For the second year, Carowinds is offering Taste of the Carolinas, a celebration of food from North and South Carolina on Saturdays and Sundays from April 9th to May 1st, 2016. Food tasting stands are located in front of Harmony Hall Marketplace and are divided by region, opening at 11 am and close two hours before the park closes. If you plan to sample beer or wine, be sure to bring your ID as you will be carded at this event. There are also special up-charge tasting events that are $16 and provide you with five samples of beer or wine with experts (and you get to keep a souvenir glass). If you are a fan of any of the more expensive drinks inside Harmony Hall (such as the white sangria), you will find alcohol at the Taste of the Carolinas to be slightly cheaper. So let’s dive right into our review of the 2016 Carowinds Taste of the Carolinas event. #TasteCarolina
There are seven different booths that each represent a different region of one of the Carolinas. Each offers about three entrees, several of which we review below. In order to purchase food at the booths you will have to buy tokens. Food portions are sample size with some entrees getting you a lot more food for two tokens than you will at other booths for four. Booths will also periodically run out of some ingredients during busier hours, so if you have your heart set on a BBQ chicken slider you might have to come back later or settle for ribs. (Hint: The ribs are good, settle for ribs!) Chefs will be wandering around the crowd, serving in some cases, and checking on the food, so you may have a chance to talk to them. There are also cooking demonstrations inside Harmony Hall (but more about that later).
We tried something from each booth. The food quality is high and there are a lot of things that are worth trying. Tokens are 3 for $4 or 21 for $24.50 (a small savings). The guidebook you can pick up will let you know what items are appropriate for people who are vegetarians or eating gluten free—and there are plenty of options for both.
Region: Asheville Mountains
Neese Sausage, Fig, and Goat Cheese Popover (4 tokens)
I love goat cheese so this was an easy first choice. The sauce is slightly tart, and blends well with the rich goat cheese filling. This was heated when I ordered, so it does take a couple minutes but is well worth the wait. The filling is savory but not overwhelming, and the pastry is buttery (especially on the bottom).
Pecan Cinnamon Bread Pudding with Cream Cheese Icing (2 tokens)
This was the largest and cheapest thing we tried. No, really, look at how much food you get. This seriously is the best value in the entire event and is also delicious. There is plenty of frosting and sweet to offset the spicy cinnamon. If you attend Taste of the Carolinas you need to get one of the Bread Pudding!
Region: Upstate South Carolina
Brunswick Stew (4 tokens)
The stew is full of beans and other local ingredients but otherwise is pretty standard beef stew. The southern stew tastes a lot like what you may have had as a kid from your mom or grandma, and because of the simple flavors, would be better for those with less adventurous tastes.
Tomato Pie (4 tokens)
This pastry is topped by tomatoes and a white sauce, and thus is actually pretty reminiscent of pizza. The crust is quite flaky and the diced tomatoes are obviously very fresh as they are not over-cooked and are still juicy. This is familiar enough that if you are visiting with children that are otherwise being finicky about trying things that you might start them here.
Chocolate Bourbon Pie (3 tokens)
This treat comes in a small pie tin and is covered with chocolate sauce. As a result, you get a lot less filling than in bigger slices of bourbon pie. The crust to filling ratio, in fact, seems a little off (equal crust to filling) but that probably cannot be helped given the serving size. This is sweet and rich though, and is a good introduction to bourbon pie. Our recommendation is to bend the small pie tin that it comes in for easier eating. Once you do that, you can bite into the pie instead of digging into it with a spoon or fork and will get a better mixture of chocolate sauce, pie filling, and crust.
Region: South Carolina Barbecue
Pulled Pork Spring Roll with Carolina Mustard Sauce (4 tokens)
Do not be surprised that this spring roll is not fried and, in fact, is served cold. When you order, the wrapper is soaked in water in front of you till it is translucent and then filled with pulled pork and some vegetables. We saw a few people failing to eat the wrapper; however, yes, it is meant to be eaten. The spring roll can be a little messy so you might want to grab a knife and fork even though it could be considered a finger food. The sauce is vinegar based and tangy and pairs well with the rest of the fillings. This dish is meant to be dipped in the Carolina Mustard Sauce served on the side. I highly recommend keeping the sauce after, because many other things at the event will taste great when dipped in it (so maybe get this one early if you are going to try it at all).
Region: Outer Banks
Fried Catfish with Calabash Hushpuppies (4 tokens)
For four tokens you get one piece of catfish and four hushpuppies. We thought this was one of the better values as well. The tasting comes with optional Texas Pete Hot Sauce. The hush puppies are slightly largely than quarter sized and are served piping hot. The breading on the catfish is savory and crisp, even if it sits in hot sauce for awhile. The fish itself does not have a strong “fishy” flavor either, so even if you are not a huge fan of fish this might be okay for you to try. The hush puppies are, quite honestly, excellent when dipped in the sauce for the pulled pork spring roll from the South Carolina Barbeque booth.
Outer Banks Honey Gelato (3 tokens)
For three tokens you get 2-3 scoops of gelato, which given the average price/serving size of gelato outside the park is actually a good deal. The gelato tastes more like vanilla than honey in some places, but then you will hit a vein of honey running through it and it will be amazingly sweet and flavorful. This is another good option for getting kids to try new things. As a side note, I think this was supposed to come with honey drizzled on top but I did not get any. The gelato was just fine without the drizzle, but that could have enhanced the honey flavor.
Region: Lexington Barbecue
Beer Basted Pulled Pork Sliders (4 tokens)
Both the pulled pork slider and barbecue chicken sliders at this booth come with optional vinegar based coleslaw on top. The bun this sandwich comes on holds up to the BBQ very well without getting soggy, and pairs nicely with both the meat and the coleslaw. The pork has a nice smoky flavor and is tender and falls apart in your mouth, while the coleslaw serves as a traditional counterpoint.
Barbecue Ribs (3 tokens)
For three tokens you get one rib and a side of coleslaw. The rib meat is tender and falls off the bones and the sauce is wonderful and tangy. I wish, however, that we had gotten at least one more rib since we immediately wanted another one but did not particularly want to spend three tokens on it. The coleslaw here is the same vinegar based slaw that is on the sliders, but simply serves as a side.
Sweet Tea Glazed Chicken (3 tokens)
For three tokens you receive one “chicken tender” sized serving of Sweet Tea Glazed Chicken. However, there is no breading here, the chicken is obviously grilled and then slathered in a delightful tart sauce. The combination of tangy and smoky works here, this is one of the better items we had the pleasure to try.
Beer and Wine Tasting
There are several different craft beer and local area wine booths scattered throughout the event, so if there is a long line at one I would recommend walking to one of the others. They all serve the same selection. The particular weekend of our visit there were wines from Childress Vineyards and it was clear the park tried to offer wines that would please a variety of tastes. There were three whites and two reds. I chose the “3” white table wine, part of a series that is dedicated to Dale Earnhardt (they also had the red from this same line). While I am generally a fan of sweeter wines, this one was not overly dry and would pair well with the savory pastry items in the tasting booths such as the popovers and tomato pie.
Between two of the booths there is a fruit carver from the Art Institute of Charlotte. She worked for a few hours starting at 11 working on several different melons that were then displayed until park closed. She makes the melons into beautiful flowers festooned with birds. The guide book notes that there are also ice carving demonstrations, but we missed those (must have been riding Fury!).
If you enter Harmony Hall, you can also potentially check out a cooking demonstration or show. (And yes, you are allowed to take the food from the Taste of the Carolinas into that space if seating outside is all currently taken.) The Home Depot® Kitchen Stage has daily demonstrations during the event (check the guide book for which chefs are going to be there on which dates), and we were lucky enough to catch Chef Alyssa Gorelick making Sweet Tea Brined Pork.
Demonstrations like this one actually have a long history in amusement parks, but you will not see them much anymore. At the World’s Fairs and Expos of the very early 1900s and continuing to county fairs, people came to parks, fairs, and expos to learn about new recipes as well as new inventions that would aid them in the kitchen. Today, cooking demos and competitions are far more likely to be in county fairs than in formal amusement parks. Honestly, the demonstrations add a bit of old world charm back to what has become a very modern park.
Taste of the Carolinas is a welcome break from more standard park food and an excellent reason to make an early season visit. The park itself on Saturday was very busy (with long waits for most major rides), but foot traffic flowed well around the booths and there was never a long wait for any of the entrees. If you spend your tokens right, you can get more food here than for the same amount at other food locations around the park, so if you are in the park on a weekend before May 1, this is not an event to be missed.
Thanks to Carowinds for sponsoring our visit to the Taste of Carolinas event. Article- Jill Morris. Photos- Bo Corbin.
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