Chili, chowder fans unite in flavor

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There’s a trick to it, you know. When you’ve got all the chili and chowder you can eat and don’t want to fill up too fast, there’s just one thing you need to remember.

“I’ll taste them all,” said Janet Bragg, dipping gingerly into a cup full of chili. “But I only finish the ones I really like.”

And there you have it, the Chili and Chowder Taste Contest in a nutshell. Sure, it’s a chance for the culinary curious to sample the goods from nearly two dozen local restaurants.

But when it comes right down to it, this is a competition, one that has been waged each year for the past six.

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While hundreds noshed downstairs at the Ramada Inn, a team of judges was upstairs sampling the fare and rating each sample of chili and chowder. The general consensus: This year’s offerings were not as good as in previous years.

“There was no big one, no standout for me this year,” said Mike Morton, a chef and judge. “We’ve had some years where it was a lot stronger.”

But by the time all the votes were in, some standouts did emerge. In voting, both from judges and regular folks, Dudley’s at the Ramada did particularly well.

From the beginning of the event, it was shoulder-to-shoulder, even in the early round where special ticket holders were allowed in first. They wandered from table to table, filling trays with cups of chili and chowder from the various restaurants.

This is where the importance of pacing oneself came into play.

“We’ve got as much as our tray would hold,” said Jean Ropella, a Lewiston woman who was among the special ticket holders there for the early part of the event. “I expect by the time I finish the tray, I’ll be full.”

Even so, the sheer abundance of food did not blur the lines of what was good and what was not. Most eaters were careful to make distinctions between which chilies and chowders they enjoyed and which they did not.

“They all have a very different flavor,” Ropella said.

Her favorite, both chili and chowder, came from Holly’s Own Diner on Court Street in Auburn. Bragg’s, too. Both women said Holly’s Own dishes – the chili was made with cashews — had the best flavor.

Meanwhile, in the circle of judges, another kind of rivalry was developing. It was the perennial war of words between those sent to judge chowder and those who were ranking the chili.

“Chili judges are more sensitive,” said chef and judge Tom Poulin. “Those guys couldn’t make the grade, so they had to stick with chowder.”

Au contraire, insisted judge Roger Ouellette, who was sitting on the other end of the table with the chowder crowd.

“All the talent is over here,” he said. “And you just wait a while. All of the hot air will be over there on the chili side.”

Best Chili, judge’s choice

1st: Dudley’s at the Ramada

2nd: The Italian Bakery

3rd: Poppy’s Catering

Best Chili, people’s choice

1st: Rolly’s Diner

2nd: South of the Border Mexican Restaurant

3rd: Davinci’s Eatery

Best Chowder, judge’s choice

1st: Dudley’s at the Ramada

2nd: The Hilton Garden Inn

3rd: Hurricane’s Cafe & Deli

Best Chowder, people’s choice

1st: Dudley’s at the Ramada

2nd: Hurricane’s Cafe & Dei

3rd: Village Inn

Best display

1st: Rolly’s Diner

2nd: Russell Park Living Center

3rd: Davinci’s Eatery

Best of Show

Dudley’s at the Ramada

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