” dinner party. Patrons feasted on tacos filled with brisket, seafood, veggies and more — none drawing a longer line than the chef Tim Lovethere with the birria-buzzing tacos from her new Stockyards restaurant Paloma Suerte.
If burgers were more anyone’s thing, they came out on Saturday night, at the ever-popular Burgers, Beer + Beer Event. More than a dozen chefs prepared their tastiest burgers, judged by both celebrity judges and festival sponsors. And the judges’ winners were (drum roll) …. Kincaid’s “Cowboy Candy Sliders” in first, Kelly’s Onion Burgers in second, and Easy Slider in third. The public prize was awarded to the next JD’s Hamburgers. And the judges’ choice for best beer went to Cowtown Brewing.
Friday night turned out to be the most gloriously gourmet night of them all. It started with The main event featuring over 100 wines, craft beers and spirits as well as dishes from 27 chefs, restaurateurs and artisan producers. The event attracted outside chefs, such as John Tesar of Knife Dallas, and Tom and Lisa Perini from the Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap, as well as a barbecue expert Matt Pitman meat church barbecue.
The longest queue of the night, however, seemed to be for something entirely new and different (and perhaps the busiest offering of the whole festival): beer-fried sunflowers prepared on site by the chief Jenny Beaver of Lucky Bee Kitchen.
The party moved to Whiskey Ranch later that night, for Night bites. The balmy evening saw 16 chefs serve up both desserts and savory bites and 14 mixologists shake up TX Whiskey cocktails. Vibrant with the ’80s theme, guests wore their finest neon lights and received glow-up wristbands synced to the pulsating beats of a DJ. This also featured a friendly competition. The judges’ top cocktail was Sidesaddle Saloon, a TX concoction that included lemon juice, apple bitters, homemade cinnamon syrup, homemade red jalapeno/apple syrup, cinnamon sugar and burnt Granny Smith Fresno chile apple for garnish.
You might not have guessed it from the name of the event, but culinary corral (formerly called Rise and Dine) brought the brunch crowd to Clearfork late Saturday morning. The three-hour celebration of this magical meal that spans breakfast and lunch brought together 25 chefs and 35 beverage vendors.
In major ‘user experience’ improvements, festival-goers who had once complained of hunkering down on trash cans and high tables at the Heart of the Ranch in Clearfork – which hosts most events – could enjoy more while sit picnic tables, lounge set-ups and Adirondack chairs throughout the space.
Clever activations and colorful photo ops, such as the Hello Trouble Hall pop-up bar and chances to play croquet and learn to pop champagne, also boosted the all-important “Instagrammability” of the whole weekend.
And in a “cheers” for the environment, the festival ramped up its recycling efforts throughout the weekend. All those bottles that clink during every event cleanup? They went to recycling. And yes, they were all empty to the last drop.