Sweltering weekend heat radiated throughout the city, but that didn’t keep approximately 1.4 million locals and tourists from the 2016 Taste of Chicago. Nearly 50 vendors — including staple restaurants, pop-up shops and food trucks — lined the streets to give tasty (and some not-so-tasty) treats to the festival-goers. Here are my picks of the good, the bad and the gross from this year’s taste.
Pig Candy from Pork and Mindy’s
Before I ordered such an ambiguous-named dish, I had to ask the person behind the counter what “Pig Candy” meant. She informed me that this was bacon roasted with brown sugar. With the mention of “sugar,” I was sold. In the words of former photography editor Ellen Bauch (my tasting sidekick), pig candy is “what I want bacon to be always.”
The sugar-coated maple flavor complimented the natural meatiness of the smoked bacon. Throw in the crunch factor and this dish was gobbled up in seconds. With only three tickets for this delicacy (whereas most “taste” portions from booths go for five tickets), pig candy gives the most bang for your buck and was the best snack I tasted at this year’s Taste.
Mustard-Fried Catfish from BJ’s Market & Bakery
Any food that is fried usually has my vote, but what stood out at BJ’s Market & Bakery was the “mustard-fried” aspect. The slightly tangy and spicy mustard seasoning highlighted the cooked catfish. The seasoning stood out more than the catfish, but dipping the dish in the honey mustard sauce gave the right mix of spice, fish and sweetness to hit the trifecta of flavors.
Havarti Mac and Cheese from Mad Social
Mac and cheese is already an American delicacy, but Mad Social brought this dish to a different, tastier level. Accompanied by mushrooms, corn and bread crumbs, the mac and cheese went well beyond any boxed Kraft meal.
The noodles were too flimsy, but the corn offered a sweet taste while the bread crumbs had a savory crunch. It was an interesting take on mac and cheese that I would eat again and again.
Lobster Mac and Cheese Bite from The Happy Lobster Truck
The Happy Lobster food truck had a long line of foodies eager to try lobster delicacies. The cheese bite I tried was superb (with equal parts cheese and lobster), but what brings this delicacy down is the value. Like most of the “taste” portions, the Happy Lobster cheese bite was five tickets. But with 12 tickets costing $8.50, spending five tickets on a single bite was not of value. The bite of fried and cheesy lobster goodness left me wanting more considering the $3.50 price tag.
Pot Stickers from Star of Siam
These Asian stickers didn’t make me want to stop and savor the taste, but altogether I gobbled them up quickly. With vegetables on the inside and sweet and sour sauce at the bottom of the dish, Star of Siam’s pot stickers were nothing extraordinary, but they sufficed for my pot sticker standards. I ate the four stickers (at a value of five tickets) quickly, but any fried Asian food with a chewy and crunchy shell harboring miscellaneous vegetables and meat gives me joy.
Pulled Pork Slider from Porkchop
Porkchop’s classic pulled pork slider didn’t defy expectations, but it was still tasty. The meat was a tad gray and suspicious, but the barbeque sauce and soft bun made up for it. Altogether the slider was good, but it wasn’t memorable among the other sliders I’ve had in my lifetime.
Spinach Artichoke Quesadilla with Chimichurri Sauce from Doom Street
Maybe it’s my apathy toward spinach, but this quesadilla altogether was “no bueno.” The cooked spinach was soggy from the melted cheese inside the hot tortilla. I doubt even true spinach-lovers would enjoy the mushy green vegetable that was drowned in cheese.
The tortilla was cooked perfectly (crunchy on the edges and softer in the middle), but the spinach and artichoke flavor was a letdown — next time I’ll stick to an old fashioned cheesy quesadilla.
Aged Gouda Ice Cream from Pastoral
I know what you’re thinking: “How could ice cream be bad?” The truth is, Pastoral’s Gouda ice cream was fine; it had all the sugar and cream I need in a dessert. But the dish wasn’t so much “bad” as it was “disappointing.” With a name like Gouda ice cream, I was expecting something extravagant and different. Instead, I had a dessert that was too similar to run-of-the-mill vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate and caramel sauce.
Ginger Garlic Wings from Iyanze
This giant chicken wing (not wings — plural — as was advertised), tasted like any giant chicken wing. I was excited and ready for exotic flavors from the local African restaurant, but sadly I encountered a typical chicken wing that let down my increased anticipation.
Jibarito (Steak Plantain Sandwich) from La Bomba
For those of you who are unfamiliar with a plantain, it’s the banana’s cousin, but much starchier. La Bomba fried up this international delicacy and used it as a bun for its steak sandwich. The steak was chewy and less than edible, but the plantain was something new and interesting in my daily diet. I enjoyed the crunchy and fruity smell of the plantain, but the overly chewy and gray steak was a major turn off.
Cuban Pork Tamale from Dia de los Tamales
Tamales aren’t my favorite Mexican food, but this dish didn’t appease my taste buds in the slightest. The meat resembled dog food mashed with a tortilla. Maybe it’s just my lack of Hispanic taste buds or maybe the tamales didn’t rise up to the challenge at this year’s festival. Nonetheless, this dish would be the last piece I’d choose to eat while walking around the festival.
Altogether, this year’s Taste gets a B+. I can’t speak for the food I didn’t try, but I hope the vendors raised the flavor profiles to more than what I tasted. Most of the dishes I had were “good” but nothing extraordinary (other than Pork and Mindy’s pig candy, which I could eat for days). As the heat sweltered over the thousands of festival-goers, it was worth the discomfort for an entertaining day with some pretty good eats.