Taste of Downey keeps on growing

DOWNEY - September 20 ushered in the city's third annual Taste of Downey event and according to Brian Saeki, the city's director of community development, attendance was up from last year with an estimated 2,500 people attending Thursday's food festival. The director says 700 tickets were sold, ranging in price from $20-$25, and a total of $15,000 was raised, which will be used to pay expenses incurred by the event.

Unlike the previous year, the city handled all of the planning, deciding for the first time to feature a beer and wine garden hosted by Soroptimist International of Downey. Other changes included an expanded layout, with Downey Art Vibe (DAV) showcasing art in the Downey Civic Theater, food stands in front of the library, and seating areas and the stage for classic rock group The Answer in the Civic Center-area parking lot.

Saeki says that after last year's event, local beer and wine shops expressed interest in participating in Taste of Downey and because DAV would be drawing in guests to the Downey Civic Theater, the gated-in area just outside of the theater provided an ideal location for the garden.

"It seemed like a perfect fit," Saeki said. "There are certain requirements that have to be fulfilled when serving alcohol of any kind and thankfully, the area adjacent to the theater served as a great fit for the beer and wine garden."

Mia Vasquez, who has been with Soroptimist International of Downey for five years, previously serving as president and now as fundraising chair for the third year, was largely responsible for the planning of the beer and wine garden.

"Last year there were a lot of requests for alcohol and because the garden had to be hosted by a non-profit, it made sense for us to partner with the city," Vasquez said. "It was our first time doing this and we didn't set our goals too high, but it actually exceeded our expectations. We raised about $1,700 that will be put towards future projects and scholarships for local students."

Vasquez estimates that somewhere between 400 and 500 guests made their way through the beer and wine garden, where attendees could stand at tables sprinkled around the outdoor area.

Jaime Menjivar, a 34-year-old Downey resident, attended Taste of Downey with his two older brothers Mauricio and Jorge after seeing a flyer for the event. The brothers grew up in South Central and would often visit Golf 'N' Stuff and other attractions in Downey when they were growing up, vowing that they would one day live in the city.

Seven years ago the brothers bought a home together, but are still discovering what the city has to offer and according to Jaime, the Taste of Downey provides an "excellent opportunity" to try out the city's restaurants.

"Events like this are a good way to explore what your city has to offer," Menjivar said. "I discovered some really great restaurants that I'll eat at again for sure, like L.A. Buns, which was delicious. I didn't attend last year, but I think the beer and wine garden is a successful addition. How could it not be? Beer and wine make everything better."

It appeared as if many Taste of Downey attendees were unaware that DAV was hosting an art show at the Downey Civic Theater. Last year, the group set up shop in the middle of the event, where guests could view the art on their way to checking out the food booths. Despite the new location, about 500 guests made their way through the show, where the work of 19 Downey artists were on display, along with four images from the Downey Historical Society.

"It was a great event and though the new set up was challenging for us, we were up for the challenge," said Valentin Flores, executive director of DAV. "We've since come up with some great ideas on how to improve the attendance of future events."

Four pieces from the art show were sold, including two by local artist Mike Ferguson, who is a member of the Downey Arts Coalition. Ferguson responded to DAV's call for artists last month and was chosen to participate in the show. The artist's ink and marker drawings "The Rider" and "Amethystle" sold for a combined total of $330.

Ferguson, who will have artwork appear in next month's two-day launch of Stay Gallery on the 11th and 12th, says he can feel a noticeable difference in the city and it's Downey's local art groups that are leading the charge.

"Downey Art Vibe, the Downey Arts Coalition, they've been doing things in the city for a while now, but they're starting to cross-pollinate and put on events together and it's incredibly exciting," Ferguson said. "Everyone is becoming aware of each other and there's a groundswell happening right now. It's not just good for artists, but it's good for the whole city."

These sentiments were echoed by 19-year-old singer Amanda Brown, who with the help of pianist Christine Pohlan, serenaded art show attendees with two half-hour sets consisting of old standards from Nat King Cole and Etta James, and more contemporary hits from bands like Radiohead and Fleetwood Mac.

Brown, who is a Downey native currently attending college in Los Angeles, was asked to sing as part of DAV's art show by Flores, an old family friend who first heard Brown sing at a family party.

"There has been a complete cultural shift in the city," Brown said. "It sounds horrible to say, but I think people used to be ashamed to say they were from Downey because there was nothing to do here. Now, I think people are more proud to say they're from here because of all the great things that are happening in the city. This little movement started small, but it's growing bigger every day."

And what about the food at this food festival? There was plenty of it. Over two dozen local restaurants participated, serving everything from Mexican, like Papas and Dogs' Sonoran-style bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and Bionicos Express' bionicos, a mix of fruit, granola, raisins, nuts, and cream, to American classics, like Pieloon's roast beef and gravy and L.A. Buns' ooey, gooey burgers. There was more exotic fare, like Mediterranean from Downey's newest addition, Green Olive, and fantastic Asian food from local restaurants like Chinese Gourmet Express, Tokyo Garden, and Narai Thai.

The Taste of Downey doesn't just provide a platform for new restaurants. Many of the city's old favorites participate as well, like Italian favorites Frantone's, which served attendees it's much-beloved thick-crust pizza and rigatoni with sausage, and Pina Pizza House, where junior owner and manager Michael Persico doled out 196 pieces of lasagna and about 400 slices of pizza.

"We come here ever year because it's important to carry on the tradition," Persico said. "I'm third generation, so it's important to me to be out there with the community. About 50 percent of the people who tried our food knew us and the other 50 percent hadn't heard of us, so we're hoping those people stop by in the future."

In Downey, there seems to be quite a bit of competition between Porto's Bakery & Café and Tropicana Bakery and Cuban Café, both of which had booths at Taste of Downey, but the night's clear Cuban standout was one of Downey's true hidden gems: Habana Café on Old River School Road. At the event, the restaurant served arroz con pollo, otherwise known as chicken with rice, that was Cuban comfort food at its finest. Portions came with fried plantains, which managed to be sweet and savory at the same time.

With some restaurants giving away rather large portions of food, like Hackers, which gave guests two pillowy, deliciously cheesy sliders, it seemed that the $20 for 10 "tastes" that most attendees received with their pre-paid tickets was a great bargain, but maybe not in comparison to neighboring cities. The Cerritos Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted its Taste of the Region food festival and business expo the same day as Taste of Downey and some attendees went to Cerritos for the markedly cheaper food and then came to Downey for the free art show and concert, both of which could be enjoyed without having to purchase a ticket.

Gabbie Monterosa-Ibarra, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher from Whittier, attended both events, saying she enjoyed Downey's more casual, family-friendly atmosphere, but that Cerritos' food festival provided more bang for your buck.

"Downey's event is great because it features a lot of small, local restaurants and bigger, corporate chains, like Starbucks, so it's a good range," she said. "This is a family event, which makes it really fun, but it's pretty pricy. Here, you pay $25 for tickets at the door, which only gets you 10 tastes. In Cerritos, you pay $5 for a wristband and the amount of food you can try from the different restaurants is unlimited. I like the vibe here better, but it's not really great for a person on the budget. Maybe the city could consider lowering the price next year."

********** Published: September 27, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 24