*NOTE–the content below refers to the 2016 season of Dollywood’s Festival of Nations. I offer it here to give an idea of what to expect if you should go. To see my initial post about the performance part of the festival, go here.
For every festival throughout the year, Dollywood adds special menu items sold at booths set up around the Marketplace Square, the central area for counter service food in the park. For the Festival of Nations, with a huge rotating globe just near the entrance, you’ll find such exotic and international specialties as…tacos, Chinese food, and pizza. *PIZZA*
Even if it were decently executed tacos, Chinese food, and pizza, that would be something, but alas, most of the dishes were uninspiring. Perhaps it’s lucky that they are only open for lunch, and barely then. Times of food service are unposted and erratic, three booths may open up at noon, while another doesn’t open for another 30 minutes, and they seem to close whenever folks stop walking up. Don’t expect to stop by for a snack at 3 pm, for example, especially not on a weekday.
One of the things I like most about Dollywood is the kindly and rather elderly nature of its employees. A cheery retiree working the Slidewinder is just cute. A chatty shop attendant can be a nice experience. This does not carry over well to the domain of the food booths, however, and especially not when there is only one employee to both take your money and then to shuffle over to make your food. While giving you plenty of time to chat, it does not make for quick service, and lines tended to be long, even when there was little demand. It’s possible they do a little better on the weekends, but efficiency isn’t really Dollywood’s hallmark, for good or for ill.
On to the food itself–I will generally go from the best to the least, though none of it I would go out of my way to recommend.
First up, and by far the best items to be had, are the tacos–there’s a Columbian taco with shredded seasoned pork, red onions, fresh cilantro, queso fresco and a creamy jalapeno cilantro sauce on a flour tortilla and a Mexican taco with shredded seasoned beef, tomatoes, cilantro, salsa, and sour cream on a corn tortilla and served with lime. Considering that queso fresco and salsa seemed to end up on both of my tacos, the differences weren’t so great between the two, but I preferred the taste of the Pork. You do get a lot of meat on each taco, but at $3.99 for a single taco, I would hope so.
The festival offered crepes, the one food item I haven’t mentioned, because who can complain about crepes? I did, the first time I stopped by and ordered a Belgian crepe with Nutella and bananas. Becuase they were short staffed, the staff had pre-made a stack of crepes, so the one I walked away with was quite crispy and dry. I could hold it by one end and eat it like a piece of pizza! But later in the week I tried again and got an English version with strawberries and cream cheese on a fresh crepe this time, and it was delicious.
Now for the pizza, AKA flatbreads. I tried first the Italian flatbread, with a slice of roma tomato, a sprinkling of fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, and a balsamic drizzle. I felt like I was eating an appetizer on a cracker more than a pizza and I wished for a good deal more basil and a lot less drizzle, and perhaps some diced tomatoes instead of one lonely slice. I have a particular love of a good, simple Margherita pizza but this was a very disappointing version of it. I found later I liked the Greek flatbread a lot more, with plenty of feta cheese and kalamata olives, artichokes, red onions, and fresh basil and far more fresh tomatoes than the Italian version.
Finally, my least favorite (and oddly, the most popular) was the stir fry booth, offering chicken teriyaki, beef lo mein, and egg rolls. The Japanese stir fry with hibachi chicken teriyaki, vegetables, and fried rice was pretty decent and comes with white sauce, which can cover a multitude of sins. The chicken was quite good, but the rice was not the best. Yay for white sauce. Near the end of my trip, I tried the Chinese stir fry, which was beef lo mein. I was served a brown pile of mush with little indistinguishable flavors and a strange obtrusive version of green bean. At all the other booths they had prepared ingredients they would assemble into a dish and serve, but the stir fry booth merely scooped out portions from a warmer. Yech. The egg rolls were hardly better and extremely overcooked.
One thing I did like about these small plates is actually the plates themselves–everything was served on an eco-friendly bamboo plate that would presumably break down in the trash. Plus, they looked really nice too. There are plenty of places to sit and eat in Marketplace Square, but even that can fill up quickly at lunchtime. One of my favorite memories from this trip was sharing my table with some older folks who swapped old army stories from the Vietnam era, which apparently was so fascinating that I forgot to take a picture of my Japanese stir fry.
Here are the signs explaining the origins and prices of such exotic food: