This past Saturday downtown Napa hosted one of various special events they regularly host: the 3rd Annual Napa Chili Cookoff. I have never been to this event before, and in all honesty might not have even known about it if it hadn't been for a heads-up (and free admission!) from our real estate agent, Mike Bolen (who happened to be working the "Raging Donkey" chili booth).
There were 18 chilis being represented at the competition, which took place on main street between 2nd and 3rd streets and required a $20 donation to Napa Food Bank as admission/tastings of all chili and a token to vote on your favorite.
I'm a pretty big fan of chili, so this wasn't a bad bet... especially since every single one of them was pretty decent (some much better than others, of course) -- I just wish it had stayed nice and foggy/overcast and cool like it was in the morning, but alas the sun burned it off and it was another typical sunny 80 degree summer day in Napa (I know what you're thinking: "And you're complaining about that?!")
The deal is that you walk around to different booths, most of them held by local businesses, charities, etc. (so they also get a little bit of publicity out of the deal), and you try a little cup of their chili. After tasting as many as you'd like, you can drop a token into their bucket if it's your favorite; the winner of the most tokens takes the "People's Choice" award.
As for the main 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes, these are awarded by a panel of judges, which this year included James Aptakin, Food Network regular and executive chef for San Francisco’s Hilton Financial District Hotel; local artist Gordon Huether; Napa Fire Chief Tim Borman; Catherine Bergen, owner of C Casa in the Oxbow Market; and L. Pierce Carson from the Napa Valley Register.
We stuck around long enough to meander to every booth and try every chili possible; Sarah is not a big fan of "heat" so she steered clear of some of them, but I devoured everything in sight without hesitation, and by the end I'd had a fairly substantial meal! The great thing is that, like wine tasting, there's plenty of variety -- subtle (or not so subtle) variations of "the same thing", which really lets you appreciate the nuances of ingredients and flavors.
L. Pierce Carson made it very apparent in his writeup that he was disappointed by the lack of heat/chili-power in this year's entries, and although I do believe chili should have some kick, I believe that kick can come from flavors such as spices making it "spicy" without necessarily being "hot" (fyi, Mr. Carson: not all peppers are hot.) There was one chili (I forget which) which was rather bland and too tomato-based... it was pretty awful. But as for the rest, I disagree that they were lackluster. Also, apparently the panel (only 2 of the 6 who actually have any sort of food expertise) was looking for the best rendition of a typical/traditional chili, because those are the only ones that seemed to win anything.
I personally found it refreshing that there were some sweeter chilis in the mix, some with hints of brown sugar or molasses or syrup in them. I actually gave my token to Bolen's Raging Donkey chili (which won 3rd place last year) -- it had some great slow-cooked braised short ribs and other meats, the meat was excellent and the flavor was different; I couldn't decide between that one and the one by Billco's Billiards... which was the most unique of the day, in my opinion, and it had an intriguing blend of spices (described by the server as "mediterranean spices")... I picked up maybe cinnamon? Allspice? Coriander? Hard to tell, but it was something you don't normally get in chili, and yet it worked very nicely. Apparently not for the judges, though. (Raging Donkey tipped the scales because they got me into the event, otherwise I might have slightly favored Billco's, but it was a tough call)
Sarah's vote was for Downtown Joe's chili colorado which had a minimalist and traditional -- but nicely done -- Mexican flavor to it.
Apparently others didn't agree, as they chose some of the most typical representations of chili to be the winners. I can't entirely blame them, though -- it was all surprisingly good (except for that one bland, stewed-tomato flavored one which shall remain nameless because it was completely forgettable).