Asian Food Fest is the little festival that has launched some legends. It started out at Mount Healthy’s Kolping Park in 2010 with a small number of mostly amateur cooks preparing the dishes they usually make for friends.
This year, the two-day event, which will be held May 14 and 15 at Washington Park, expects 20,000 visitors. But festival organizers are bringing back some of that non-professional enthusiasm with four vendors who are home cooks preparing a “secret menu” of foods they love.
“As a mom-and-pop or starting chef, having your own booth and cooking for two days can be somewhat intimidating,” says festival organizer Lam Dang, “so we built the ‘secret menu’ so these chefs could come in and cook their food with our help in infrastructure.
“We aren’t trying to keep them a ‘secret,’ ” he adds, laughing. “It’s like the additional menus at Asian restaurants: you know it’s there, and if you ask for it, you can get it.”
Some of the featured secret dishes are gkaeng hunglay, a rich, slow-cooked pork curry that is spicy, sweet, sour and salty, and one of Northern Thailand’s most popular dishes; malatang hot pot stew, which originated in Sichuan and is a popular street food in China, made of various veggies, noodles and meats cooked in spicy and aromatic broth; and lechon manok, which is white rice, pickled or stir-fried vegetables and lechon sauce.
“During the ’80s, this was a big phenomenon in Manila, and sometimes on weekends you have to queue to get a freshly roasted chicken,” Dang says. “Lechon manok basically is the roast chicken of the Philippines, but it’s quite unique as it is flavored differently and cooked in a charcoal spit.”
The 18 vendors at this year’s festival will have dishes that are familiar, as well as unknowns that sound intriguing. For example, Saigon Subs and Rolls will be offering banh mi, the Vietnamese sub sandwiches everybody loves.
But they’ll also have banh khot, mini crispy pancakes that sound delicious, and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee to keep you energized.
Asian Food Fest organizer Mapi De Veyra is looking forward to the festival debut of Ono Grindz, authentic Hawaiian food that has been featured at Second Sundays on Main. Ono Grindz’s chef, who has cooked at Quan Hapa, will be serving Kalua pork and loco moco, a big bowl of white rice topped with a hamburger, fried egg and brown gravy.
Quan Hapa is one of the restaurants that got its start at Asian Food Fest. This year, two variations of their okonomiyaki will be served by their sister restaurant, Pho Lang Thang.
Thai Express will be serving their very popular pad thai, but fest diners will also have a chance to try their chicken pad krapow, topped with holy basil and fried egg, or khao soi, coconut chicken curry.
Returning to the fest will be Huit, now a favorite downtown eatery, which had its earliest success winning the Asian Food Fest BBQ Cook-Off at Findlay Market in 2013. In addition to their eight-spice ribs, they’ll be serving sweet-and-sour chicken tacos and huit elotes, spicy corn on the cob.
Elephant Walk, a new Clifton restaurant that features both Ethiopian and Indian cuisine, will be serving some of their Northern Indian specialties, including chicken tikka massala and saag paneer.
A Filipino restaurant from West Chester, Dai Trang Bistro, will be featuring their unique take on chicken and waffles: ube waffle with pineapple-chili glazed wings, as well as lechon kawali, crispy-fried pork belly.
OTR favorite Street Pops will also be at the fest, with five refreshing ice pops including Thai tea and lychee coconut.And Mabuhay Pinoy Foods, with cuisine from the Phillipines, will be featuring buko salad, a salad dessert. Yes, a salad that’s a dessert. That may be the ultimate “fusion” dish.
Fest hours are 4-11 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Small plates will be priced from $2 to $6. There’s no admission charge, but donations are encouraged. Proceeds go to the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati, a nonprofit group that hosts Asian cultural events in Cincinnati.
ASIAN FOOD FEST takes place May 14 and 15 at Washington Park. For details, visit asianfoodfest.org.