A foodie tests her extreme-eating prowess on Church Street
In the summer, many people ride their bicycles to work, eat salads for lunch and stick to watermelon for dessert. But I always seem to put on the pounds. How could I not? Bikes scare me (balance issues), and I have to eat my way through all the snack bars and creemee stands that are only open a few months a year. How can I find time to work out when I'm busy chewing?
One solution: Eat it all in a single day. While thousands of health nuts were punishing their bodies in the Burlington marathon last weekend, I decided to punish mine the only way I knew how: Dine at every cart on Church Street.
When I proposed this plan to my editor, she asked, as any reasonable person would, "Why?" My first response was that I am an idiot. When I go to a churrascaria such as Souza's Brazilian Steakhouse, I always get seconds — even if I'm full — because I can. I am a very small female with a prodigious appetite. All my life, I've been aware that people think it's funny to see me eat like a truck driver. My boyfriend, James, fairly bursts with pride watching me down my third bubble tea of the day. I wanted to make him really proud.
So I put my plan into action on Friday. James came along to observe my efforts. I proposed that we start at the top of Church Street and work our way down.
We began at Hong's Dumplings, right in front of Borders. For years I have enjoyed Hong's sign advertising "dumlings," and was dismayed to see that the spelling had been corrected. We were greeted by a huge pot of fragrant fried rice, but that bored me. Instead, I picked one item from each of the menu's three categories of dumlings — sorry, dumplings — as well as egg rolls and noodles.
My first item was the chicken-and-cheese eggroll, which was magnificently artificial tasting. The meat was imbued with a citrusy but slightly peppery zest, offset by cream cheese. This was bundled into a perfectly crisp eggroll wrapper. Super-fried, but not at all greasy. I could get addicted.
Next, I dug into the plate of sesame noodles. Mixed in were thin spears of raw, ultra-fresh carrots and cucumbers. I had some reservations on seeing that the scrambled eggs for the dish were already prepared and waiting, but they somehow remained moist and flavorful. Though the sign said the sauce contained peanut butter, I couldn't taste it. The flavor was pure sesame, and somehow not oily.
Fearing that I was eating something nutritionally sound, I moved on to the pan-fried chicken with pork dumplings the size of my fist. The dumpling skin was chewy and the ideal thickness, crispy without the expected grease — this seems to be the theme at Hong's. The splatter came instead on biting into the juicy dumpling, which dripped onto my chin. Scallions did not overpower the meat, as is often the case in Chinese dumplings; instead, the flavors of fresh ginger and garlic dominated.
Still finishing my noodles and dumplings, I headed down to The Skinny Pancake, near April Cornell. Though TSP now has a permanent site on the waterfront, the cart lives on, with an extensive menu. Each buckwheat crêpe is made to order on a round griddle. To test a variety as best I could without killing myself (these crêpes overflow their paper plates), I chose only three.
I began with the Cheesy Pesto, a crêpe spread with sunflower-seed-and-basil pesto and melted Cabot cheddar. The pesto was a little light on garlic for my taste, but the cheese pulled the whole thing together pleasantly, if not memorably.
Just as I was digging in, "Harmonica Larry" approached. He appeared to be about 70, and had a full white beard. He didn't have fingerless gloves or a bindle, but he might as well have. "I wish I could afford that," he opined, wistfully regarding my crêpe. He looked pretty new to the street, but I didn't think he was faking. Harmonica Larry seemed to be naturally cheerful, but if I could make him happier, why not? I handed him the remainder of the Cheesy Pesto. His hosannas were still audible well after we had left him.
Further down the street, I tucked into the Lumberjack, a crêpe stuffed with Cabot cheddar and Vermont Smoke and Cure ham, to which I had asked The Skinny Pancake to add apples. I have already gone on record about my unholy affection for Smoke and Cure products, but today the ham just wasn't doing it for me. Cut in large triangles, it was not easily negotiated in a crêpe eaten while standing and using a plastic fork. I could never argue with cheddar and apples, though, so I downed the crepe, losing some ham along the way.
Finally, I was ready for the Heartbreaker, a crêpe consisting of hot Nutella spiked with bananas and strawberries. (I had been convinced, until I checked my notes, that it was called the Baby-maker. Hot, hot, hot!) When next I crave the orgasmic Dessert Pizza — Nutella, bananas and hazelnuts on fresh-baked pizza dough — served by All Fired Up in Barre, I can turn to a hometown alternative.
Next up: the new guy in town. Rasta Wraps was still in its first week of life, but owner Cormac Walsh confidently assured me, "Our quesadillas are the best in town." I love jerk chicken and wanted to try a wrap, but went for the steak quesadilla as well, to test Walsh's claim. Everything was made to order and hence took a while. Chicken breasts, steaks and peppers had to be cooked before tortillas could even enter the picture.
When they did, results were mixed. I was greatly disappointed to find no jerk seasoning in the jerk wrap. Just plain old chicken breast, wrapped in a flour tortilla with lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, cilantro and, interestingly, pineapple. The unexpected combination of pineapple and cheese worked, but the tortilla seemed stale, and the wrap was otherwise bland. But tastes vary. When I handed a chunk over to James, he fell in love. For him, it was "like a big sandwich you already like with a fruity zest added," he explained.
The steak in the quesadilla was marinated in a smoky, slightly sweet sauce and cooked on the griddle with some pre-roasted red peppers. The cheese mix was creamy and slightly sharp. Excessively cheesy quesadillas are a pet peeve of mine, but this one had just enough to impart its flavor and hold the meat and peppers together.
Expecting to be turning green by this time, I was surprised to find myself still hungry. Unfortunately, there was only one more place to hit: The cart formerly owned by "Hot Dog Lady" Lois Bodoky, and now belonging to Annette Johnson, was just opening for the day. I eagerly anticipated having an old-time Nathan's hot dog straight from the cart. Actually, two: one with all the fixings and one chili dog. For journalistic purposes, of course.
There are only two things you can screw up with a hot dog — the meat and the bun. As a New York Jew, I firmly stand by Nathan's as the best in the world, and fondly recall playing video games as a child at the branch in Yonkers. This one didn't disappoint. When James had his taste, he was effusive about the other key element: "The bun tasted so nice and creamy going down with the dog and condiments." When ordering a chili dog, I generally expect a spicy meat sauce. This one had actual chili, with beans, large chunks of beef and peppers. I had to eat it over a garbage can to avoid littering Church Street with kidney beans. Though the texture was a welcome change, the chili was mild verging on bland.
While I was waiting for my hot dogs, the Kettle Corn guy had pulled up nearby. Since the cart appeared six years ago, that sweet-and-salty snack has perfumed the Marketplace every beautiful day. I bought a small bag to eat immediately, and a large bag to take home. I have always hated Cracker Jacks; to me they are overly sweet and smell like an old man. Kettle Corn is nothing like that; the light kernels gloriously combine salt and sugar with neither overpowering the other, or the corn.
Since I had by this point gone through all the carts available, I reluctantly called it a day. But my appetite hadn't, so I crammed more Kettle Corn into my maw. James joked that I must have the same genetic advantage as champion competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi.
The next morning, I breakfasted on Kettle Corn and then resolved to hit any carts I hadn't found open the previous day. In the car on the way downtown, James and I ate more Kettle Corn. Hey, I couldn't start with a blank canvas!
Alas, I was disappointed to find that the only purveyors I had not already tested sold root beer and Hawaiian ice. Not much of a meal. Thank God for Kettle Corn. In front of Boutilier's, I tried a cup of Rookie's Root Beer. Owner Jenny Rooke pointed out some of the fresh ingredients on the table, including sassafras and licorice. Hippies rejoice! The taste was rich and herbal, almost as much like tea as root beer. For a barbarian like me, though, the turbinado sugar was insufficiently sweet.
The Hawaiian Ice cart (also owned by Annette Johnson) was just the place to satisfy that craving. I found it hard to choose among the many appealing flavors, which ranged from cotton candy to Margarita. "Get the Blue Hawaii," James advised. "It honors the name of the cart, and it's blue." He knows I have a soft spot for blue foods. The Blue Hawaii was as summery as sunscreen, but in the best way possible.
So that was it for Church Street. And I'm still hungry. With any luck, Seven Days will let me eat my way through the Chew-Chew Festival this summer.