The 33rd Taste of Chicago opened under near-cloudless skies and temperatures in the 80s, perfect conditions that are predicted to last throughout the festival’s five-day run (which ends Sunday). If Taste is going to have a comeback year, a successful season that demonstrates this event’s viability, this would seem to be the year.
And if people were to pick a time to support the event, to keep it from the slag heap of unaffordable and thus abandoned city events (remember those July 3 fireworks shows?), well, this would seem to be the year to do that, too.
The boilerplate: Admission to Taste of Chicago is free; purchase strips of 12 tickets ($8) to exchange for food and drink items, which are priced from 3 to 14 tickets. Cheapest strategy is to buy Taste portions, small nibbles that cost 5 tickets or less; every vendor is required to offer at least two Taste-portion items.
If you’re planning to venture out to Grant Park this week, here are my observed highs and lows, the best and worst places to spend your money:
Bobak’s Sausage Company (booth 1): Though few Taste participants these days could locate Maxwell Street on a map, let alone explain its cultural significance, Bobak’s “Maxwell Street Polish Sausage,” served on a sturdy bun with or without grilled onions, is big, meaty and juicy, worthy of its name. Eight tickets for full-size, 5 tickets for Taste portion (half).
Eli’s Cheesecake (booth 16). It wouldn’t be Taste of Chicago without Eli’s Cheesecake, which has participated in all 33 Tastes. The Key Lime Skinny cheesecake, 3 tickets, gives you just the right amount of cool sweetness and so, even given its tiny size, is one of Taste’s best bargains.
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria (booth 21), which drags 24 pizza ovens (well, four ovens with six doors each) to its site, manages every year to produce off-site pizza (cheese or sausage, 6 tickets) equal to the pizza sold in its brick-and-mortar restaurants. Why don’t these guys have a food truck yet? (Taste tip: Malnati’s will split your pizza slice in half on request. Easier to handle, easier to share.)
Other great Tastes
Carbon (booth 11), sometimes overmatched by the Taste crowds its first couple of years, has its act together this year, staffed with a mini-army of workers who dish out Carbon’s terrific steak, chicken and fish tacos (4 tickets). My favorite is the tilapia, fried in a crushed-tortilla crust and doused with tequila-lime sauce (the counter person will ask if you want the sauce; you do).
A big “welcome back” to Wishbone (booth 6), making new friends with its Lexington-style (i.e., vinegar sauce) pulled pork sandwich (7 tickets), topped with chopped coleslaw (it’s a Southern thing). The sandwich is big enough for two, easy. Consider also the very refreshing watermelon-lemonade salad (7 tickets), essentially watermelon cubes covered with ice-cold lemonade in a tall cup.
Bombay Spice (booth 37), a Taste rookie, puts out a very nice bhel puri (5 tickets), crunchy puffed rice topped with a cold mix of tomatoes, diced potatoes, onions and spice. A great dish for a hot day.
Inspiration Kitchen (booth 26) is worth visiting for its terrific ice-cold salad of watermelon, cucumber, feta cheese and mint (8 tickets, 4 tickets Taste portion), served in a lidded cup. Sadly, Inspiration Kitchen is one of the two-day pop-up restaurants, and its last Taste day is Thursday.
Not bad, but…
The empanadas at Beat Kitchen (booth 36) are big and puffy and only 5 tickets each. Not bad, but I’d like them better with a little more filling.
You only think you have Teflon tonsils; prove it by downing one or more of the hot-pot meats offered at Lao Ma La (booth 12). Priced at 5 to 8 tickets each (varying with the protein; the Taste-portion is 4 tickets), these pepper-flake coated meat skewers live up to their name (ma la means “numbing spicy,” an effect that’s pleasurable to some) and are plenty spicy. Lao Ma La should be getting a kickback from the water vendors.
Best justification for spending 14 tickets
The quarter-rack of ribs at The Smoke Daddy (booth 39) may seem extravagant — 14 tickets for three meaty bones — but the price is very much in keeping with the cost of ribs these days and is the reason that barbecued ribs have virtually disappeared from Taste the last dozen or so years (even Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs sticks to rib tips and pulled pork at Taste). And Smoke Daddy does ribs right. (If you’re economizing, the 5-ticket Taste portion of pulled pork will keep you happy.)
Worst justification for spending 14 tickets
Oak Street Beach Cafe (booth 22), whose home is Midway Airport and not Oak Street Beach, requires 14 tickets for a scrawny lobster tail fragment that is dwarfed by the potatoes that accompany it. The lobster may be small, but it’s also overcooked and salty. Avoid.
Best stuff on a stick
Back to Eli’s Cheesecake (booth 16) for the chocolate-chip-crunch dipper (6 tickets), a crunchy-chocolate-encased cheesecake wedge served on a stick, is the way to go. Hearty Restaurant (booth 24) is serving a wonderful take on the corn dog, using a delicious rabbit sausage instead of a run-of-the-mill hot dog; available in full (10 tickets) and Taste (5 tickets) portions, this item is so good you should splurge on the full-size version. But, tragically, Hearty is another of those two-day pop-up restaurants, and its last day at Taste is Thursday. Reason enough to head to Grant Park today.
Find more info at tasteofchicago.us.