Taste of Chicago

July 7, 2010

Chicago has always been one of my favorite cities. When I was in high school our art and chemistry teachers used to organize a trip each year. We’d head up from southern Indiana for a weekend that always included Chicago-style pizza, a show, shopping Michigan Avenue and a stop at some other attraction such as Shedd Aquarium.

Chicago was really my favorite city until I discovered the public transportation system in DC and the rustic outdoor feel of Seattle. It may have dropped a few slots, but it still remains in my top 10 in the US. These days my brother-in-law lives there along with his wife who is native to the area. So visiting now also includes an insider’s view and local tips. Not a bad situation to be in.

It has been a long time since our last visit so we decided to make the trip up over the holiday weekend. My husband had wanted to see a Cub’s game and it didn’t hurt that our trip fell the same weekend as the Taste of Chicago! So this week, Chicago is the part of the world we’ll be covering here on the blog. I’ve got a few posts for you that cover some incredible eats from our weekend.

We arrived on Friday, mid-afternoon and headed downtown to the Taste of. I had been warned it would be crowded and hot and tiring so I was prepared. To be honest with you, all three of those things seem to have much less of an effect on us since living in Brazil. It is like our crowd and heat tolerance has increased quite a bit.

Fortunately we got there fairly early in the day so there was still plenty of room to move around. By the time we left, however, it looked like this. Yeah, I was glad we went early.

We wanted to focus on more of the ethnic foods for this event. A lot of them we can’t get around central Kentucky, or if they are available, they aren’t quite as authentic as they tend to be in city like Chicago.

This was my first time going to this type of Taste Of. There was no entry fee; guests could buy tickets for 50 cents each before the event. Then tickets could be used to purchase food. All the booths had full meals that were about 6 to 11 tickets each and two options on their tasting menu that were 2 to 4 tickets each. We stuck with the tastings so we could try more things.

Okay now you know how it worked. Enough talk. Let’s go on a tour of the Taste of Chicago.

The first stop was for the Bobak’s All Natural Chicken Apple Gouda Sausage served with honey mustard. I should have tried it without the honey mustard first to get the full flavor of the sausage. Even so, this was really good. Not as much apple sweetness or gouda flavor as I would expect, but a great chicken sausage.

I never thought I would say this, but I really miss mandioca (cassava, yuca) from Brazil. They version I miss the most – fried. Fortunately Las Tablas was serving yuca fries with a delicious salsa verde on the side. It hit the spot.

If you know Chicago, then you know Garrett Popcorn. It is such good stuff. The biggest kernels you have seen with the best caramel flavor. And as fake as it may be, I have to admit I love the doesn’t-occur-in-nature neon orange cheddar thrown in with my caramel.

At the taste they served Caramel Popcornsicles, a popcorn ball freeze dried on a stick. It was as tasty as their original caramel and actually kind of refreshing with the cold which you typically don’t expect from popcorn.

Next came the one thing I had been anxiously awaiting. Mango Sticky Rice! Oh, how I have missed this from Thailand. It was so good even though the mango was canned. I got over that quickly because the rice was so close to what I remember from our trip. Even better, I was taken to an Asian market in town and finally came back with a bag of sticky rice! I’ll be making my own version soon!

The Varenyky from the Shokolad Café caught my attention because the eggplant and potato variety came with an Indian spiced sauce. I have since learned that varenyky is a Ukrainian dumpling similar to perogies. I typically love this type of dumpling, but this one was just okay. The sauce needed a lot more spice to it. I’m not sorry I tried it though because I actually think it may have been my first Ukrainian dish.

There were lots of sodas and energy drinks being sampled, and while we aren’t fans of soda anymore, this Manzanita Sol from Pepsi did catch our attention. We were hooked on apple spritzer while in Austria which is kind of like an apple soda, but a lot lighter. More like a sparkling apple flavored water. The Manzanita is nothing like that by the way. A sugary apple soda. Guess I’ll have to go back to Vienna.

Another new cuisine for me – Puerto Rican. We tried the mini Jibarito Sandwich from Sabor Latino Restaurant. The name comes from Jibaro which is a term used for those in agriculture working in the sugarcane and coffee fields, basically farmer’s from what I understand. It is traditionally a plantain and steak sandwich. This was so good! I absolutely loved the fried plantain version of a bun! I found a recipe if you’d like to try it yourself.

Now for the unique award – a Mashed Potato Stuffed Chocolate Cupcake. Yes, you read that correctly. Honestly, it wasn’t bad at all. Not something I’d have to go back for, but a nice sweet and salty combo and the smooth potatoes with black pepper blended nicely with the chocolate. The cupcake itself was excellent. These were served by Polo Café and Catering. I was joking with my husband that I’d love a wedding reception do-over and sneak these onto guest’s dinner plates to see the reaction!

These Pot Stickers from Star of Siam were by far the best deal. Just look at all of them! They were comparable to the full portion at most places. They were also one of my favorites with a delicious Thai chili glaze on top.

My husband was hungry for the Red Beans and Rice with Jerk Chicken. Vee Vee’s African Restaurant also had goat, but although I don’t like eating it for sentimental reasons, I have had goat and I really don’t prefer it. The jerk chicken was great, and although my bite wasn’t all that spicy my husband assured me that the more you ate it, the hotter it got.

The Sweet Potato Hashbrowns from a restaurant by the name of Hashbrowns had been on our list before arrival. These were good, but not what we were expecting. I had the fried, crispy version in mind. These were soft with what tasted like a lot of extra butter and spices. I’d get them again, but I think a Waffle House version might be better.

With a few tickets leftover we stopped at The Grill on the Alley for Mango Rice Pudding with Dried Cranberries. This was completely unexpected as well. (Apparently we had a lot of expectations). It was spiced almost like a traditional pumpkin dessert. There wasn’t the tropical, coconut/mango flavor I thought there would be. Good, but autumn flavors to me, despite the mangos.

Finally we finished off this eating marathon with a food that is as cultural as the sticky rice and yuca – a Chicago-style hot dog (or half of one) from Gold Coast Dogs. There is nothing else like these for me. The more stuff on top the better, especially that nice, spicy pepper you can see there in the photo.

That concluded our Taste of Chicago. After that, we did some major walking and went down to Navy Pier to see this:

This happens to be where we got engaged way back in 2002. Right up there on the observation deck in the middle of February during a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan. We’ve vowed to make it back for a repeat cruise at some point. Maybe anniversary #10.

We settled in at Navy Pier for some beers and to split a bag of Garrett Popcorn. I told you we couldn’t get enough of this stuff, right? We felt we needed to take full advantage while there, so while a bit unbalanced, this was our dinner. Not a bad way to end a wonderful day, overlooking the water.

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  • Danielle July 7, 2010 at 8:08 am

    What a great culinary adventure! I would love to attend this some day but I fear I’d be one of those intolerant ones who couldn’t deal with the heat and crowds. I don’t know though, I love food!

  • anutritionisteats.com July 7, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    I was supposed to go to Taste of MN, but it was raining and I decided to stay home 🙁 I’m sure it wasn’t as big as Chicago’s though!
    The plantain steak sandwich does sound great!

  • Chow and Chatter July 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    oh wow cool foodie event love it

  • My McDonald Meal July 7, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    This beats Taste of the Bluegrass. I’ve had this on my list for a long time. The yuca fries sound really good. Glad you had fun!

  • kat July 8, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Oh what fun though if you had the weather we did it must have been quite sticky! The started charging for Taste here in MN & they say it really cut down on the crowds not sure if that’s a good or bad thing

  • Tamara Marnell July 8, 2010 at 7:09 am

    I didn’t know about Taste of Chicago! It’s only a five-hour drive from my city, so I totally would have dragged my sweetie with me for it. Darn. There’s always next year.

  • Cinnamon-Girl July 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    What a delicious event Lori! All of the food sounds so delicious – and the potato cupcake is certainly different!

    I thought I would let you know that when you leave a comment and I click on your name it goes to a page that says your profile isn’t available and doesn’t link back to your site…

  • Lori July 9, 2010 at 4:25 am

    Danielle – It was a lot of fun. The crowds really weren’t all that bad early.

    Emily – I probably would have skipped it in the rain too. I think that sandwich was my favorite just because it was different for me.

    C and C – It was a lot of fun.

    Melissa – Yeah, it was a completely different event. I like the Bluegrass if they would just spread it out so you could move. This was much more like a festival or fair, but with better food. 🙂

    kat – Fortunately Friday wasn’t all that bad, but weekend got worse for sure. I can definitely see the good and bad with that. Fewer crowds are definitely nice, but only at a good price. 🙂

    Tamara – I’m pretty sure it happens over the fourth every year. Hope you can make it next summer!

    Reeni – Yeah, that was definitely the most interesting. Thanks for letting me know. I’ve caught that glitch a couple times. I think I’ve figured out that when I’m signed in under a google account I use for some volunteer work, that’s when the problem occurs. It lets me comment with my profile, but doesn’t link to it. I’m trying to remember I have the right one logged in. 🙂

  • OysterCulture July 9, 2010 at 5:18 am

    What a great trip and I loved all the samples you tried. I hope you feel it made up for the dearth of ethnic food in KY, but then KY has its own gems. But I have to say, I have some real Chicago love. Looks like the weather was spectacular (can’t tell the heat portion from your photos)

    You certainly picked out some of my favorites – that plantain sandwich is at the top of my list, along with anything with fried yucca – cannot get enough of either of them.

  • Andrea (Off Her Cork) July 10, 2010 at 6:44 am

    Fun fun fun! What a great event and experience! All the different foods look fantastic and totally unique. Smart getting there early. Were there water stations too for the non-pop drinkers? Admittedly that cupcake looks awesome!

  • Marianne (frenchfriestoflaxseeds) July 11, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    I had yuca once in Ecuador, it was weirdly addictive. Especially with whatever mystery drink they were serving us at the time 🙂

    Varenyky aren’t necessarily Ukranian. My Russian (Doukhobor) grandparents also sometimes referred to perogies as that, although we spell it slightly different. I like the idea of fusing the Indian flavours in with it. Sounds tasty.

  • Tangled Noodle July 12, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Oh, how I miss Chicago! We lived there for 2 years while the hubs attended grad school and it is hands down my absolute favorite city in the US (even ahead of DC and SF). Chi-town is a great Chow-town, too!

  • sarah (Catch A Cub In Its Den) July 14, 2010 at 12:10 am

    I have been wanting to do this trip (Taste of Chicago and Cubs game at Wrigley) for three years now but it never works out. After your post I should mark the 2011 calendar now and start putting money away because I don’t know how much longer I can wait!

  • Amanda (Two Boos Who Eat) July 17, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I am so jealous! Chicago is definitely in my top ten list as well. I loved visiting there but I didn’t try nearly enough local food when we were there.

  • Sean Grey Hanson December 6, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    I’m insanely jealous with you. Seems like you’re having so much fun in your culinary adventure.