Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 28, 2013

Twenty-one teams to compete in 32nd Annual Summer Festival and Chili Cook-off

This year's festival in Palo Alto features four vegetarian chilis, live music and activities

by Elena Kadvany

On Independence Day next week, 21 teams will go head-to-head in Palo Alto's 32nd Annual Summer Festival and Chili Cook-off, competing for the title of best chili in the city.

The festival will take place at Mitchell Park on 600 E. Meadow Drive from noon to 5 p.m. Chili tasting, which is open to the public, begins at 1:30 p.m.

This year's cook-off features competitors old and new, from longtime participant Lounge Lizard to newbie Morocco's Restaurant in Mountain View.

Craig Barney, a Lounge Lizard team member who said he's been participating for about 20 years, is a chili purist.

"We have kept pretty much the same recipe for the last 10-plus years," he said. "We do not use any beans. We feel that's not appropriate for competitive chili."

Barney recalled the days when Palo Alto's Chili Cook-off was a nationally sanctioned competition and observed International Chili Society rules that prohibit the use of beans. The city allowed beans some years ago, after the required number of gallons of chili cooked increased exponentially — and with it, the costs. Beans help reduce expenses and can stretch chili across more gallons, Barney explained.

What's wrong with using beans in chili?

"It's just not proper," he said. "Chili is meat, seasonings and tomatoes."

Lounge Lizard's chili is made from Mexican chilis; this year, the team found ones they were searching for in Watsonville. Team members taste test the chilis every year before the competition and make a seasoning mixture accordingly, to find "the right balance of flavor and heat," Barney said.

The rest of the ingredients are beef, pork, onions and tomatoes. Barney said they will be making 15 gallons at the competition.

Jay Essadki, co-owner of Morocco's Restaurant, said his team will be competing with two chilis, one beef and one vegetarian.

For meat-lovers, the restaurant's Moroccan spice kefta chili is made with spiced ground beef and roasted peppers. Essadki said it is a 150-year-old family recipe.

Morocco's is also offering one of the four vegetarian options at the festival this year — up from one last year — in the form of a ginger harissa lentil-bean chili. It's a lentil-based chili spiced with "ras el hanout," a secret seven-spice blend, Essadki said. (Ras el hanout is Arabic for "head of the shop," implying a creation of the best spices one has to offer.)

It's combined with harissa, a roasted pepper paste.

Essadki is confident about both of Morocco's chili creations.

"We're very excited to do this and get involved with the community," he said. "We look forward to winning."

Another first-year team, Chill Out, plans a major departure from traditional chili.

"I wouldn't divulge too many details, but with the name Chill Out, you can guess the temperature it's served at," team member Mark VanZanten said.

Chill Out's chili is also vegetarian. VanZanten, whose family has lived in Barron Park for many years, said that the Barron Park Neighborhood Association has agreed to offset some of the team's chili costs.

The Palo Alto fire and police departments will be competing on July 4, as well as a team of Palo Alto Police Explorers (young men and women interested in law enforcement) under the name The Constabulary.

Awards will be presented for best booth, best spirit and best chili in two divisions: corporate and open.

Barney said Lounge Lizard has always decorated its booth in '70s-night-club style with a disco ball and lights, but this year is going for a 1980s feel. He also has a costume in the works, he said.

There will also be live music by a Caribbean jazz and reggae band called Pan Extasy, food vendors, art activities from the Palo Alto Art Center and the business C Is For Craft, a jumpy house, balloon artist and face painter.

Tasting kits will be available for purchase. Admission is free.

Editorial Assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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