The Winter Fancy Food Show, held every year at the Moscone Center, a labyrinth of 212,000 square feet that showcases new finds in the food world, took place earlier this week in San Francisco, and I spent god knows how many hours shuffling through the halls stuffed with 1,300 exhibitors pimping everything from Hello Kitty paraphernalia to a make-it-yourself ramen noodle bar. Bacon, I learned, is still at the top of the food chain; gluten-free products are apparently more popular than sex; Jelly Belly will never run out of flavors; and chocolate is still everyone's favorite sugar rush.
Still, over the three days that I spent bumping into the culinary cognoscenti, including Thomas Keller, who was there to ballyhoo Cup4Cup, his gluten-free flour line, I spotted some noteworthy trending food and beverage products, along with a few favorites that I'll be seeking out in the weeks and months to come. Flip the page for my finds.
Sriracha steals the show: On every corner, in every gridlocked aisle, there was some sort of sriracha: in hot sauces and in chocolate, dusted on popcorn and chips, infused in mayonnaise, heaped high in a grinder, in jellies and jams, and for those with chapped lips, I even spotted sriracha lip balm. No idea why anyone would want that glossed on their lips, but they've done it with bacon, so why not sriracha? The best use of sriracha went to the Jam Stand's Not Just Peachy Sriracha jam, which unleashed equal degrees of heat and sweet. Buy it: thej.am/products/not-just-peachy-sriracha-jam
Coconut comes out of the closet: If you have an affinity for coconut, then 2014 is your year. Along with coconut water and coconut oil, both of which were everywhere, I came across a product called Dang Toasted Coconut Chips, little on-the-go pouches of toasted, slightly sweet, slightly salty coconut chips that are made in Thailand. True to their name, they're dang good, and a snack, too, that your kids will love, provided, of course, that they're nuts for coconuts. Buy it: Safeway, Whole Foods and Sprouts Farmers Market stores, or online at Amazon.com.
Beer here, there and everywhere Beer is no longer just a sudsy substance consumed in a bottle or glass. At the Fancy Food Show, it was in taffy (really, really bad taffy), jelly beans (the latest -- but not greatest -- flavor from Jelly Belly), and in cheese, another misguided attempt to capitalize on the beer craze. But the one product that did right by beer was the "Firey" beer brittle from Brent's of Napa Valley. The brittle, made with Red Tale Ale, chile de arbol and salted Spanish peanuts, is roasty, rich and buttery with a pronounced hoppy finish. Really good stuff. Buy it: anettes.securesites.com/shop.html?Category=Beer%20Brittles%20plus...&Product_ID=35, or Amazon.com.
Extremi-tea: Sip by sip, tea is taking over coffee, and it's a welcome trend I can drink to. From tea cocktail mixers, made specifically to pair with liquor, to coconut-infused teas and teas sweetened with chocolate, there's never been a better time to tip the kettle. The nation's first artisanal, fresh-brewed tea cocktail mixers, created by Owl's Brew, a New York-based company, contain antioxidants and vitamins, and while they're a bit on the sweet side, they're a product that I can definitely see on the shelves of cultured cocktail dens -- and home bars -- across the country. Buy it: www.brewlabtea.com/the-owls-brew
It was mint to be: I'm a big consumer of naturally flavored mint water, and the aromatic leaves just happen to be one of my favorite herbs, too, so I was thrilled to see a monument of mint-intensive products at the show -- and just about everything I sampled, from the organic, cucumber-mint soda from Silk Road, a California-headquartered company to the all-natural, non-carbonated mint-licorice almond water produced by Victoria's Kitchen, a Los Angeles-based company, will soon be stashed in my refrigerator. Love both of these products, and can't wait to get my hands on more. Buy it: silkroadsoda.com and www.victoriaskitchenrecipes.com/
Potato chips get a pass: There are always potato chips at the Fancy Food Show, even if they're not particularly fancy (the exception was José Andrés's olive oil potato chips), but this year, the potato chip was surpassed by other crunchy snacks, including kale chips, crackly brownie bites, flavored popcorn, baked superfood chips made with vegetables and my favorite snack of all, Brussels Bytes, a product from Wonderfully-Raw that comes in two flavors: chili-and-pumpkin seed and tamarind-apple. I'm a huge fan of kale chips, but I'll be switching to these. Buy it: Local Vitamin Cottage stores and Whole Foods at Streets at Southglenn
Micro greens are the garnish darling of chefs all over the country, and I saw plenty of those at the show, but what really caught my eye were the hand-harvested micro flowers, shoots, petite greens and flower crystals from Fresh Origins, another California-based retailer that started in San Diego. Ideal for cocktails, salads and desserts, the vibrant hues make for dramatic presentations, and while the flavors are pronounced, they're subtle. Buy it: Unfortunately, their products are only available from specialty produce distributors, including Food Innovations, Gourmet Sweet Botanicals and Marx Foods. Ask a local chef to hook you up!
Good Karma...l: If you want to butter me up, hit me up with caramel. I'm a caramel junkie, and the caramel exhibitors at the Fancy Food Show must have sensed it, because there was no shortage of the one confection that always sweetens my universe. From salted caramel sauces scented with paprika to the habit-forming goat milk caramels from Vermont's Big Picture Farm, I was in caramel heaven. Buy it: Big Picture Farm caramels are available locally at Western Daughters, Cured and Boulder Bookstore.
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Trying to pick your favorite products from more than 1,300 companies isn't remotely easy, and there were plenty of things that I missed. Still, of the hundreds of foods and beverages that made it into my mouth, these four were my top picks: Go Raw sprouted watermelon seeds (tons of protein, gluten-free, and they taste almost as good as the watermelon); Silk Road sodas; chile verde salted caramels from Salty Sisters (I could live on these); and the 28-spice mole poblano from HERNÁN, a spectacular jarred mole that's made in Mexico. Buy it: www.goraw.com; silkroadsoda.com; www.seasaltcandy.com; and www.hernanllc.com