Stu Helm: Food Judge. One of my all-time favorite tasks in life is gettin’ judgey wit it, hard core judgin’ the shit out of some local food as an official judge at Asheville’s many annual food competitions! From honey to chili to chicken wings, I get invited to judge some great eats at some really fun events and I make no secret of what happens at the judges table. When we fuck up, I cop to it, and when we get it right, I am the first and loudest to say , “I told you that shit was gooooood!”
2018 ASHEVILLE FOOD TRUCK SHOWDOWN WINNERS!
Twenty Four Food Trucks came to Throw Down at the Showdown!
THREE JUDGES JUDGED ‘EM ALL
When Carey Harnash asked me to be one of three people on the judge’s panel at the 2018 Asheville Food Truck Show Down I did not hesitate to say yes! My fellow judges this year were Felix Meana (Cúrate & Nightbell) and a mysterious though unassuming gentleman named Mark Rounds. Mark was very nice, soft-spoken, straight forward, and serious about the job.
He said he was in “flooring,” and I left it at that. #hesahitman
Above: The Judges (L-R) Felix Meana from Cúrate & Nightbell,; Me, Stu Helm; Mark Rounds, mystery man
Mark’s scoring was fair and his thoughts on the food often aligned with Felix’s, as well as my own. He had a discerning palate as far as I could tell, and definite opinions. While he did not care for some dishes, he was fairly generous in his scoring, and though he was a man of few words, he did get enthused — in a stoic kind of way — about one particular dish, saying quietly, “I’m putting this aside so I can finish it.” That’s thee highest praise a food judge — or professional contract killer — can give any dish. Pretty much.
I joke I joke! Mark was a solid guy, and super easy to talk to, and Felix is my friend, so it was fun to sit and eat a TON of food together. Exactly how much food? There were 24 competitors, Yo. . _ . And each one of them brought us a sample of food that ranged in size from an amuse bouche (basically one bite with tons of flavor), to an actual serving.
One truck brought us a full order of chicken wings… each.
Of course, I didn’t eat all of any of the offerings (except the amuse), and some I only took three or four bites of, just making sure to get every ingredient, and texture that was in the dish, but not gorging myself. Other offerings I chowed down on, unable to stop myself, eating up to 2/3 of the entire plate, and feeling it later in the competition. I also held onto that same dish that Mark put aside, so that I could continue to eat it, while I sampled more dishes throughout the day. It was that good, plus it was the only dessert served to us that day, so it made a good palate cleanser in between all of the savory dishes we had to try, some of which were quite spicy or complex. You better believe that the one dessert we got scored high points with the judges. “I have a sweet tooth,” said Mark.
Thankfully, there was only one offering all day long that I bit into, chewed on, and — as discreetly as possible — spit into a napkin. Nerp. It was horrible! When I told Felix that I spit mine out, his eyes got wide, and he said, “Me too!” Mark toughed out the swallow on that one, but we all gave it the worst score of the day. Sorry, but somebody has to hit rock bottom.
24th out of 24. Sad. Trom. Bones.
Most of the food was good, even great, and in the end, Carey asked us to do the math and figure out, not just our top three, but the best ten, so we did that. Lotta math. Sooo many maths. It was hard to do math after eating a bunch of food, when all I wanted to do was slip in to a coma, but math was required, and so it was done! Here are the results…
WINNER! ROOT DOWN FOOD TRUCK
The big winner with the judges that day was Root Down Food Truck, run by chef Dano Holcombe. Dano wowed our table with his traditional Hoe Cake, with brisket, tart berry relish, and corn gravy. This is one of Dano’s go-to dishes, that is often available on his menu in one form or another. I fell in love with it way back in 2016, when he was serving the hoe cakes “holiday” style, with chicken, cranberry relish, and sausage gravy. I’ll tell you what. Fuckin’ aye, that’s good shit.
Above: Root Down Food Truck’s Hoe Cake. PennyCup Coffee Co. espresso rubbed, cherry smoked brisket, atop a corn maque choux flapjack, w/ kumquat & tart berry relish finished with smoked silver queen corn gravy.
The hoe cake — which is like a pancake made from corn meal, originally cooked on an actual hoe back in the dizzy — was light, fluffy, moist, and yummy AF. The coffee-rubbed brisket had great texture and flavor and was sooooo satisfying on a meat-lovers’ level. Dano’s true art lies in his ability to contrast flavors and textures, so the tart berry relish offset the sweet, creamy silver queen corn gravy, and all that sauce got all soaked up in the hoe cake, and the relish went perfect with the brisket, and yeah, holy fuck, that’s good food.
Let me put it this way: It was literally the very last dish served to the judge’s that day, so even though we were really full, and a little ill by the time it rolled out, we all tucked in with vigor, and loved it! Felix in particular was, like, “I’m so full, but I can’t stop eating this food!” That says a lot, and the fact that it came out the winner after 23 other dishes passed our lips is a huge testimony to the sheer tastiness of Dano’s cooking. Congrats, Dano & Crew, for the well earned victory!
SECOND PLACE: CECILIA’S KITCHEN
So, here’s something funny that I’ve heard both Jimmy Smith and Joe Rogan say when they are calling MMA fights on the TV, and a fighter grabs the fence, or commits some other minor infraction on the rules:
“If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’.”
Ha ha! Do not tell any children I said that, because of course, cheating SUCKS, and only assholes cheat. Bending the rules, however, is a whole different story, and the judges had to applaud Chef Cecilia Marchesini from Cecilia’s Kitchen, who presented a meal to each judge, that included an empanada, a tamale, and a Cuban sandwich. Oh, and dessert. Yerp. Cecilia was the genius who provided dessert to the judges, the one that Mark and I put aside. I made my dessert last as long as possible, eating it throughout the rest of the competition, so yeah, no question, dessert tipped her over for the 2nd place win.
Above: (clockwise from top) Pork tamale,beef empanada, and Cuban sandwich.
The savory plate had three amazing items on it. First I tried the perfectly prepped, spiced, and executed beef empanada (which Cecilia told us is the most traditional kind of empanada in Argentina) and I loved it. Next, I unwrapped and dove into the hot, delicious pork tamale, and that loved that too. I’d actually had and raved about both of these items before, but it had been a long time, so I was really glad to eat them again, and discover that they were just as great as I remembered. The last thing I attacked was the Cuban sandwich. Okay, first of all…
I’m not a big fan of Cuban sandwiches.
I didn’t grow up eating them, and the only ones I’ve ever had — here in Asheville, NC — were just Okay in my opinion. I had more or less given up on ever truly enjoying a Cuban sandwich, “just not something I like,” I thought to myself. Until now. Holy moly. Cecilia’s score went way up on my sheet because she served me the best Cuban I’ve ever had in my life and changed my mind about Cuban sandwiches in general. It looked all jacked-up, but that was part of what made it great. It was crispy and crunchy — not hard and shell-like — and was kind of a hot mess, both literally and in the “I want to make out with you,” way. The meat and bread were both tasty and well cooked, and it was the one and only thing that I ate all day of which I made mental note to go seek out on my free time to eat again.
The sweet plate was a crepe with strawberries and Nutella, topped with tons of whipped cream, and a li’l bit o’ powdered sugar. Fahhhhhk yehhhhhhssss… I was really really really into this dessert. I almost crushed it. I ate about half straight away, and then following Mark’s lead, put the rest aside to bite at in between savories. It was the perfect frequent interlude, and as I mentioned above, it tipped the scales… as in: Now I’m fat.
Below: Strawberry & Nutella crepe
Before moving on: I want to be 100% clear, Cecilia did not cheat here. The judge’s checked with Carey, and there is no stipulation in the rules as to how much or how many dishes can be served to the judges! LOOP HOLE! Whoop whoop! So congrats to Cecilia for styling us out with a ton of really great food, and grabbing second place.
THIRD PLACE: MELT YOUR HEART
Above: Firebird grilled cheese sandwich.
Melt Your Heart’s Firebird Sandwich is a winner in my book… literally. It won 3rd place in this contest, and it was my 2017 Stoobie Award winner for Sandwich of the Year! Since I just wrote all about it in January, I’ll simply provide this LINK to that post, and quote myself below…
“It’s a grilled cheese sandwich that has smoked turkey, bacon, cheddar cheese, tomato, and chipotle mayonnaise. (Extra points for not calling it “aioli” on the menu.) They say, “add jalapeños if you dare,” and I wouldn’t pass those up for anything.” – Stu Helm, Food Fan
Needless to say, I was not the only one at the judges’ table who was impressed with this bird, and again it was Felix more than anyone else who was all, like, “Yes, you could say, ‘oh, it’s just a sandwich,’ but no, it’s a really good sandwich!” He was very enthused about this sandwich, and so was Mark, and we were all very happy to see it place in the top three!
So Those Were the Big Winners with the Judges!
Below are the next 7, in order, which rounds out the Top Ten. You can tell by looking at the pictures that this stuff was fucking gooooood. Making the top ten out of 24 competitors ain’t bad, especially when you consider that most of the food was actually really fantastic. Just in case you’re wondering how the judges arrived at these rankings, we each awarded them points in categories and added all of our points together. Any tie scores were discussed among us to sort out which was perhaps better than the other.
Here are the scoring scales and categories, straight from Carey Harnash himself.
“The judging will start promptly at 9:30 AM. There are 6 groups, 4 food trucks per group. You will be provided a scorecard for each truck to fill out. The trucks were randomly assigned their group and order of presentation. Each truck will present their dish. At the end of the judging you will add up the totals and rank the top ten food trucks in order from 1 to 10 (1 is first place on down). In the case of a tie, majority rules apply to break the tie. As in year’s past there are not only categories relating to taste and presentation, but also for the outward appearance of the actual truck. As such, you will have time after judging the food to walk around and judge the trucks before totaling you scores. ” – Carey Harnash
I highlighted that one part myself, because some of y’all… your trucks looked like shit! Holy fuck, Yo. Get a hose and a scrub brush and maybe a can of paint…
FOUR THROUGH TEN
Above: 4th – Mojo Kitchen and Lounge
Above: 5th – Deli Llammma
Above: 6th – Out of the Blue Peruvian Food Truck
Above: 7th – Farm to Fender
Above: 8th – Amazing Pizza Co.
Above: 9th – Brinehaus
Above: 10th – Appalachian Smoke was also the winner of the VIP Taster’s Choice Award
Above: Bun Intended won the People’s Choice award.
…AND THE REST
In no particular order…
Most of the food below was really good! The fact that it didn’t win, or make the top ten doesn’t mean the judges didn’t like it, and in fact there were very few dishes that we didn’t enjoy. Seriously, like, one or two at the most. Every competitor brought their A-Game that day, and we commend them for that! The judges appreciate you all, and wish you luck next year!
Thank you once again to tall of the truck at the Showdown, and to Carey Harnash, and Janet Harnash, as well as all the volunteers, vendors, attendees, and my fellow judges. Asheville has a really great food truck scene, and nothing shows it off like the Showdown!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.