As anxious Lodians waited for the Grape Festival doors to unlock at 4 p.m. Thursday, food vendors already had the grills fired up, oil almost set to a boil and whipped cream ready to pile on everything baked and fried.
Outside, four Lodi foodies were ready to judge the best eats of the festival. News-Sentinel food columnist Robyn Grace Jennings, Alebrijes Mexican Restaurant owner and chef Ruben Larrazolo, News-Sentinel photographer Dan Evans and I stepped on the grounds and headed for one of last year's Grape Festival favorites: the corn dog.
There are several corn dog booths throughout the festival, but we hustled to the first one we spotted, conveniently named Jumbo Corn Dogs.
"This is one of the best hot dogs I've had, I have to say," Grace Jennings said, also pointing out that the breading is thicker than she's used to.
Even the chef of gourmet Mexican food, Larrazolo, enjoyed the corn dog.
Confident that the $3.50 corn dog would once again be chosen as a favorite, we moved on, in search of the tri-tip. Meat smokers and grills were set up on the lawn around the Finger Steaks and Fries booth, so it seemed a good spot to get the once-a-year festival tri-tip sandwich. What we also found were cheese curds - small, deep-fried mozzarella balls. There was no question, we had to have them.
I placed the order for one tri-tip sandwich, an order of cheese curds and four waters and handed over $24.50.
Our top picks1. Cheesecake from Ron's Pies. It's good with caramel, strawberry and chocolate sauce.
2. Original soft tacos. Negrette's ground beef and vegetable soft tacos are best. Don't forget to add a little homemade salsa.
3. The tri-tip sandwich from Finger Steaks and Fries. Try an order of cheese curds while you're there.
4. Funnel cake. We liked it best with powdered sugar.
5. Lockeford sausage. Get it with onions and, if you like, sauerkraut.
- News-Sentinel staff
The cheese curds were like nothing we'd ever had, but something we couldn't stop grabbing. Larrazolo thought the cheese curds were better than traditional cheese sticks, and we agreed.
"I like that they don't have a lot of breading; it's more of a batter," Evans said.
As Larrazolo unwrapped the sandwich from the foil, the rest of us stood back and gawked.
"It's medium rare and not fatty," Grace Jennings noticed at first glance.
"It has a smoky taste, and I like that it's not overcooked," Larrazolo said.
"It could use a touch more seasoning," Evans said.
Grace Jennings agreed, though I thought the smoky flavor was enough. In three years of judging the festival food, I think the tri-tip is more flavorful and more tender than ever.
Everyone in Lodi knows you can't go to the Grape Festival and skip Negrette's Original Soft Tacos ($2.50 each). The family has three stations, but each one has a different kind of taco: carne asada, chili verde and ground beef. We tried the carne asada tacos first. They come rolled in a single tortilla and stuffed with meat. They were a little spicy, and a tad dry.
However, we discovered the most popular tacos were the ground beef and veggie tacos. The very friendly Sophia Cano told us about the family and how they've been serving the fresh tacos since 1947. She recommends having homemade salsa with ground beef tacos.
The judges agreed. They had more flavor, and were moist in every way.
A local favorite is the Lockeford sausage ($5). The Smoked Dakota, their original bratwurst, was large and as full of flavor as ever. Each of us tossed the bread and enjoyed the sausage by itself. While we passed on the sauerkraut, Larrazolo was happy he said "yes" to grilled onions.
Sushi may seem like an odd festival food, but Teriyaki Tempura Sushi has been selling sushi and fried veggies for as long as I can remember. We decided Grace Jennings would have to be the expert since she's the sushi lover. We ordered a tempura shrimp roll for $8.57. The attendant seemed a little confused, like we were the first to ever order a sushi roll.
The roll wasn't scary, if that's what you're thinking. It was cooked all the way through - an extra thick layer of white rice and tempura shrimp in the middle.
It had a fishy taste to it that Grace Jennings couldn't figure out. Though we decided the sushi was "OK," it's unlikely we'd order it again.
After tri-tip, sausage and tacos, we were ready for dessert. And, the Grape Festival has, hands down, some of the best desserts, ever.
First dessert stop was the funnel cake booth. Instead of going all out with whipped cream and Bavarian cream, we went with the classic powdered sugar topping. I watched as the attendant took something resembling a caulking gun and squirted a stream of raw batter into hot oil. Seconds later, an intertwining pile of crispy dough was on my plate. We all dug into this $5.50 goodie.
"This is the best way to have it," Evans said.
"It's pretty darn good funnel cake," Grace Jennings said.
"It's really good," Larrazolo echoed.
We all appreciated that, while the outside was slightly crispy, the center was soft and almost gooey.
On the way to Ron's Pies, Grace Jennings was distracted by the wheel-shaped Mexican chips made of wheat flour, called duros, that hung in the Rancho San Miguel tent. At $1 a bag, the duros were the best deal of the festival. With the help of Larrazolo, Grace Jennings squirted chili sauce and lemon juice into the bag and shook, shook, shook. Even the attendant complimented her on her shaking skills and ability to get the chili and lemon distributed evenly throughout the bag.
We finally made it to the end of the food line, where we stopped at the yearly favorite, Ron's Pies. Previously, the cheesecake made it into the top five list, so we had to make sure it would hold up to the test of time. I was looking forward to trying the new French sour cream pear pie, but it wasn't ready yet. Instead, we ordered banana cream pie and peanut butter pie. Together, three large pieces of pie came to $13.50, another pretty good deal.
We gushed over the cheesecake as it was a first love. All at once, we talked about it's silky smoothness, how the toppings don't overpower the cheesecake taste, how it's so creamy and still stays firm.
"I knew it was going to be good, but I didn't think I was going to get this," Larrazolo said.
As we poked plastic forks into three devoured pies, we knew it was decision-making time. Each of us had reserves about choosing a favorite. It depends what your in the mood for, Grace Jennings said. It depends if you want a meal or a snack, Larrazolo said. While Evans absolutely loves Lockeford sausage, he said he would choose a festival corn dog as his No. 1 because he can get a Lockeford sausage any time.
In the end, majority rules. Everyone chose cheesecake from Ron's Pies as the No. 1 favorite. In the lead after that are The Original Soft Tacos (made with ground beef), the tri-tip sandwich, funnel cake and Lockeford sausage.