Michigan & Congress, Chicago, IL 60604
Web: Taste of Chicago
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African BBQ Chicago Festivals Mexican Puerto Rican Sausage Seafood Taiwanese
"We knew we had to try the Gator Sausage on a Stick the moment we saw it on the menu. The price was a little high, but we genuinely enjoyed the reptilian alligator meat."
After eating our way through the Taste of Chicago - the world's largest food festival, as discussed in Part 1 of our Taste of Chicago report - the two of us were surprised to find ourselves agreeing on something we hadn't expected going in: the food is not amazing. Yes, there are items here that are better than others, and some are quite nice, but given that Chicago is one of the country's great food destinations - a point we'll expand upon in the very near future - the Taste does only a modest job of representing what the city has to offer. To us, the highlights were the foods that stood out due to their novelty, and there weren't as many of those as we'd hoped. Here are some of the things that caught our attention.
Vee-Vee's African Restaurant. Our first stop at Taste of Chicago was one of the very best, as Vee-Vee's offered dishes such as Jerk Chicken with Red Beans & Rice and Jollof Rice & Goat (full size 9 tickets each, taste portion 4 tickets). The Jerk Chicken was highly bony but wonderfully tender meat, char-grilled and infused with strong, musky herbs and pepper. We were even more impressed with the bright orange goat, similarly bony and a little light on meat by comparison - typical of goat - but the tomato and pepper sauce was mildly spicy, and led us to even finish the included rice.
BJ's Market & Bakery. We came here on an outside recommendation to try the Mustard-Fried Catfish (full size 9, taste portion 4), and wound up with two pieces of breaded and lightly mustard-flavored fish. While it's hard to have complaints about any piece of meat that's been properly fried and battered - and this catfish was - there wasn't a lot of mustard flavor. It was fine, not memorable.
Blue Bayou Bar & Grill. Always suckers for alligator or crocodile meat, we knew we had to try the Gator Sausage on a Stick (8 tickets, shown) the moment we saw it on the menu. Though the price was a little high for the half-sized portion, we genuinely enjoyed the sausage, which actually did taste like reptilian alligator meat. Additionally, another restaurant called Costa's offered Loukaniko - Greek Sausages in a pita (8 tickets for full size, taste portion 4, not shown), which we made the semi-mistake of ordering at full size. We were surprised to unwrap a nice pita with two whole sausages inside, a much better deal than the same-priced half sausage at Blue Bayou; the Loukaniko blended traditional sausage textures and flavors with a little Greek-style lemon and herb accent. Good, good stuff.
Sabor Latino Restaurant. One of the big disappointments of the Taste was the Steak Jibarito (full size 8, taste size 4), described as a Puerto Rican Farmer Sandwich - two coin-shaped plantain slices with chopped steak, lettuce, and garlic mayonnaise in the center. We love plantains, but these were hard and almost flavorless, with bland but soft and meager pieces of steak inside; the mayonnaise added little. Invented in 1991, the Jibarito is said to be a "specialty of Puerto Rico and Chicago," but it'd be hard to get hooked on from this version.
Tamarind Sushi & Eclectic Asian Cafe. We came back to this place just to try the Taiwan Shining Noodles (full size 8, taste portion 4). They turned out to be well-named but simple bean threads, transluent, white, and rubbery, mixed with a little sesame oil, some carrots, and some light greens. One of us enjoyed the mouth feel of the ultra-thin noodles, but both of us found the flavor to be bland.
Sweet Baby Ray's Gourmet Sauces. One of us was already a fan of the company's sauce, and took the other to the stand to experience it. The meats are almost secondary to the thick, sweet and zesty BBQ sauce, which could have made the paper container edible, let alone the home freezer-class boneless rib chunks and white bread slice served as Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ Boneless Rib Sandwich (full size 9, mini size 4 tickets). It may have been part of the vendor's plan, but we left with one impression: skip the sandwich, get the sauce.
Las Tablas Colombian Steakhouse. The other bummer of the day was another attempt at plantains, here called Maduros (4 tickets). While these sweet, yellow plantain wedges looked beautiful in the hot Chicago sun, glistening with moisture, they tasted overcooked and almost as hard inside as the plantain "bun" of the Jibarito. We ate a few bites and tossed the rest in the trash.
Adobo Grill. Good Mexican food is hard to find in Western New York, so we tend to go out of our way to have some when we visit a city where it's done right. Both of us agreed that Adobo's Chicken Tamale (8 tickets) wasn't remarkable, but it was better than anything we've had in Buffalo - obviously homemade corn dough with fresh chicken and a nice tomato sauce. We were pleased.
What we didn't find at Taste of Chicago was much representation from "authentic" Southeast Asian cuisines - there were token Chinese and Thai restaurants, both serving Japanese tempura for whatever reason, plus a Vietnamese place that wasn't serving any actual Vietnamese entree. Somewhat amazingly, there were zero Japanese or Korean restaurants here. We'd really hoped that we'd discover an awesome Asian contingent at Taste of Chicago so that we could show it to Buffalonians in a "look, this is how it's supposed to be done" article, but the offerings were almost as meager as at Taste of Buffalo. Almost. It's especially disappointing given that we've had some great Asian food in Chicago - and Buffalo - so we know that something's wrong with either outreach or other factors when these pickings are so slim at the cities' official food festivals.
That aside, Taste of Chicago did have pretty nice representation from other culinary traditions; African, Cajun, Colombian, Greek, Indian and Irish booths were all on hand, and though they were outnumbered by pizza shops, Italian restaurants, and various types of American options, at least there were a number of different cuisines available to sample. By comparison, Taste of Buffalo does a lot better than Chicago in the wine category - aided by some great places from the Niagara Wine Trail - and has some other strengths.
That leaves out the desserts, which Taste of Chicago had in such quantities that we could only barely scratch the surface on our visit. We'll discuss some of the picks in part 3.