Times Staff Writer
GET THE DIRT: Loquat Festival
The small oblong cousin of the peach will be celebrated at the sixth annual Loquat Festival in New Port Richey on Saturday. Founded by the nonprofit Ecology Florida, which has spawned two robust community gardens and the Loquat Festival, the one-day event will have live music, crafters, poetry and prose readings and educational talks on growing, harvesting, canning or preserving loquats. Loquat poetry? The easy-to-grow fruit sometimes called the Japanese plum feeds body and soul, as poets will reveal. It has been cultivated for more than 1,000 years in its native Asia. It was introduced to Florida by the end of the 19th century and has thrived here ever since. Local vendors will have loquat products for sale, and the literary contest will have cash prizes. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Frances Avenue Park, 5580 Frances Ave., New Port Richey. Free. (727) 849-1626. ecologyflorida.org.
TASTE TEST: Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival
The Busch Gardens Food & Wine Festival has returned, weekends through April 28. We got a chance to sample some of this year’s new offerings. There are 13 outdoor food cabins set up around Gwazi park, and this year’s menu has had its biggest makeover since the festival’s inception five years ago. The cabins are serving up dishes from across the country. There’s even a Tampa Tavern with Cuban egg rolls, key lime pie and the throwback Vivi’s Fried Chicken with a spicy honey drizzle, the park’s special recipe from the Serengeti Overlook Restaurant.
Duck Fat Fries ($7) are back, served with a decadent Parmesan and truffle oil aioli in a generous portion size for sharing, if you are nice enough to share them. Find them at the Northern California cabin, where there are two new items, Lollipop Lamb Chop ($7) served with 10-year aged balsamic drizzle and a Charcuterie & Cheese Cone ($5) filled with cubed meats, olives and some cheeses.
The Taylor Ham Mac and Cheese ($7) comes with fried cubes of the pork roll favored on Jersey and Maryland breakfast tables. At the Tex Mex Cantina, find Grilled Elote ($5), a deconstructed Mexican street corn, char-grilled and shaved off the cob with a liberal sprinkling of salty Cotija cheese and a chili-lime crema.
The SoCal cabin has a Baja Fish Taco ($7), a lightly beer-battered hunk of fish topped with pineapple and cilantro slaw. And the Blistered Shishito Peppers ($7) served with lemon aioli could have been more blistered, so don’t be shy about being choosy. These mild peppers make a great vegetarian snack — and one out of 10 will give a small bite back.
At the same cabin, find a Cheeseburger Slider and an Impossible Slider. Both are served with fresh pico and guacamole and are $7, so this puts the carnivore in a quandary. The plant-based Impossible burger looks and tastes pretty close to the real thing but the Impossible burger doesn’t shrink on the grill. The carnivore might be better off saving calories for the rare and tender Kona Crusted Filet Mignon at the Aloha Eats cabin. At $7, it comes with Maui onion butter and mashed potatoes.
Speaking of calories, if you are saving them for dessert, there are some options. The Bananas Foster Cheesecake ($7) at the NOLA Eats cabin is a rich cheesecake studded with bananas with a gooey rum glaze that was surprisingly filling. But the sweet star of the food fest that wins “must have” status every year is the Griddled Pound Cake With Cream Cheese Filling( $7). It’s cooked like a buttery grilled cheese sandwich and comes topped with a raspberry coulis. Surprisingly, it wasn’t overly sweet. The Coke Fusion cabin returns and brings back the Coke-Infused Chocolate Cupcake. The moist cupcake has Pop Rocks candy for a fun topping.
The best way to eat your way around the park is with a lanyard, $29.99 for five items, $39.99 for eight and $54.99 for 12. Save them for the most expensive items to get the most value. The lines are lightest when the cabins open at noon, and some run out of their best sellers by the end of the day. The concert lineup got a makeover this year as well, bringing 3 Doors Down on Saturday and country rockers Blue Rodeo on Sunday with Kathleen Edwards, Fred Eaglesmith and Tif Ginn.
There are more than 100 wines, craft beers and specialty cocktails to wash the food down, but don’t forget that as part of Busch Gardens’ 60th anniversary celebration, the park brought back the perk of two free beers, found at the Garden Gate Cafe or Serengeti Overlook Pub. The festival is included with park admission, $79.99 and up at buschgardens.com.