Taste of Chicago
By Jonathan SooHoo
Chances are if you live close to Chicago, you’ve heard of Taste of Chicago. The now 5-day food festival drew an estimated 1.5 million people last year showing that residents will consistently come out to support a diverse mix of Chicago cuisine despite 95-degree days and it’s-so-muggy-it-might-as-well-be-raining nights. This year, “The World’s Largest Food Festival” brings 40 5-day vendors, 24 pop-ups, and 16 food trucks. 36 of the 80 participants are new to Taste. My friend and I have made it a tradition of going the last 7 years and we’re not planning on letting up anytime soon.
All right! On to the food!
I generally avoid getting traditional fair food and classics like pizza and burgers that I can get outside of the festival. If you’re coming to Taste for Lou Malnatti’s, you’re using valuable tickets and stomach room for something that you should go to the restaurant for. So I started out at Chicago’s Dog House. A long time favorite of mine, the Alligator Sausage and Gator Bites (imported from farther away than Humbolt Park) have a great bite, richness from the caramelized onions, and a little kick from their sweet chili sauce. The rattlesnake and rabbit sausage is a solid option as well (topped with giardiniera), but because of the choice of protein, it’s a touch drier. Next we hit Hakka Buakka Indian Kati Rolls for a taste of their Chicken Tikka Kati Roll. In the words of my Indian friend “okay.” The kati roll itself is like a nicely made sweet crepe, but the chicken filling could use more seasoning.
The surprise of the day was definitely the Thursday-only Egg Rolls Etc. popup. Serving a bunch of foods that don’t sound like they should be in an eggroll was great marketing because they were out of buffalo chicken and Korean beef when we got there at 7. We tried the Gert’s Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey Egg Role and the Taco Ole with Ground Turkey Egg Roll w/ Ole Sauce (which we initially thought was a taco in an egg roll shell. It was just an egg roll with taco filling.) Honestly, I was not overly excited to try collard greens in an egg roll especially when it came with prepacked sweet and sour sauce on the side. It was one of the most pleasantly confusing things I’ve ever tried. The greens were tender, the turkey had great flavor, and somehow the sauce worked. Ditto for the taco egg roll which was very similar to Mexican flautas in a creamy, slightly spiced sauce.
Unfortunately while there are highs, there are also lows. The Taste of Cheddar Bacon Bun from Buscia’s Bacon Buns lacked much of the gooey cheese and abundant bacon I expected from the name. The Taste of Elote in a Cup from Esperanza was good at the beginning, but everything past the top layer was devoid of the mayo and chili powder that makes it so tasty. The Bacon Ranch Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese from Doom Street Eats is a great portion for the price, but was honestly a little too much for me (and not enough bacon, always needs more bacon). But if you’re a carbs on carbs person, this rich sandwich is worth a try.
We finished with Jerk Chicken Tacos from Garifuna Flava: A Taste of Belize and we finished on a good note. The shredded jerk chicken is flavorful and complemented well by the tried-and-true onion and cilantro mix. It was a nice end to the day. My only regret (aside from the cheddar bacon bun) was they were sold out of smoked turkey legs. They are monstrosities and I might have to come back another day to get one.
For next year, here’s a few tips from the grizzled old foodie:
1.) You’ll always have to wait in line to get in, but there’s a separate, much shorter line for people who don’t have bags to be checked.
2.) Bring your own water! Taste lets you bring in water and soft drinks as long as they aren’t in glass bottles (no alcohol though); save yourself the pain of spending $5 for water.
3.) Most of the food you consume will be with your hands. A small pack of wet wipes can be a lifesaver especially if you plan on tackling the BBQ rib tips or smoked turkey leg.
4.) If you want to save time, buy tickets online ahead of time and pick them up at will call. Don’t overspend though, any tickets leftover after the festival ends turn into very expensive confetti.
Also my apologies for not having many pictures; I kept getting so excited to try the food that I would get halfway through before remembering I was supposed to be documenting the experience.
7/15 Update: My plans have been foiled a second time! We returned to Taste, and after taking cover during a 10 minute downpour, returned to the The Slab Bar-B-Que (Premier Rollin’ BBQ also has turkey legs, but they use nut products and one of my friends is quite allergic). We waited in line a bit before being told that the turkey legs would take another two hours. The smoked turkey leg is good. It’s not that good. Instead we try a couple of popups. The Old Town Hot Dog (bacon, caramelized onions, chipotle aioli, pickled jalapeños, cotija cheese) from Dog Haus is a great blend of savory. Then the Chicken and Waffle Dog and Butter Chicken Curry Dog from Madame Vanderkloot’s Weiner Emporium (unfortunately there’s no brick and mortar). The curry dog is honestly just fine, a small chicken sausage covered in sauce somewhat resembling a tikka masala. The chicken and waffle dog is delicious - a chicken sausage covered in a fluffy waffle like a corn dog and drizzled with maple syrup. We finished with Mango Ice Cream from Star of Siam, a surprisingly full and very mango-y flavor. Honestly, probably better than the turkey leg.