Taste of Chicago 2019
Author & Photographer: Melanie Wang
Every year, as the hottest days of July roll around, Chicagoans and travelers from around the world gear themselves up for the world’s largest food festival: Taste of Chicago. The festival first started in 1980, and has only grown larger since its inception; people travel far and wide to attend the event and taste of some of the best foods that Chicago has to offer. Let me tell you a secret: Chicago has a lot of good food to offer. The city itself is flooded with all sorts of culinary sensations, from extravagant and famous restaurants to small and lowkey eateries. Chicago is a city that loves its food–as a girl who loves her food, I get along fabulously with this city.
Now, Taste of Chicago is a whole different topic of discussion in the culinary world; in effect, this event offers thousands and thousands of people the opportunity to sample a variety of foods from all over Chicago. Restaurateurs from all over the city and its suburbs stake their claims at the nearly fifty tents that line Columbus Drive and Grant Park. If we’re being honest here, this is not the place for those seeking a life-changing culinary experience; nothing at Taste transcends this world, but it’s more about the experience and the chance to sample such a wide variety of restaurants’ greatest hits.
The format of the festival is simple; visitors are free to walk around the park and immerse themselves in the tantalizing scents and sights at no cost. Tickets are available at a rate of 14 for $10. This alone won’t get you far, as the food sold ranges from “tastes” at 3-6 tickets per serving, to full size portions that are anywhere from 10-14 tickets. The key to this event is to bring friends. I dragged two of my friends–dearest Isabella and John–from booth to booth, splitting “tastes” between the three of us, and we managed to fill ourselves up, try a multitude of foods, and sit down and enjoy desserts as well (full-sized ones, of course).
The highlights of this year’s festival made front pages of various local news sources–the gator spotting (and subsequent weeklong chase) in Humboldt Park made the alligator sausage at Chicago’s Dog House a huge hit. A quick Google search led me to a multitude of articles that all proclaimed that the writers had tried every single one (of the 50+) booths, and that they were now offering their words of wisdom on what was best. We took careful note of the repeat stars in these various articles–this year, it seemed to be gator sausage, rattlesnake sauasge, kimchi fries, spicy pickle fries, Nashville hot chicken, and Polish sausage. With a list compiled, we set off to brave the blazing heat of an unusually humid and extremely sunny day–all in the name of food, as is my mantra for most questionable things I do.
Of course, I had to try the alligator for myself–it was surprisingly good, featuring a light sweet-and-sour sauce and some flavorful sauteed onions. The booth also offered rattlesnake, but the only highlight of trying it is being able to boast to your friends and family that you have, in fact, eaten a snake. Next up–the kimchi fries were fairly standard, and nothing special enough to be worth the tickets (hot fries paired with cold kimchi on a sweaty day is nothing spectacular). The spicy pickle fries, while more interesting, packed a salty and spicy punch, despite being a bit soggy. Our real star of the show was the Nashville hot chicken sandwich from BJ’s Market & Bakery, which featured a crispy, delightfully spicy piece of chicken that was hot in all the right ways (much appreciated, despite the hot day). Paired with a cool and creamy coleslaw and some crunchy pickles, the sandwich made for a heavenly experience in every bite.
Satisfied and sweaty, we set out on our final mission: tasting the best desserts. We began with the original rainbow cone–very Instagrammable, very melty–and had mixed feelings on the flavors. The name “original” wasn’t enough to convince Isabella that chocolate paired well with the rest of the fruit flavors (disclaimer: she’s right–orange sherbert, strawberry, pistachio, Palmer House–a vanilla with walnuts and cherries–and chocolate are best eaten individually). Next, we sought out the cheesecake from Eli’s Cheesecake Co. (this is what I had been waiting for all day, essentially). The cookie cheesecake smoosh mostly lived up to my expectations; it was creamy, chocolatey, and extremely rich, although unfortunately quite frozen. The cheesecake on a stick, while fun and aesthetically appealing, was a large letdown. Again frozen, the cheesecake was covered in a waxy chocolate that a disappointed John referred to as “nasty city, USA”. In our best attempts to end the day on a better sour note, we spent our final tickets on lemon Italian ice–albeit watery, it was still refreshing (then again, it’s hard to mess up).
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I would say that the festival is a worthwhile experience and a rare opportunity to see so many restaurants on display. I’d recommend experiencing it once–it is the world’s largest food festival, after all. It may not be the most fulfilling or enlightening culinary journey, but that’s part of the charm!