For the record, I did once meet my family at Taste of Chicago and, to my boggled amazement, actually had fun, which surprised me because usually I'm reluctant to go to Taste on salary and an expense account. It 'just isn't my idea of fun. But three years ago the paper sent me, and I did my best to suck it up and enjoy the experience, in the process setting a few rules for others who'd like to do the same at Taste, which began Wednesday.
Like many Chicagoans who eat in restaurants as a matter of routine, I tend to look down on Taste of Chicago as an inexplicably popular opportunity for families from Schaumburg to drive into the city and eat an expensive slice of deep-dish cheese pizza while standing on the baking asphalt of Columbus Drive.
But I know an order when I hear one, and given that there are guys whose job it is to defuse bombs in Afghanistan, I couldn't complain too much about being dispatched to Columbus and Monroe at the stroke of 11 a.m. Wednesday.
The first person I see is none other than Sam Sianis, head herdsman of a flock of Billy Goat Taverns. He never misses a Taste.
"I was at the first one, Chicago Fest in 1979," he says. "Good for us, good for the city. We make money."
Though times have changed.
"It's smaller now," Sam says. "I don't know why."
The reason, as far as I understand it, is to cut back on the cost to the city by cutting back on the Taste—half as long, five days instead of 10, with fewer restaurants. It runs until Sunday.
Sam says more, but his voice is drowned out by a chorus of "Cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger!" from his workers.
A double cheeseburger costs nine tickets, and to translate that into real money takes figuring. For $8 you get 12 tickets, each with a face value of 50 cents, though each ticket really costs 66 cents, or $5.99 for a double cheeseburger (not bad, considering the same burger goes for $5.48 at the Goat on Lower Michigan).
I'm not about to buy one. Rule No. 1: have a plan. My plan involves exotic tasting portions from restaurants off my beaten path—no burgers, no pizza, no hot dogs.
I skip the first bank of ticket booths, and go to the interior booths—less crowded—and buy two 12-ticket strips for $16. Rule No. 2, have a budget.
Since it's only 11:05, I decide to hold out until 12 and stroll the grounds, scouting. Cheapest eat? Two tickets will get you half a slice of watermelon at Dominick's. Priciest I saw: 24 tickets for the eight-wing bucket at Harold's Chicken Shack.
At 12:01 p.m, I find myself in front of Vee Vee's African Restaurant. I order the red beans, rice and jerk chicken Taste portion—most booths have mini portions for those trying to hold true to the original idea of the Taste as a place to sample things. Five tickets get you a small paper trough half filled with rice, a few beans and a bit of jerk chicken—"jerk" is Nigerian for "boney," apparently. The concoction is smoky, watery, unappealing.
Strolling down Columbus, Rule No. 3 forms: Remember sun block. I swing over to the trees for shade, toward the Family Village. Kids are being led through exercises by Maddie Murphy, a Stretch-N-Grow coach.
Mustard-fried catfish calls out to me from B.J.'s Market and Bakery, 8734 Stony Island. I am rewarded with three generous nuggets of fish, piping hot and juicy, rolled in a crisp corn meal breading.
Eat them. You'll thank me.
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria offers a chopped salad Taste portion for 3 tickets, and since I must set an example to my young readers, I get in line, watching slice after slice of gooey deep dish pass over the counter, imagining the stunned reaction my request will get.
"Salad?!" whoever takes my order will cry, as the Taste falls silent and heads pivot. "This man is asking for salad!!!"
"We're out of chopped salad," a teen in the real world replies.
"Come back in half an hour."
It's 12:15. "Sold out already?"
"Yup." Times change.
Thinking to still get something cool between courses, I line up at Iyanze, 4623 N. Broadway for bissup—hibiscus sorbet. But the people in front get the jerk chicken and, thinking to compare, I follow suit, and am rewarded with a portion twice the size of Vee Vee's and four times as good.
With nine tickets left, I figure go out with a bang, and line up at The Original Rainbow Cone. Their trademark cone is a blend of chocolate, strawberry, a favor they call "Palmer House"—vanilla with walnut and cherry chunks - pistachio and orange sherbet. Rule No. 4: it's Taste, it only comes around once a year, it's okay to indulge.
Waiting in line, a breeze wafts from the lake. Buckingham Fountain spouts in glory. The clouds, white and wispy, the breeze, cool. Mmm, nice.
I'm handed a drippy concoction heavy on the orange sherbet. But not bad. My plan is to stroll back toward the paper nursing it. Once again I am drawn toward the dimness of the trees, where I do something uncharacteristic: I sit down. Rule No. 5—remember to sit down. It is quiet, almost private, the Tasters milling past, young and old, all races, families and couples, office workers with their security tags.
Ahh, summer in Chicago.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 12, 2012