Columbia thrives during festival season.
In a normal world, each spring and fall is filled with dozens of outdoor events, many of them defined in part by delicious eats. But the world isn’t normal right now, and many favorite festivals have canceled in 2020, hoping for a better 2021.
To help you cope, we’ve gathered a few ideas to celebrate some of the most popular food festivals in the city. Whether it’s dining out or finding ways to recreate the magic at home, we hope these ideas offer some hope in an odd time.
During the past decade, Columbia’s Korean Festival has become an annual favorite with cultural performances that range from folk dancing to K-pop performances.
It’s also an essential event for foodies, offering a well-balanced selection of popular Korean foods, with bulgogi and spicy pork joining some harder-to-find options like fish cake soup, red bean pastries, and those oh-so-good hotteoks (warm, piping hot griddle cakes filled with cinnamon and brown sugar).
Fortunately, The Vista’s 929 Kitchen & Bar (929 Gervais St., 929kitchen.com) has several of the items sold at the event, including a take on hotteok. Instead of griddled, 929’s version is luxuriously deep-fried and topped with vanilla ice cream — ideal for getting both your Korean Festival and State Fair fix at the same time.
Korea Garden (2318 Decker Blvd., 803-760-3888), a longtime supporter of the festival and a past vendor, brings more street food to the table, with offerings like tteokbokki, a spicy rice cake, and pajeon, a savory pancake often filled with kimchi or seafood, to help provide a healthy variety of dishes to hang onto until next year comes around.
Irmo Okra Strut Festival
2020 would have marked the 47th annual Irmo Okra Strut Festival, beginning as an okra-frying fundraiser by the Lake Murray-Irmo Woman’s Club to help build a library — which they were able to do after seven years. The event grew when the Town of Irmo took over hosting it, turning the festival into a two-day affair.
This year’s Okra Strut was canceled in late-August due to the pandemic, but if there’s one thing Columbia doesn’t lack, it’s ways to eat fried okra.
No matter what part of town you are in, it’s almost a certainty that there’s a Lizard’s Thicket (lizardsthicket.com) nearby, with a fresh order of fried okra waiting to be picked up. For those in the Lexington area, Roy’s Grille (711 W Main St., roysgrillesc.com) serves an incredibly delicious version packed full of warm spices.
For a totally different take on the vegetable, Asanka Kitchen (10203 Two Notch Rd., asankakitchen.com) offers a West African version of okra stew that’s accented with seafood to create a vibrant, rich flavor that you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
Columbia’s Greek Festival may be one of the city’s most loved annual food events. Whether it’s a loaded plate of roast lamb or chicken, a fresh, sizzling gyro, Greek pastries, or the legendary baklava sundae, there’s an awful lot to miss with this year’s edition sidelined.
There’s a number of ways to pay tribute to what would have been year 35 of the festival.
Take a visit to The Mediterranean Tea Room (2601 Devine St., 803-799-3118) for its grilled chicken over rice, an underrated local classic that goes fantastic with the restaurants pistachio baklava.
Gyros of all kinds are just about everywhere in the city, with some of the best coming from unexpected sources — like Irmo’s Fire & Spice (7971 N Woodrow St., facebook.com/fireandspiceirmo) and downtown Columbia’s Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse (900 Main St., huntergathererbrewery.com).
Main Street Latin Festival
There are few local happenings with the electric energy of the Latin Festival. The event celebrates the city’s diverse Latin culture with vibrant music, dances and a tremendous amount of food stalls that pack the lanes of Main Street.
While it’s loss this year is a big blow, the city has a variety of options to help fill the void.
Fusion Cocina Latina (1945-6 Decker Blvd., fusioncocinalatina.com) is one of the more recent comers, offering a mix of Cuban and Costa Rican food including empanadas, rotisserie chicken and mofongo (fried green plantains mashed with garlic and served with various grilled meats).
The newly opened Ratio (566 Spears Creek Church Rd., ratiorestaurant.com) offers Peruvian tapas in a fine dining atmosphere. Playing with familiar flavors from his upbringing, Chef Javier Uriarte pulls from Peruvian flavors to make both classic Latin dishes like lomo saltado along with twists on familiar favorites like steak paired with a chimichurri sauce.
For those looking for a little bit of everything, Soda City Market favorite and Northeast Columbia restaurant staple Los Bellos Portales (108 Columbia Northeast Dr. Ste A, facebook.com/AuthenticLatinFood) hits the spot with dishes from all over Latin America, including crispy empanadas, arepas, pupusas and more.
Not Canceled, But Different
While many events have decided to take 2020 off, some have found ways to forge ahead.
Palmetto Peanut Boil
Oct. 3. 1-5 p.m. Usually held on Devine Street as an open eating event, the boil will transform into a drive-thru experience at five Columbia locations. Visit animalmission.org for more info.
South Carolina State Fair
Oct. 20-21. It’s a big undertaking to transform such a large event, but the State Fair will live on as a drive-thru event with a small area to host some modest food ordering. Find more info at scstatefair.org.
While Incarnation Lutheran Church’s beloved Oktoberfest Columbia may be canceled, the spirit of Oktoberfest lives on in the form of some other scattered happenings. Prominent among them, Bierkeller Columbia, the city’s source for fresh German lagers, will host socially distanced pop-ups at different spots at least through October (appearing this weekend on Oct. 3 at King’s Grant, with appearances by sausage-slinging local food truck The Wurst Wagen. Find more info at facebook.com/bierkellercolumbia.