Alonso's Restaurant wins Old Bay contest

What would a restaurant best known for its hamburgers do with 70 pounds of Old Bay, a seasoning long associated with crabmeat and other seafood?

"Not order Old Bay for awhile," said Sebastian Trossbach, executive chef of Alonso's and Loco Hombre restaurants, as he waited for a free shipment of the McCormick's spice Wednesday morning.

Alonso's, locally famed for its half-pound and one-pound burgers — as well as a two-pound "challenge" burger — was the unlikely winner of the first annual "Taste of Baytriotism" contest June 22-30, sponsored by the Hunt Valley-based spice giant McCormick & Co.

And the grand prize was 70 one-pound cans of Old Bay.

Thirty seven participating restaurants in Baltimore and Annapolis served Old Bay-inspired concoctions as menu items for the 10-day contest period. Judges, including 75 McCormick & Co. employees, sampled the offerings at each restaurant..

"We were incognito," said McCormick Director of Public Relations Laurie Harrsen, wearing an Old Bay T-shirt that identified her as a "Baytriot.".

Highest honors went to Alonso's, 415 W. Cold Spring Lane, where Trossbach had whipped up appetizers and entrees including bacon-wrapped oysters with Old Bay butter, "Peachy Keen" crab cakes and Old Bay chocolate ice cream, which Trossbach described as tasting like salty caramel with a lot of chocolate to balance out the Old Bay flavor. He said he also made grilled chicken wings marinated in sherry and Old Bay and Chicken Chesapeake, breaded with Old Bay and topped with crab dip.

Customers liked most of the menu, except the ice cream, Trossbach said.

Alonso's beat out restaurants including Cafe Hon in Hampden, Miss Shirley's in Keswick, Kooper's Tavern in Fells Point, Harryman House in Owings Mills and Barrett's Grill in Hunt Valley.

For Trossbach, 26, of Roland Park, the special menu was something of a lark.

"We've always been a burger place and that's still our main business," he said.

But Alonso's also has a full menu of pizzas, steaks, pasta, seafood and sandwiches, so Old Bay recipes weren't that much of a stretch, said Trossbach, a graduate of The Baltimore International College cooking school.

"Honestly, we didn't even know it was a contest," he said. "We just thought it was something Old Bay was putting together, like Restaurant Week."

Now, he plans to add his award-winning dishes as once-in-awhile menu specials.

Trossbach, who is coming up on his first anniversary as Alonso's chef, met Harrsen, driving a brightly painted Old Bay van, at the restaurant shortly after 10:30 a.m. In the back were three baskets of Old Bay cans, which Trossbach plans to put out on Alonso's tables as a condiment.

"That's a lot of Old Bay," Harrrsen said.

"I think we can have some fun with it," Trossbach said.

The restaurant also received an award to hang on a wall.

For McCormick, the contest was a way to "thank Baltimore," because the company is locally based, said Ashley Boarman, a senior account executive for MGH, the marketing agency that works with McCormick and Old Bay. It was also to promote the time-honored blend of 18 herbs and spices, which hasn't changed in 70 years (although it's now available with 30 percent less sodium).

What has changed is what it's used for, according to a company website,

"Best known as THE seasoning for shrimp, salmon, crab and other seafood dishes, these days, Old Bay is used to flavor hamburgers, chicken, pizza, pasta, vegetable dishes and more," the site states..

Whether McCormick makes the contest an annual tradition remains to be seen.

"I hope they do," Boarman said.

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