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The Windy City shows off its great taste

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2004


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.

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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.