Zest is Best

Once upon a time during a rather tedious drive from Dallas to Washington, D.C., my driving companion and I discovered that, having been out of Texas for nearly 24 hours, we had a hankering for some Mexican food. Just off Interstate 81 in Virginia, we spotted a wildly colorful Chi-Chi's Restaurant, which looked promising. I was imagining sizzling beef fajitas with onions and spicy peppers, topped with guacamole, pico de gallo and salsa fiery enough to take the varnish off the table.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. What a bunch of pantywaists. Everything we ordered was oh-so-timid and nothing like the Tex-Mex you find here. The salsa tasted like ketchup with a little green chili juice in it, and my fajitas were a pathetic excuse for the real deal--all meek and mild. There wasn't a jalapeño, habanero or poblano pepper within miles of that place. I was much happier a few days later when the pain receptors in my mouth were issuing a major capsaicin alert at Javier's in Uptown.

Heat is such a basic element in Texas cuisine that the Fort Worth area spawned Chile Pepper magazine and its big annual event, ZestFest. This Saturday and Sunday, ZestFest 2005 takes place at the Will Rogers Memorial Center and is a shrine to spice with gourmet food vendors, celebrity chefs, book signings and cooking demonstrations. Those with a taste bud death wish (or not)--about 8,500 people over Saturday and Sunday--will show up to sample the foodstuff from exhibitors. "It's not just about tasting hot sauce that is going to upset your stomach," says Marie Dalby, editor-in-chief of Chile Pepper magazine. "We have gourmet and specialty products that taste actually like something."

It's not just salsa, either. Imagine dark chocolate truffles infused with ancho chilis, serrano beef jerky or peanut brittle with Anaheim peppers mixed in. They've also got pepper-specific products such as pasilla sauce or poblano chutney that showcase the distinctive flavor of each fruit.

A cook-off will offer five rounds of dueling over the two days, starting with Texas heavyweights David Garrido (executive chef of Jeffrey's Restaurant in Austin) and Brian Olenjack (executive chef of the Chisholm Club Restaurant). The winner of that round will go on to face the likes of Bill Wavrin, Jon Bonnell, David McMillan and Tim Love. The winner will be crowned Sunday afternoon to the music of local musicians Kurt South and Jordan Mycoskie.

ZestFest is a perfectly good occasion to celebrate Texas food that tests your tolerance for soaring Scoville units and gets you up to your elbows in all things spicy. Just don't rub your eyes.

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Leah Shafer

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