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Taking the Taste test Despite healthy selections, food festival challenges some self-imposed restraints

The 23rd annual Taste of Buffalo boasts such food as pierogies and JunkYard Dogs. But "lite" potato salad?

As usual, festival organizers expect more than 400,000 food lovers to spend their weekend downtown, grazing through more than three blocks of culinary delights. But this year, they also hope to appeal to healthy eaters.

I usually shun this sort of event. Confession time: I'm a bit of a health freak.

I drink water, not pop. I ration my desserts. I'm a glutton for broccoli.

So this is my year because, for the first time, each vendor must offer at least one healthy dish. So here goes my chance -- and the festival's -- to prove that eating the healthy way tastes good.

12:22 p.m.: Calypso music has lured me into Niagara Square, food tickets in hand. The Caribbean Extravaganza's steel drums and sultry voices attract a crowd. I adore pizza, so I try half a slice of Just Pizza's bruschetta variety while I'm waiting for my sister, Emily, to arrive from Indiana. (A tasting partner allows me to try twice as many dishes for half the calories.)

"Are you in line?" I asked Dennis Heuer, 55, of Getzville. He shrugs. He's munching on cookies.

"It's my first sweet of the day, so I'm OK," he said.

As I munch, I review my healthy-eating rules. I'm not shooting for perfection today, but I'm mostly eyeing healthier options. If I don't like a dish, I won't finish it. And dessert gets saved for the end only.

12:43: Grilled citrus vegetable salad from the Basket Factory sounds delicious, but it costs seven 50-cent tickets. Did I mention I'm watching my weight and my budget? Maybe later.

12:49: Black-eyed peas with turkey wings from Garris' Bar-B-Que. Now this is good home cooking -- made with turkey, not greasy pork. Ida Garris, 66, learned how to make the dish as a 3-year-old growing up in South Carolina. She says she doesn't even taste-test in the kitchen.

12:55: My sister arrives, but isn't as impressed with the peas as I am. Good thing we've got choices from 56 vendors.

1:03: We find a healthy option we both enjoy: Carmine's portobello mushroom salad, where tender mushroom is complemented by slightly crunchier eggplant.

1:07: Smoke from the Park Avenue Grille leads us up Delaware Avenue, where we hit a wall of people. We struggle to move past the crowd near Fat Bob's Smokehouse.

I avoid places with names implying obesity, but Andy Brayman, 29, of West Seneca, isn't worried. He's been mowing down on Fat Bob's macaroni slathered in cheese for at least five years. The pasta tempts me, so I move ahead -- quickly.

1:13: Arroz con pollo guisado -- stewed chicken with rice -- from Niagara Cafe, healthy because the chicken cooks in its own oil, but a bit bland, despite yummy rice.

1:15: I've found the healthy dish worth advertising: JP Bullfeathers serves me a portobello mushroom, artichoke hearts, red pepper and nonfat dijon mayonnaise on a whole-wheat wrap.

Is it on the menu?

Not yet, I'm told. The wrap is the restaurant's top seller today, so workers tell me I can soon buy it at their restaurant.

1:31: A worker at Ms. Goodies calls out orders over a microphone for JunkYard Dogs. The pita sandwich with fish, french fries and cole slaw doesn't fit in my no-junk-food diet, but U.S. Postal Service worker Bill Gangloff takes his lunch break here.

"I don't know what it is, but I want one," he said. "It sounded bad for me."

1:50: More tickets in hand, we try bruschetta from Cecelia's Ristorante. We love its fresh taste, popping with sun-dried tomatoes and not weighed down by oils. But the top seller here is still the 2005 award-winning stuffed banana peppers, not the healthier bruschetta.

1:55: I'm disappointed with the seared ahi tuna salad from the Steer -- I would like a spicier dish -- but we've found the party tent. Workers, hoping to attract attention by being the loudest vendors around, are dancing to "I Will Survive."

I congratulate myself on surviving -- so far -- my quest to eat only healthy options. Time for a treat.

2:05: I splurge in both tickets and calories for the rib nuggets at Donnie's Smokehouse, but I'm finding I'm one of few tasters worrying about health value.

"The cabbage didn't really sound very appealing," said Katie Noel, 23, of Hamburg, pointing to Donnie's cabbage and rice.

2:11: Rib sauce in my hair. Shame on me.

2:17: The fried ravioli at Cecelia's is sounding really good, so we decide to tell our stomachs that lunch is over with some dessert. It's almost time for me to get back to the office.

2:30: Brain freeze. I devoured my share of the mango smoothie from Clarence Center Coffee Co. too quickly.

2:44: A large crowd watches the Patti Parks Band on the Mohawk and Delaware stage, but I can't find Patti. Moving closer, I see her shaking her back side for the crowd that's dancing in the street.

"A blues woman ain't afraid of nothing," she said.

2:47: One last dish, an unhealthy one -- a chocolate and hazelnut-covered banana from Park Avenue Grille. The warm chocolate gratifies my taste buds, and my stomach knows lunch is over.

3:00: Back to the third floor at The News -- and I'm taking the stairs.


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