We all have our own idea of a jackpot.
Mine is when I have a fun story to report on outside the office—and every person I meet, every event that takes place, every quote I get just kind of fall perfectly in line to craft a smooth, complete, interesting story. When that happens, I already have words and phrases bouncing impatiently in my head, shrieking to be released onto a page. There is no easier reporting than that. That is a journalist’s jackpot.
I got my journalist jackpot last week, when my editor assigned me a unique story to write: go to Taste of Chicago, he said. And write whatever you want about it, so long as it’s in the eyes of a “first-comer.”
If you’re a Chicagoan, you already know what Taste is. You’re either rolling your eyes right now, or smiling like a kid in a Disney store. Taste is one of the biggest food festival in the world. It’s where favorite local restaurants jam-pack into one area and showcase their most beloved dishes. In Chicago’s case, there’s tons of live music featuring big names such as fun., Stevie Wonder, and Jennifer Hudson. And there’s also cooking demonstrations by top chefs such as Rick Bayless.
It is the event of summer, or at least, it used to be. Like all awesome businesses that get too big, Taste started becoming too crowded, too commercialized, too expensive, too hot, too dangerous. It started suffering financially and publicly as the number of attendees dwindled. A 2007 salmonella breakout (ew) and a 2008 shooting incident nearby didn’t help its popularity.
Now, Taste is the fashionable thing to hate. Before I went to Taste, I was reading tons of news articles and blog posts about the event, and man people love to bash it to pieces! Comments, mostly from locals, list out all the things they hate about Taste, not without a tinge of delight. Taste has become the once-popular kid whom peers love to hate, and are getting fearless about vocalizing why.
But I ended up having a great time. The City of Chicago made some significant changes to Taste to improve it—less vendors, date change from July 4th to mid-July, security checkpoints, pop-up vendors—and it seems to be working. This year, the event drew 1.5 million visitors…not as much as the 3.5 million in its heyday, but a noticeable increase from previous years.
This is Katie, one of my roommates. She’s from Queensland, Australia—with the charming Aussie accent and everything— and she loved Taste too. So you see, I’m not the only naive tourist who had fun.
You can read my story here. But I thought it’s a shame not to have the pictures, so here is a story mostly about the food, from a foodie’s perspective.
First up, a hot link from Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs:
Juicy. Really swollen with meat, the casing snap-worthy. The sauce was sweet and sticky, but not sickly syrupy. It looks quite obscene, I have to say…but it tasted absolutely heavenly. The white bread made no sense, so I ignored that extraneous object.
Rabbit corn dog from pop-up vendor Hearty:
Yes, that’s rabbit meat, speckled with herbs and encased in fried syrupy dough. Katie was flabbergasted when I told her excitedly, “Let’s get the rabbit corn dog!” I think she thought I was joking at first, but when she found out I was serious, she gave me this shocked look of utter disgust. “You want to eat a bunny?!” she accused me. “Sophia! Think of the poor Easter Bunnies!”
Um…yeah. When I think rabbit, I don’t think Easter Bunny. I think nice, gamey, roasted meat. And it was delicious. I love that the protein dominated this rabbit-on-a-stick. The corny, gritty dough around it was crispy, even though drenched in syrup. Katie refused a single bite of it, of course, though I kept offering her some, hoping to dispel her Easter Bunny thoughts.
Next up, Katie wanted to sample the Chicago-style hot dog, so we got in line at Gold Coast Dogs:
That’s the Chicago-style hot dog. You see the nice neon-yellow mustard in there, the fat dog, “dredged through the garden.” My Australian friend liked it. In fact, she said it was one of her favorites of the day. We thought some of the guys working at Gold Coast were pretty cute…too bad about the unfortunate paper hats.
We then lined up for free samples of Blue Bunny ice cream. Blue Bunny has to be my favorite commercial ice cream, though their ice cream flavor selection in supermarkets is woefully limited. That’s when I met the BEST interviewee ever!!! Since we had to stand in line for about 20 minutes, I started chatting with this man with a straw hat and beautiful lady in front of us…and discovered that this born-and-raised Chicagoan has been to every single Taste event since it first started in 1980. JACKPOT!!! He gave me incredible quotes and it fleshed out my story so well. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of him…getting his full name and age was enough privacy-invasion, I figured.
We got out picture taken with the Blue Bunny-headed ladies first. She took a great picture on Instagram:
I was trying to get an imagined eye goober out my eye when she took the shot. Candid.
We lined up for 20 minutes, chatted with the perfect interviewee, spotted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, smiled with two ladies wearing Blue Bunny helmets, and all we got was a couple of free ice-cream. I got the nutty banana split, and Katie got the fudgy Bunny Tracks…speaking of bunnies…
We laid out by the shade to enjoy our mini tubs of ice cream. PERFECT way to cool off for a few minutes before stuffing ourselves again.
And then more food. The beaming 33-year Taste veteran told us we have, have, have to get something from Iyanze, a West African restaurant in Uptown. When somebody tells you he visits a food event every year without fail and gets this one dish every day without fail, you listen.
As recommended, I got the jerk chicken:
This was definitely worth the hype. The rice was coated with seasonings, the chicken plump, juicy, nicely charred, soaking in a spicy, inky hot sauce.
Katie had already gotten jerk chicken at another vendor, so she went with the Bissap (hibsicus) sorbet.
Piped with whipped cream on top. I love the look of intensity on her face. Like, no can of whipped cream will dare fart her in the face when she looks so serious and concentrated.
Never had hibiscus sorbet? It’s interesting. There’s this nice floral undertone, with a slight tang, and reminded me of the rose drink I used to have at Singapore. It’s quite lovely with the sprayed whipped cream.
There are a couple more dishes I wanted to try at Iyanze too. One is the oxtail and jollof rice:
The other is the greens and plantains:
I’m discovering a huge African community in Chicago, and I don’t mean the African-Americans. I’ve seen them at CTA trains, at bus stops, at restaurants and cafes. There’s something different about them, the way they walk and talk and interact with people, much the way Asian Americans differ from Asians. I wish I can find a way to explore this community better, but the easiest way is through their food.
Next up: Polish food from Kasia’s Deli! There’s also a significant Polish community in Chicago, the largest outside of Warsaw, from what I’ve read. Of course, most of the Polish community have sunk their heritage roots deep into Chicago soil; a majority of them have been in this city for generations. So I knew I just had to get Polish food. The problem is location: I live far, far away from where the good Polish restaurants are, which is the Northwest side…and without a car, it takes me more than an hour round-about trip to go get a meal. So I was extremely relieved to find a Polish vendor at Taste.
Obviously I got the potato pierogi (“pierogi” is plural, and you should just forget about the single form…who wants one single pierog?):
Wheeee!!! So good!! It came with a dollop of sour cream that, combined with the steam from the dumplings and the heat, slowly melted into a thick, heavy, tangy, soupy sauce.
Forget the live music. The most delightful sounds were the sizzles, whooshes, clanks and burbles of cooking noises. With much delight, I watched them griddle the pierogi and the American-size potato pancakes.
They have this big-ass griddle (poor cooks, they must be sizzling as well) and they ladle a generous amount of some kind of fat (butter? lard? who cares!) and they just throw these dumplings over and let it cook. The edges of the dough casing become nice and golden, crunchy on certain spots, while tenderizing in bubbling fat.
Kasia’s Deli also offers Polish sausages. So many good choices, so little time and tummy space. No wonder some people visit Taste regularly and spend the whole day there.
Don’t they look like pillows from heaven?
As if my artery wasn’t clogged enough, we decided to stop by Xocoatl before waddling over to watch fun. perform. Katie had never had churros before— I told her, gravely, that she had not yet lived—so we got a pack of churros to share.
Each bag came with four palm-sized, deep-fried crinkled sticks of cinnamon and sugar.
Now she has lived. Now she has finally tasted the meaning of life.
What I loved about Xocoatl (or Churro Factory) is that they actually brought all their equipment over. They fresh-pipe churro dough, fresh-fry them, fresh-coat them in sugary goodness.
I can see a flaw in this tactic though: quality might not be consistent. Some people’s churros might come a little darker and crunchier than others’.
That was really going to be our last fried-carb dish. That was the plan, for the health of…well, for our health. But then I looked next to me and saw this little girl digging in happily into her funnel cake…
…and then I turned around and saw this guy scooping ice cream over a toasty, sugar-dusted funnel cake…
…and it just seemed like the universe was telling me I really had to get one too. And so I did.
Hey, Katie has never tried a funnel cake, nor has she heard of it before. So for the sake of being a good American host, we had to get it.
But wait, we had more sugary stuff. After all, you can’t leave Taste without having had a slice of Eli’s Cheesecake:
We had the key lime cheesecake—something citrusy sounded appropriate for a 85-degree afternoon. Eli’s Cheescake is a Taste classic. It’s the godfather of Taste. It’s been present, and is the only vendor present, since Taste’s opening in 1980. For the opening ceremony, they cut into an enormous Eli’s cheesecake every year. It’s tradition.
We also scored a freebie. We were enjoying our cheesecake vendor by Tutto Italiano, and a jolly cook took pity on us. I think he thought we didn’t have enough deep-fried carbs for the day, so he offered us a serving of Tutto’s famous FRIED RAVIOLI. Yes, it deserves the capitalization.
Every dumpling should be deep-fried like this, stuffed with cheese, and smothered in marinara sauce. The ravioli must be coated in golden breadcrumbs. The sauce must be slightly cool, so that its kind of just slaps the piping hot ravioli with a soft sizzle. Yum. Freaking. Yum.
Another Taste and Chicago icon is the Original Rainbow Cone.
We chickened out. We just couldn’t manage a whole multi-tiered cone by ourselves, so we each got the smaller version, which came in a little cup like this:
What’s a Rainbow Cone? It’s a mesh-up of orange sherbet, chocolate, strawberry, pistachio and Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts) ice cream in one single glorious cone. A real Original Rainbow Cone should look like this:
Here’s our lame version again:
But hey, it was still good. We ate our lame Rainbow cones while trying to get a glimpse of fun., but it was too crowded. We could barely see beyond the sea of bodies, lawn chairs and heads. So we gave up and left. We’ve been at Taste for five whole hours. We were getting comatose from the food, the humid heat, and the increasing gaggle of sticky bodies.
As we were leaving, I lamented that I had only one ticket left. What can you get with one ticket? That’s when I heard a vendor from The Smoke Daddy cry out, “Hot muffins! Only one ticket! Hot muffins!” JACKPOT!
It was really good corn muffin too. It’s silly, but it felt so damn satisfying to use up all our tickets. No tickets wasted, every ticket spent on something delicious and worthy.
I would totally go to Taste again. It’s so much fun, and not just because of the food. In fact, I would put food somewhere sixth on the list of why I liked the Taste. The first is the people-watching.
And I loved that I got a snap of this adorable scowl:
I had my stalker paparazzi moments:
How cute is this cheeky baby?
More cute kids:
And more parasols:
And strapping, friendly Chicago cops:
And I loved watching the vendors.
They are an unflagging group of people. It was hot and humid and they were on their feet for 10 hours, but from sunrise till sunset, they were cheerful and loud, chanting, shouting, laughing, cooking, serving. That in itself was deserving of my admiration.
Another great thing about Taste is the sight line:
You can feast and sweat while watching the sun set over the skyline! How wonderful is that? The fact that it’s framed by portaloos and people zipping up pants as they leave the loo is just an added humor.
Planning to visit Chicago next summer? Don’t miss out on Taste of Chicago. Yes, it is commercialized. Yes, it’s mostly tourists. And yes, you’ll be spending money. But visit it at least once, so that you can either hate-bash it with integrity, or become a loyal visitor like my interviewee who comes faithfully every year and always gets a Rainbow Cone.