Just a month ago, I was nearing the end of my editorial internship with Frommer’s at which time my boss asked me to pitch article ideas. Summer was rapidly approaching, and I was, quite honestly, hungry as I stared at a blank Word Document. I thought, as my stomach professed its emptiness by grumbling, how could I write an article about summer, travel and food? And so, 10 of the Nation’s Best Summer Food Festivals was born and within it, a slide on Taste of Chicago.
Exactly a month later on Friday, I took my very own story’s advice and headed out to Taste of Chicago: DSLR camera around my neck, iPhone in hand and Adriana by my side.
Yet, I quickly learned that there is only so much research and reporting that could’ve prepared me Taste of Chicago. Upon entering the festival, located at Grant Park, I was immediately overwhelmed by stimuli. Live music echoed through the streets, barbecue smoke thickened the air and people filled, what I assume is, calmer park pathways. In a sentence: Taste of Chicago is an attack on all five senses.
While I usually search far and wide for coffee creations, the event proved lacking in the caffeine area. So, I focused my food exploration on delicacies that caught my eye such as creative cream puffs and seasonal ceviche. Adriana and I split 36 tickets, which we realized later was far too many for our limited time and palates. But because of a lack of prior knowledge, we thought it was best to get as many tickets as possible since “taste of…” delicacies commonly “cost” four to five tickets. Nonetheless, we were able to try several items, all of which were diverse in ingredients and equally as distinct in taste.
Farmer’s Fridge: Avocado Toast
In honor of Adriana’s blog, “Chicago Does Brunch,” we began our Taste of Chicago adventure with the “taste of” Avocado Toast from Farmer’s Fridge.
Despite the tiny portion, there was a generous serving of fresh avocados. Because of its simplicity in being solely avocados—no spices or additional ingredients within the mash— the avocado layer did not overpower the other elements of pumpernickel bread, pickled onions and Mexican Cotija cheese.
“It’s nice to be able to offer people healthy options, when all there usually is is fried food,” Culinary Director Christy Alvarado said.
A bite into the Avocado Toast tickled my senses, beginning with a powerful crunch from the lightly toasted bread. This hard nibble was accompanied by the undeniably smooth texture of the avocado. The cheese added a kick of salt and the onions—because they were pickled in hibiscus flower—brings a sweet flavor. Together these two elements created a balanced contrast that was very well executed. A sour zing courtesy of a distinct hint of lime brought a refreshing zest to the serving that lingered. However, for such a small serving, the dish was a bit heavy, weighed down by the rich Cotija cheese and generous serving of avocado mash.
Puffs-Doom: Savory Puff and Sweet Puff
When walking off our Avocado Toast, the word “puff” caught my eye. I was craving even more salty-and-sweet combinations and thought there would be popcorn at this booth. However, at the pop-up restaurant, Puffs-Doom, puffs were creative cream puffs. In retrospect, I realize that this definition of “puffs” made more sense than being popcorn… While debating whether these desserts were worth five tickets, two girls gleaming over their purchases caught our attention. We just had to ask them about their thoughts, especially since neither of us are big fans of cream puffs.
After trying the Savory Puff, composed of bacon, ranch, and mac & cheese, Paige Lynam said, “It kind of just tastes like mac and cheese on a roll.”
Her roommate, Rachel Mihulaka was pleased with her taste of the Sweet Puff made of banana, coconut, and Nutella. So Lynam tried it and said, “I would recommend [the Sweet Puff] over that one,” pointing to the Savory Puff.
Lynam did note, however, that “the bacon in [the Savory Puff] is bomb.”
Beat Kitchen: Veggie (Vegan) Burger
How could we not approach a booth called “Beat Kitchen?” After all, was beat a play on the word “beet,” as in the vegetable, or beat, like music? We just had to know…
We ordered the Veggie (Vegan) Burger, and despite the restaurant’s name, the taste did not make my heart beat fast. Resting on a large, doughy roll was a dark brown square patty, more reminiscent of the solid brownies they used to serve at my sleep away camp than a “burger.” Out of sheer confusion—was it a burger or a brownie?—and a bit of fear, I made Adriana try the serving first. It was then my turn and I quickly learned that it was, in fact, not a brownie. The patty, made up of rice, onions and beans, was incredibly dense. If it weren’t for the sliced raw onions and tomatoes on top of the burger, the entire serving would’ve been overwhelmingly bland. The Veggie (Vegan) Burger also lacked any complexity in terms of texture. Because the bun wasn’t toasted, the patty was primarily composed of beans, the tomatoes were softened from the day’s heat, and the spinach leaves were wilted, it had a one-note texture. I walked away regretting our decision and wishing I could have my five tickets back.
But restaurant Chef and Manager, Benny Avelar, was the opposite of his serving: dynamic, lively and a pleasure to talk to. He willingly took a break from his booth’s chaos to explain his dishes, ingredients and business.
“We work on many different style of foods,” Avelar said. He added that “being Latin” is what inspires his culinary creativity.
The Lifeway Kefir Shop: Mango Frozen Kefir
We, unfortunately, took our mediocre bite and swallowed an even worse one: Mango Frozen Kefir from Lifeway Kefir Shop.
After that dense bean patty, we were looking for something refreshing, light and airy. And Juana Adan, truck manager, even said, “It’s more refreshing [than yogurt].” So, we thought that the protein-packed, 99 percent lactose-free “cultured milk smoothie” (which is what “kefir” is) would be exactly what we were looking for. I’ll put it frankly: it was not.
The Mango Frozen Kefir was offensive. It should not put itself in the same category as frozen yogurt! That’s just an insult to frozen yogurt! I could only stomach one bite of the serving and found it to taste very artificial, like I swallowed several packets of aspartame. Being that I am lactose intolerant, I am familiar with other lactose-free frozen yogurt attempts such as Tasti D-Lite. Usually these alternatives are light and airy. Kefir, however, was shockingly dense, which was very off-putting. And no matter how much water I drank after my single spoonful, I couldn’t rid myself of the powerful sour, rotten milk-like aftertaste.
Evan Czerwonka, however, thought it “was really good.” He went as far to say, “I got the mango and I can really taste it. It feels very authentic.”
I guess that’s what makes the world go round…
Mad Social: Seafood Ceviche
Making our way back to the center of festival, we finally found the refreshing taste we were so desperately desiring. For five tickets—arguably worth the nine we spent on the past “taste of’s”—we scored Seafood Ceviche from Mad Social at its pop-up restaurant booth. Within seconds of ordering, we were presented with a modest, clear plastic cup, ¼ of which was filled with brightly colored ingredients: shrimp, octopus, corn, diced tomatoes, diced onions, and chopped basil. Poking out of the cup was a flat sesame cracker. The presentation was not truly impressive but its bright combination of colors peaking through the clear cup provided authentic and natural decoration.
I first tried the dish by piling a bit of all the components, sans-cracker, onto the fork and shoveling it into my mouth. The forkful was definitely exciting, as the dish’s range of textures confused and stimulated my taste buds. There was so much complexity, I didn’t know which ingredient to focus on first: the smooth, slimy sensation of the octopus or the slightly soft and mushy feeling of the corn and tomatoes. The onions added a contrasting crunch that further increased the dish’s complexity. In terms of flavors, I was impressed by how refreshing just a forkful was. The sprinkling of basil brought an element of summertime lightness and the vegetables were incredibly fresh. The tomatoes and its accompanying juice added a necessary and balanced acidity to the dish. The shrimp and octopus, because they were sitting in the vegetables’ juices, were marinated in such a manner that was incredibly authentic, natural and refreshing. Except for the sour tang of lemon juice that makes a welcomed appearance at the end of a bite, what you saw (through the plastic cup, of course) is what you got with this dish: fresh ingredients and fresh taste.
The next step was to use the cracker as a utensil. I poured another forkful of ceviche onto the cracker and lamely balanced it towards my mouth. And then…crunch! Here I was thinking the Seafood Ceviche couldn’t get better and yet, the slight sesame flavor brought an unexpected dynamic to the dish. I’m accustomed to only finding sesame on bagels (I’m from New Jersey, after all) and Asian dishes. I wouldn’t have ever thought that such a seed would’ve worked well with a seafood dish. However, this “taste of” proved I was both ignorant and wrong.
Once we finished all of the hard ingredients, I was tempted to drink the remaining juices, desperate to continue the fun play of flavors and textures in my mouth. But I was worried that by doing this, I wouldn’t end on a high note. So, I tossed the cup and its tempting juices in the trash and marched on.
La Mexicana: Strawberry and Watermelon Paletas
I’m a sucker for ending a meal—even if it’s one composed of bites at Taste of Chicago—with a sweet flavor. So, it’s not shocking that I felt a magnetic pull towards La Mexicana’s booth as we walked towards the festival exit. Eager to try both of the “tastes of,” I ordered a Strawberry Paleta and Adriana a Watermelon Paleta. Ice pops made of fresh fruit, paletas are the perfect finale to a summer meal, especially one like this in the sweltering heat. And these were no exception!
Before eating, I couldn’t help but admire the authenticity of the strawberry pop: bright red in color and spotted with the fruit’s seeds. The watermelon one, unfortunately was not as impressive. In fact, I was somewhat confused how the pop became so pink since watermelon is rarely that hue, and after taking a lick and then a bite, I wondered even further if this Watermelon Paleta was actually made of fresh melon. It was so incredibly sugary and overwhelmingly sweet that Adriana joked that it was “diabetic.”
On the other hand, I could’ve eaten an embarrassing number of Strawberry Paletas. Each bite was like a lightly sugared strawberry and the frozen element made it that much more refreshing. To say I was pleased is an understatement. Satiated and perfectly cooled down as the sun set on our Taste of Chicago adventure.
Please note that although Adriana and I have similar quotes and photos but we did not use the same material. We did parts of the assignment together so that we could get the most “bang for our buck” at Taste of Chicago when buying tickets and trying as many tastes as possible.