Chowderfest is not for the weak of stomach — any longtime participant will tell you as much.
There is no right way to take in the annual event in Saratoga Springs. Some stop by, throw back the five minimum samples of chowder required to purchase a T-shirt at the visitor center or City Center, feel full and are done. But there are others willing to test their gastrointestinal prowess in the righteous quest for just one more chowder.
“Oh God, I think we’re close to maybe 15 so far,” said Debbie Grady as she stood in line with her husband for a 3-ounce sample of pulled pork chowder from Seven Horse Pub. “So yeah, we’re full.”
And the winners are ...
People's choice: Merry Monk
Most chowder served: Druthers
Best on Broadway: Stadium Cafe
Best off Broadway: Olde Bryan Inn
Best dessert: Bettie's Cakes
Best newcomer: Thirsty Owl
Best non downtown: Fifty South
Best chowder under 1,000 served: Panzas Restaurant
Dog chow down: Milton Manor
Grady and her husband, Jim, arrived at 10:30 a.m. for the five-hour event, which kicked off at 11 a.m. Saturday. They started on Broadway, worked their way north toward the City Center to pick up their T-shirts, then made stops along Caroline Street and Lake Avenue for samples of previous chowder favorites at Gaffney’s Restaurant and the Parting Glass.
All in all, they planned to spend about three hours Saturday sampling as many chowders as they could eat. To do so requires strategy.
“A couple times I’ve had to say, ‘You get this one, and I’ll just taste yours,’ ” said Debbie Grady.
“And we skip the crackers,” added her husband.
The Saratoga Springs couple has attended Chowderfest, now in its 16th year, since it began in their hometown. But even newcomers know to develop a strategy if they want to enjoy as many different chowders as they can.
Three years ago, when Rose LaPierre and her daughter Lorraine Forcier first attended Chowderfest, they tried hopelessly to sample all of the chowders.
“We always start at Olde Bryan Inn because that’s usually where we can park, and then we try to work our way through the city,” said Forcier. “But we have never made it to the other side.”
Now, the mother-daughter duo from Hudson Falls has a strategy.
“We still start at Olde Bryan Inn, but this year we’re skipping over a couple places in the middle so we can get to the other side,” said Forcier. “And to taste more, we’re sharing a cup rather than each of us getting a cup, so we don’t get as full.”
With 86 establishments ladling out chowder this year — a record high — the choices were as bountiful as ever. There were hearty chowders and thin chowders, spicy chowders and dessert chowders, like Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food sundae. The Bread Basket Bakery served up a cheeseburger chowder that one bystander said tasted better than you might assume. The Mine served a bacon, lettuce and tomato chowder, while Saratoga Five Points Market & Deli had a mac and cheese chowder. Several places had gluten-free or vegetarian chowders.
Toppings were as varied as ever, too. The Parting Glass topped its chowder with bits of crab cake. First-time participant The Merry Monk had a bacon, onion and clam chowder topped with a soft pretzel. Comfort Kitchen topped a potato and bacon chowder with a homemade tater tot, while The Crown Grill went with a Cajun cornbread crouton topping and Hattie’s Restaurant topped its spicy andouille corn chowder with “Hattie’s biscuit crumbles.”
“We had about 300 bread bowls that within the first hour were gone,” said Kaylee Delaney, who was serving a Gloucester Bay lobster chowder from Bookmakers at the Holiday Inn.
The Merry Monk’s chef, Brady Dillon, had originally hoped to serve a chowder featuring the Henry Street restaurant’s trademark mussels.
“We ended up switching over to this chowder, which is garnished with candied bacon and a fried pretzel,” said general manager Craig Carlson. “No matter what you do with the mussels, you kind of get too much of a fishy taste that might not work too well for a chowder.”
The last-minute switch didn’t seem to hurt their chances. The restaurant had a line of people waiting to sample their chowder. For many, it took only one bite and a satisfied groan to see the chowder was a hit.
Last year, 25,000 people attended Chowderfest in freezing temperatures and consumed 115,000 bowls of chowder. This year was much more mild, with temperatures reaching the high 30s and masses of people roaming the city’s streets with fewer layers than previous years.
The crowd has grown with each passing year, and it’s understandable, said Jim and Debbie Grady.
“People look forward to it all year,” said Jim Grady. “I think it’s because it breaks up the season, you know. It’s like you’re halfway to summer in Saratoga, and it’s February and you just want to be out again.”