Swinging Through California’s Great America’s Third Annual Taste of Orleans
The third annual Taste of Orleans festival kicked off at California’s Great America this past weekend. The event started two years ago, and has been a great showcase for the “Orleans Place” area of the park. It features tons of artwork and decorations, lots of great food, and live music throughout the afternoon. We stopped by Sunday to take in this years event and enjoy some of the culinary creations from Chef Erick Ponce.
The event this year featured five food stands, with a total of 11 different items available. A tasting card with 8 “tickets” on it, each good for one item, is available for $30 ($25 for pass holders). The tickets can be used for anything, so if you decided there’s one thing there you really want seconds (or thirds or fourths) of, there’s nothing stopping you. And even with just eight of the items, it’s a LOT of food. Definitely enough for two meals worth, or good to split between two people.
Savory Cajun Eats
Eight of the items available were of the savory variety, and generally any two of them felt like enough for a meal. The first stand (towards the front of Orleans Place) featured the crawfish etouffee and creole meatballs. The meatballs were new this year, while the etoufee had been here in the past (see last year’s review). The meatballs were good and filling, with a slightly spicy creole tomato sauce on them. Not a bad start for lunch.
Next up came the Alligator Bites and Cajun corn. Together these were probably my two favorite things at Taste of Orleans. The alligator bites had a delicious crispy batter, and weren’t as tough as lots of alligator I’ve had in the past. If you’ve never had alligator, it really does taste kind of like chicken, so don’t be intimidated by it. They also came with a very tasty creole dipping sauce.
That dipping sauce made a second appearance on the creole corn. The ears of corn were first brushed with butter, then covered in a generous layer of cajun seasoning. This was followed by a squirt of the same creole sauce used with the alligator bites and a dusting of cheese and herbs. Not surprisingly with all those toppings, it was packed with taste. But, unlike a lot of seasoned corn like this, it wasn’t overwhelmed by any one flavor. Props to the CGA culinary team for doing a good job balancing all the toppings (and still letting some corn taste come through).
The next food stand had the chicken and andouille gumbo, as well as red beans and rice (which somehow didn’t make it onto the tasting card). Both of these had been at past Taste of Orleans events, and the gumbo had been one of my favorites. Once again, it was solid, and this time very spicy. I’m actually a little surprised by how much kick it had. So be warned, but if you don’t mind the spice it was a good, hearty dish.
The last savory stop was Pizza Orleans. They had both a “petit” shrimp po boys, as well as a muffuletta pizza. I got the pizza while my friend tried the po boy. We’d both admit that the po boy looked pretty lackluster when it came out, but as my friend described it, we were “surprised by how good it was.” It doesn’t look like much, but it was good. The pizza was unfortunately more disappointing. It suffers from the same issue any pizza has at theme park food festivals, it’s still got “theme park” pizza as the basis, so it’s a little limited. But it also didn’t have the Muffuletta parts I was hoping for. I think of muffuletta’s as being packed with Italian cold cuts, but as far as I could tell it didn’t have any (and certainly wasn’t covered in them). It had the olive, but missing any mortadella or salami made it seem like a missed chance. Of all the savory items I’d pass on this one (and remember, you only have 8 tastes for eleven options).
New Orleans Desserts!
Along with all the savory bites at Taste of Orleans, one stand featured three different desserts for the festival this year. There were the classic beignets, a praline bread pudding (like last year), and a king cake.
The praline bread pudding was one of my favorite things last year and was really good again. It is super rich though, so I wouldn’t try to pack this in if you want to go hop on a roller coaster right away. The beignets were a little disappointing. They were much doughy-er and denser than I would have wanted, and felt super heavy. Of the three desserts I would skip them (get a funnel cake some other weekend instead). Last was the King Cake, which came in a souvenir plastic mason jar that you get to take home. The park even gave you a lid to take with you! The cake itself was typical white cake, but solid as those go. Without question it was the prettiest of all the dishes. Chef Erick took the king cake idea and layered the colors inside the jar to give a beaufitul New Orleans colored treat. I don’t really have any idea how it’s made in the jar, but after taking lots of photos we scarfed it down quickly.
Beer and Wine
Along with all of the bites, there were four different beer and wine stands available. A drink tasting card with six pucnhes (again that can be used for anything) is also available for $25. The park did a good job getting a wide variety of drink options available. One of the stands was entirely beer from Abita brewery, one of the best Louisiana breweries (well tied into Taste of Orleans). One of the stands had a mix of all IPAs available, including the RailBlazer IPA from local brewery 21st Amendment. One of the stands had a range of ciders, as well as one limited release fruit beer from another great local brewery, Calicraft. The final stand had a mix of Belgian style beers, including two from one of my favorite breweries in California, Bruery Terreux. I was really excited to see the beers from Bruery Terreux, because they’re actually based down in Orange County near Knott’s Berry Farm. I have always hoped they’d partner with Knott’s on a Boysenberry festival beer, so hopefully seeing them featured at Taste of Orleans means they’ll partner for festivals at Knott’s as well! All in all, it was a great mix of New Orleans beers and a range of different styles of local California beer and cider that paired really well with the spicy food on a warm summer day. I love seeing these relationships building between local breweries and the park. I think it’s a great way for the park to engage with the local community on a new level. Plus the beer was all very tasty, and came with a souvenir California’s Great America tasting cup!
Music And Art
Along with all of the food, Taste of Orleans has consistently done a good job of bringing in lots of live New Orleans music and filling Orleans Place with amazing decorations. This year was no exception. Pretty much continuously from 2PM on until the end of the night there is live music going on at least one of two stages set-up in the area. The first band of the day was one of my favorite Taste of Orleans regulars, Saint Gabriel’s Celestial Brass Band. And like last year, they were performing with the fantastic Dwight “Black Cat” Carrier, a zydeco accordionist from New Orleans who now lives in the Bay Area. They’ll be back next weekend along with all of the great performers.
The permeating music does a great job adding to the festival atmosphere for Taste of Orleans. But, consistently my favorite part every year has been looking at the fantastic art work done by local chalk artists on the ground. Multiple different pieces of chalk art are made throughout the day (sometimes over two) around Orleans Place. The chalk art gets washed away at the end of the day, so new pieces are made each morning. I’m always amazed by how consistently good these works of literal street art turn out. You can check out more of this years chalk art on our Facebook page, as well as some of the pieces we saw last year.
Along with the chalk art this year, Great America decided to do a bit of turning lemons into lemonade. Unfortunately for this years festival, there’s still construction being done in Orleans Place on the new Orleans Candy Kitchen and French Quarter Funnel Cake & Churro factory. But, the park has commissioned one of their favorite local artists, Lacey Bryant (she also painted the awesome mural on the RailBlazer construction walls), to paint a giant Orleans Place/Taste of Orleans mural on the construction walls. It wasn’t quite finished when I had to take off, but it was looking wonderful. I’m really hoping that somehow the park is able to preserve the mural in Orleans Place after the construction walls come down. This is the kind of sign the rejuvenated section of the park deserves!
I think the one of the only disappointments about Taste of Orleans is that the decorations and artwork doesn’t stay up year round, but hopefully at least this one piece will be up as long as the construction is still going on if not beyond!
Elsewhere in the Park
Since we were stuffing ourselves with too much food, we also took some time wandering through the rest of the park. That means multiple rides on the Sky Ride, as well as lots of RailBlazer photos. Here are some of the other shots I took throughout the park. The overhead view of the area cleared out during the ride removals this year sure gives a sense of how much space the park has to work with for some new attraction…
Taste of Orleans continues at California’s Great America next weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. For more info on the event and tickets, check out the Great America website. Most of the entertainment starts in the early afternoon, so I’d recommend getting over to the park a little early to get a couple rides in, then spend your afternoon in Orleans Place eating and listening to music (and throw in a couple back and forth rides on the Sky Ride if you need a break). If you do get to the park this weekend, share your photos with us on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you take any of the new chalk art and the finished mural!