CHICAGO — Midwesterners like fried food. That's one stereotype I decided has some accuracy after scanning the fried steak, fried calamari, fried doughnut holes, fried catfish, and even multiple listings for fried ravioli that dot the menu at this summer's "Taste of Chicago" festival, which has been going strong for 25 years.
Still, hidden among the fried food - and the expected pizza, sausage, and ribs - were a few entries that range further afield: I was curious about the turtle soup, sauteéd goat, and "Cajun alligator on a stick," while globe-trotting options such as saganaki, tavuk adana, and roti canai sounded deliciously exotic.
"The Taste," as it's commonly known in the Windy City, is famous for its crowds, but it's also a foodie's paradise, a fun collection of the expected and the bizarre, the culinarily adventurous and the comfortingly familiar.
Before my editor asked me to attend this year's festival - a collection of 65 restaurant booths, some 250 food options, and various rides, concerts, and other attractions - I had last gone in the late 1980s as a high school student from the Chicago suburbs. My memories mostly consisted of sunburns, throngs of people, and eating too much pizza.
But now I was newly back in the Midwest, living in the city this time, and attending the Taste seemed like the perfect way to reacquaint myself not just with a smorgasbord of local restaurants, but also the quintessential Chicago-ness of a summer festival in Grant Park, one of Chicago's huge lakeside parks, right in "the Loop," and the home to most of its big festivals.
Extravaganzas like the Jazz Festival, the Blues Festival, and the Taste are the city's way of making up to its residents for five or six months of bleak Chicago winters. A summer stroll on the shores of Lake Michigan, with a magnificent skyline for a backdrop, makes it all too easy to forget about long nights and bitter winds, and fall in love with the city all over again.
Still, braving the Taste demands a bit of preparation, since vendors fill a large section of Grant Park, a 319-acre area named after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
I headed there on a sultry July afternoon (post-lunch crowd, pre-dinner, and definitely off-weekend), so I slathered on sunblock (not enough, as it turns out), packed two bottles of water (also insufficient), and dressed in the lightest tank top and shorts I own. I figured more people meant more possibilities for sharing and tasting, so I called Daren, a friend who works downtown and loves adventurous eating. We bought some tickets ($7 for a strip of 11; $5.50 if we had bought them several weeks ahead of time) and cased the program for the tastiest options.
Pages of possibilities proved daunting, so we decided to just stroll by the booths and see what looked good. Along the way, we created a few rules to narrow the options:
1) No chains. Not that there were many - the Taste is one area that manages to stay happily free of Wendy's or the Olive Garden - but it did rule out El Pollo Loco, a Western chain about to expand into Chicago, and Dominick's grocery store.
2) No funnel cake. Daren and I are as fond of this festival staple as most Americans, but it seemed too commonplace for a gathering devoted to tasting new food. Popcorn, cotton candy, and Italian sausage also fell into this category, though I later regretted not trying Buona Beef's famous Italian beef and sausage combo sandwich.
3) No pub food, which meant forgoing a "cheezeborger" from the Billy Goat Tavern - the inspiration for the famous "Saturday Night Live" skit - and minimal reliance on pedestrian fare such as ribs, hot dogs, and pizza.
Above all, we wanted our experience to live up to the festival's name - tasting as varied a range of food as possible.
The first stop was a hit. At Vee-Vee's African Cuisine, the jerk chicken and sauteéd goat both sounded good, but we went for the seasoned plantains in garlic sauce and never regretted it. I've always thought of fried ripe plantains, or maduros, as a Latino dish, but the African version was delicious, and the garlic sauce helped cut the sweetness.
I made a beeline for the gourmet dining pavilion next. Chicago, despite its heartland location, is a city full of world-class restaurants, but few of them are represented at the Taste, which caters to the palates - and the wallets - of the masses. The one exception is at the gourmet pavilion, where a different restaurant showcases its food for bargain prices each day: Kobe beef with bacon and scallions from the Saloon Steakhouse, Korean spareribs from Jin Ju, or New Orleans grilled oysters from Riva.
The day we visited was devoted to Café 28, a tony Northside restaurant, and we shelled out nine tickets for the coconut shrimp over curry rice. Delicious - the rice, in particular, had a nice subtle flavor - though not extraordinary. That label went to B.J.'s fried green tomatoes - a new dish for me, an old favorite for Daren.
Another hit was the beer-battered artichoke hearts at Bella Luna. But the alligator on a stick was disappointing - dry, rather tasteless, and, once again, fried. And while you'd expect good pierogis in a city as Polish as Chicago, the potato and spinach ones we sampled were so tasteless we didn't finish them.
The chana masala at Arya Bhavan was only passable and featured decidedly crunchy chickpeas, but Robinson's barbecued ribs - I had to have at least one classic Chicago dish - fell off the bones and had us licking our fingers afterward. I noted in passing that the Hey Sushi booth offered no sushi, and that Home Run Inn Pizza had perhaps misjudged the crowd with its decision to serve a low-carb cheese pizza.
We quickly learned that the "tasting portion" - smaller, and typically going for just two or three tickets - was the best way to maximize variety. Unfortunately, each booth just has one dish available in that size. And pacing ourselves was hard.
By the time we made our way back to some desserts we'd noticed early on, we were nearing our limit. Still, we made room for a chocolate baklava - which gave us two perfect bites each - and a miniature chocolate-dipped frozen banana.
At this point, Daren had to get back to work, but I was left with five tickets and a full stomach. I bypassed the Ferris wheel and tattoo booths to check out the cooking lessons from local chefs in a shady, cool tent by Buckingham Fountain, the perfect place to rest for an hour.
Settling on a final dish was tough: Five tickets weren't enough for main-menu items, which typically cost six or seven, and too many for the tasting portions. Planning ahead, when you buy tickets in sets of 11, can be tough.
I finally returned to try a tasting-size steak taco at Taqueria Los Comales - a delicious, uncluttered mix of steak, onion, and cilantro in a fresh tortilla - and finished with some Bailey's ice cream from Kitty O'Shea's.
I skipped the Melissa Etheridge concert that was just about to begin, and on the El train ride home looked over the many options I passed up: pot stickers, crab cakes, shrimp tempura, seafood gumbo.... As they say about the Cubs, there's always next year.