At the Taste of Pinellas, we know the cause is good, but what about the food?
Leave it to a writer who has built his physique on pizza rather than Pilates to provide the ultimate review of this year's food options. If I can pound chili dogs for breakfast and vending machine chicken wings as a 3 a.m. snack, I'm immune to most forms of culinary dangers.
THE GOAL: Be the first person in the gate at Vinoy Park when the food festival opens and wolf down (ummm, savor?) as many different menu items as possible in an hour. (Then beg your photographer to go get the car for you while roll around on the grass, grasping your gut and begging the medical staff at the blood donor mobile to take away the pain.)
THE COST: Taste of Pinellas operates on ticket system. Patrons buy a sheet of eight tickets for $5. Most menu items cost between four and eight tickets. I ran through $45 of tickets in 60 minutes -- but I am a professional. A pair of casual nibblers could spend half that amount in a whole night.
FANCIEST ITEM: The chefs at The Wine Cellar in North Redington Beach offered up a Chicken Oscar Wellington. For eight tickets, the only thing missing is the starched table cloth and a dab of palette-cleansing sherbert.
FEELS JUST LIKE HOME: The Courtside Grille recreated the look of its outside bar for Taste of Pinellas, complete with faux bricks and flat-screened TVs. The only thing missing —scores of drunken young professional prancing about for the opposite sex.
FOUR-NAPKIN SPECIAL: The steak and chorizo soft taco from Red Mesa explodes with flavor. The cost? I can't tell you: My notebook is streaked with a spicy, beef marinade on that page. Just bring a bib, because it's worth the cleanup.
BEST DISH ON A HOT DAY: St. Pete Beach's Mad Fish has the festival's top dish, a chilled cerviche called Seafood Guanajuato. The secret ingredients to the shrimp, squid and avocado concoction? A sauce made only with ketchup and orange soda! (Stop wincing, it's delicious.)
GREAT VALUES: Looking for just one dish to hold you over through the night? For six tickets, grab a heaping bowl of wild mushroom rosemary gnocchi pomodoro from the Hilton's tangerine restaurant. Or stuff yourself silly with a sausage meatball hoagie from Courtside Grill (5 tickets). Now would also be a good time to find that roll of antacids you hopefully brought along.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?: Every year, a chain fast-food slinger or two pop up along the rows of gourmet kiosks. This year, it's Checker's and Hungry Howie's. Hey, a cheeseburger for 4 tickets or slice of pizza for 3 is a kid's delight.
EAT, BUT JUST DON'T LOOK AT IT: If you put the Fresh Ahi Tuna Tini from Pacific Wave under a black light, I'm betting it'd glow in the dark. But snappily presented in a plastic martini glass, the tuna and avocado dish is still a chilling break during a blazing hot summer day. You'll have to splurge though. It's 10 tickets!
FUNNIEST MENU ITEM: "Two tickets to Paradise" is offered at the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant booth. Go try to order it just to tweak the restaurant staff, who added the joke as a little salute to Sunday night's performer, Eddie Money. (I'm still looking for "Gimme Some Water" for 1 ticket.)
THIRSTY YET?: Aside from the usual water and soda vendors, beer and a few other alcoholic options are available. But for a great view of The Pier and a soft bar stool to relax on, head over the Beer Garden on the waterfront. Operated by St. Petersburg's Port-a-Party, the mobile pub has TVs, ceiling fans and nine draft beers. (Out of irony and necessity, the porta-potties are next door.)
I AM THE NEXT TOP CHEF: After chatting up at least 20 different restaurateurs, I began feeling like the smug and portly judge Tom Colicchio from Bravo's Top Chef TV series. I was getting a kick out of hearing them feverishly pitch their dishes in a lingo I could only pretend to understand. "It's a seared scallop with veal sweetbreads on a bed of poached, braised cabbage with a mango chutney and fire-grilled golden raisins. Enjoy!" Where's Padma Lakshmi? I'm not eating this.
FINALLY, SOMETHING SWEET: It's not all shrimp and barbecue sandwiches, though it may feel like it at times. The Pie Factory of Largo is selling a dozen different desserts for those with room left over. Whatever you crave, you'll find it here -- and probably be able to afford it with whatever few tickets you have left over.
REGRETS ... I HAVE A FEW: After chowing down on a dozen different entrees and sampling half dozen more, what behooved me to spend my final three tickets on a banana milk shake from Checkers? Pure vanity.