On the Second Thursday of the month, Sanford hosts Alive After 5 in beautiful, historic, downtown Sanford from 5-8 PM. Every second Thursday of the month, First Street is closed to traffic and lined with various vendors and food samples, as well as artists showing their wares, entertainment, and other fun events. However, the AA5 every January is special--it's time for the annual chili cook-off. Various purveyors, individual and restaurants hand out samples of their chili and the attendees vote for the best.
This year, it was a popular vote that determined the winner. But no worry, I sampled about half or so of the 25 varieties there--there is only so much chili one can eat. Here's my rundown of what I had and what I thought was the best.
First of all, the best: there were three top contenders and an honorable mention in my book. Any of these were worthy of the top award, but I'll give my choices and reasons:
In First Place: In my humble opinion, the top chili this year was from Shantell's Grill & Oyster Bar, the "3 Sons and 7 Daughters Chili" (yes, that's her family--it does make you wonder where she had time to learn such great cooking skills!). Why was it the top? Depth of flavor. Shantell's chili had a depth of flavor unlike any others there, I could tell there was layer upon layer. Yes, it was a bit hot, and I liked that. But just by the tiniest nose--and even though it had beans in it--I'd give it top billing. Shantell's restaurant is located just a block or two south of First Street on Sanford Avenue. It's well worth a visit, I just ate there last night!
Second Place: And a very, very close second, was last year's winner, the chili from La Sirena Gorda Cabana (the "Fat Mermaid," as everyone know it), they had their "WhoopAss Chili." By far, this was the most authentic (Texan style) chili. Chuck was cut and slowly roasted, chorizo was also used, the flavor was rich and deep, and the addition of Mexican chocolate (the secret but necessary ingredient for a really rich chili) was use. I was hard put to pick a winner, as it was a very close race. This chili was also on top for me, outstanding. La Sirena Gorda is just off First Street on Palmetto. I ate there last week and was there last night for happy hour. It's really great food and a fun place. You should give it a try as well.
Third Place: A close third was the chili from Hollerbach's Willow Tree Cafe, "Chicken Scratch Chili." It was unique and unusual in that it also included some root vegetables such as rutabaga, parsnip, and etc. Owner Theo Hollerbach is a constant and star supporter of downtown Sanford, the attend every Alive After 5 and hand out samples each time. I've never found anything they've fed me to be anything less than top notch. The restaurant is located right on First Street, you can't miss it, there's always a bit of a line, and for good reason. I ate there just before the holidays and it was good as always. And, by the way, you owe it to yourself to visit their nearby Magnolia Market, just off First Street on Magnolia Square. You can find lots of authentic German and central European food there. Give them both a try, the restaurant and market.
Honorable mention #1: Dexter's from Lake Mary put on a very decent showing with their chili, it was very good, assembled and garnished right as you waited. It was also very good and was the people's choice, the winner of the chili cook-off. They, too, had a very Texas-style with the "Texas Smokehouse Beef Brisket Chili."
Honorable Mention #2: Buck's Catering had a "Turkey Chili" that was surprising because it's use of poultry seasoning and sage reminded me of a turkey and dressing dinner. It was actually pretty good.
Honorable Mention #3 was the chili from Gail Williams Insurance Agency, "White Chili." Her chili was second place in the voting overall. Her's was great in that you could tell that it was made with real, homemade chicken broth--it had that lip-smacking, mouth-feel that only gelatin can give. So it was also very good and I can see why it was so popular.
Honorable Mention #4 has to go to Angel's Soul Food & BBQ, "Kickin' Lickin Chili." I would be remiss if I did not mention their chili. It was unusual and "outside the box." While a lot of the other chilis had beans in them, Angel's was unique because they used lentils! Yep, lentils. The chili was served over some rice and with a nice, crisp cracker that was extra-tasty. It really was a delight. Angel's is located just around the corner, a few steps south of First Street on Sanford Avenue. There is a reason they are so highly rated on urbanspoon.com--they do Soul Food and BBQ right. I've eaten there in the past and will again, and they, too are a great supporter of Sanford events, including AA5. You owe it to yourself to give them a try sometime. It may look like a dive inside, but the food is awesome!
People's Choice Third Place was from Dreams & Destinations Travel, their "Chili Chili Bang Bang." I'm sorry to say I did not sample their chili, but apparently it was pretty good to come in third among 25 entries. Good job!
Also rans and misses: There were a number of other chili offerings that I sampled as well, but those listed above were the best. Some of the others were OK. Some tasted like a can of tomatoes with ground beef. One of them had a burnt taste (you know who you are), and a few of them were cold. I was sorry that I could not sample all of them. I tried to hit the restaurants and local businesses first, and those who are frequent supporters of AA5 and other Sanford events. I congratulate all who turned out on a somewhat dreary evening to provide a lot of fun and good eats to all who were. there. It was another awesome time. A lot of people put a lot of hard work into their chili. Some spent days on it, and you could taste that depth of flavor. Some were more afterthoughts, but still, it's good that the spent the time (and their own $$) to support Sanford and this great, fun event. Kudos to all the participants for being there.
If you'd like to know more about Alive After 5, I suggest you find them and friend them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AliveAfter5.