It's always smart to fill up before you get to the festival, but eventually you'll have to eat at Empire Polo Field. The quality of food and variety of choices has always been better here than at most concerts, and it improves consistently year after year.
If you're headed out for the first time this weekend, or back for more, here are five great eats you shouldn't miss at Coachella 2012.
1. Spicy Pie
Simply put, Spicy Pie is the most legit foodstuffs at Coachella. Had too much to drink in the beer garden? Spicy Pie will soak it up! Got the munchees? Spicy Pie, FTW! Cheaper than most other meals at the festival ($7), and larger than most too, these slices go fast so they're usually fresh out of the oven.
2. Garlic crab fries
Tons of vendors sell garlic fries with their chicken strip and burger combos, but no garlic fry is finer than the ones sold at the “Garlic Crab Fries” stand. Like the crunchy potato sticks at the now-defunct Valhalla Table in Costa Mesa, only these are far sexier because they're smothered with garlic aoili and a small mound of crab. I always think seafood from a tent in the desert will kill me, but it doesn't. And every year, I go back for more.
3. Deep fried chicken breast strips
I devoured these so quickly before Godspeed! You Black Emperor on Saturday night that I never took a picture of the plate. Hand battered and fried to a golden brown, these tender pieces of chicken were served with a side of creamy ranch dressing and were surprisingly better than the tenders at most restaurants.
4. Date shake at Shields Date Gardens
Having never had a date shake from the legendary Shields Date Gardens in Indio, my cheap ass was immediately drawn to the free samples being doled out in the food court. The two quick gulps were thick and creamy, with a lot of sugar (thanks to their signature date crystals) and a light raisin-y aftertaste. It was so good my wife and I went to Shields in Indio on Monday where we shared a shake and watched Romance and Sex Life of the Date in their movie theater. Cool drink. Hot date.
5. Combo plate at Border Grill
The rice was slightly stale and the beans could have been hotter (and dusted with a bit of cotija), but the Coachella outpost of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken's Border Grill served some tasty tacos. Yucatan pork, flavored with achiote, was topped with bright orange-jicama salsa and succulent carne asada came with a layer of pico de gallo and a cup of guac. Dulce de leche stuffed churros for dessert were memorable, too, but had everything been to temperature, this meal would have been higher on the list.
Fresh fruit stand: There's a lot of junk food that leaves you feeling bloated and every once in a while it's nice to throw an apple, banana or quarter of a watermelon into the mix.
Pink's Hot Dogs: I don't care where my fellow Forkers stand on Pink's Hot Dogs, I love 'em. Had I known they were at the festival, I would have had one, but the stand is essentially hidden somewhere near the Ferris wheel, according to Claudia at Food Frenzy.
Local favorites: Now a veteran of seven Coachellas, I've amassed a list of local favorites I frequent every time I go to the desert. If you have some extra time to eat around the valley, make sure to try these dishes: Mee krob and tom kha gai at Thai Smile in Rancho Mirage; strawberry shortcake (cake cooked to order) at Babe's Bar-B-Que in Rancho Mirage; beef and latkes (a potato cake “double down” with pastrami in the middle) at Sherman's Deli and Bakery in Palm Desert; burgers and lemonade at Tyler's in Palm Springs; and Del Taco for that 2 a.m. post-Coachella chicken soft taco run.