The dozens of summertime celebrations of everything from craft beer to Irish heritage is not only a reflection of the city’s diversity, but also Chicagoans rejoicing after surviving yet another arctic freeze. When the city isn’t buried under three feet of snow, Chicagoans relish in the many parks, beaches, and outdoor spaces.
One of the city’s most popular being the Lakefront Trail. Contrary to its noisy and polluted automotive counterpart, Lake Shore Drive, this is an 18 mile (29 km) path of mostly uninterrupted pavement for runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, beach goers, and most any other non-motorized activity.
It is truly one of the city’s most precious gems that often goes unnoticed by tourists who can become easily trapped in the commercialized metropolis of Michigan Avenue and Water Tower Place. Many don’t realize that a short walk can lead them away from all that capitalistic commotion to the sound of breaking waves and cyclists peacefully whizzing by.
HOW I GOT THERE
Staying at a friend’s apartment up in Wrigleyville, I decided to forego public transportation and travel the approximately six miles to the Taste in Grant Park via the Lakefront Trail. I had ridden my bike in the city many times before and thought that this would be a fun and healthy way to enjoy the lake shore on a beautiful sunny day. Of course, I was also comforted by the common phrase:
“It’s like riding a bike.”
Aren’t so many skills likened to this universal experience that most of us learn as children and then never forget? My old bike had become a bit rusty as were my bike riding skill, but with a new set of tires and break pads I thought it would all be good. Let’s just say I’m not exactly Evel Knievel on two wheels. Although I’m pretty sure some of my fellow cyclists on the path were racing for a spot in the Tour de France, I was happy to be moving forward at a slightly faster than happy-go-lucky rate.
So I was off with my new set of wheels and an empty stomach to sample from some of Chicago’s best eats. I’m a huge fan of traveling with your taste buds and Chicago is just the kind of town that will allow you to explore the globe through an incredible variety of food. Sweat dripping down my brow and slightly out of breath, I stood at the steps leading up to Buckingham Fountain to enter the Taste and begin my Sunday afternoon culinary journey.
How the Taste Works
After locking up my bike, I gulped down the remainder of my water bottle and headed to the ticket line. The Taste of Chicago is one of the city’s many FREE events – well, sort of. Admission is free and then you must buy tickets to attend the evening concerts or to purchase food. In my opinion, the price for tickets was fair – $8.50 for a dozen.
Each vendor sells two or three entrees that each cost anywhere from eight to twelve tickets and then a few with ‘taste of’ portions for three to six tickets each. These are much smaller (think tapas/small plates size) allowing you to try many different dishes. For this reason, I stuck to the ‘taste of’ menus and did not feel like I missed out at all. In fact I was pretty full after splitting two-dozen tickets with a friend.
How I ate (very well)
Although it was a scorcher, as Chicago typically is in early July, Grant Park has plenty of shady spots under big trees or even big tents to savor every delicious bite. With over three dozen restaurants and food trucks to choose from, I strategically created a menu that would be the envy of any foodie. My travel began down in the Caribbean country of Belize with local favorites served up by Garifuna Flava. At this pop-up restaurant I enjoyed one my favorites from Latin America, fried plantains.
Entrees: Panades (a type of fried empanada), Jerk Chicken with Rice and Beans and Plantains, and Fried Ripe Plantains
Taste Portions: Panades, Fried Ripe Plantains
Heading out to the woodlands (or wherever beavers reside), I satisfied my sweet tooth at Beavers Coffee + Donuts. This food truck serves up mini donuts that come out warm form the deep fryer with a pleasantly browned outside and fluffy center. I got mine with the turtle topping including chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and chopped pecans.
Entrees: Mini Regular Donuts, Mini Signature Topped Donuts
Taste Portions: Mini Regular Donuts, Mini Signature Donuts
Trekking even further north up to our Canadian neighbors, I headed to a restaurant that was new to the festival this year, Spritzburger. After befriending a Canadian colleague back in Madrid, I heard rants about poutine, a Canadian spin on loaded french fries. Traditionally it consists of a bed of fresh-cut fries layered with copious amounts of brown gravy and cheese curds. Spritzburger’s take on this Quebec classic adds an American twist with the addition of a hamburger.
Entrees: Poutine Burger, Mac & Cheeto, Chocolate Burger
Taste Portion: Poutine burger, Mac & Cheeto
At The Savoy, another Taste of Chicago newcomer, I was transported down to the Gulf Coast where the seafood is fresh and deliciously deep-fried. This one was not an easy decision as I decided between the crab cake and grilled shrimp po boy. You can see which one I chose.
Entrees: Crab Cake, Summer Vegetable Salad, Grilled Shrimp Po Boy
Taste Portions: Crab Cake, Grilled Shrimp Po Boy
Just a hop, skip, and a jump down the coast, I found myself in the land of Mariachi bands and taste bud tingling salsa. After many unsuccessful quests for decent Mexican food in Madrid and specifically tamales, I satisfied my craving at Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill.
Entrees: Tamale, Fire Grilled Steak Taco, Tortilla Encrusted Talapia Taco
Taste Portions: Half Tamale, Tequila-Lime Marinated Chicken
I don’t know why, but I least expected to see anything from Spain. That’s why I was so stunned to see a massive and elegantly staged tent promoting olive oils from Spain. For some reason I always forget that Spain is the world’s leading producer and just how prized (i.e. expensive) it is stateside. It seems like I satiated my mid-summer wanderlust by catching the red-eye to my adopted country. After tasting a light and fluffy lemon cake made with extra-virgin olive oil, I had some fun with the photo booth.
After sampling my way around the world, I wound up back in sweet home Chicago. The afternoon had been a hot one, and I cooled down with a baby frozen banana from The Fudge Pot. This family founded local business has delivered sweet treats to Chicagoans since 1963.
Entrees: Chocolate Fudge, Frozen Chocolate Dipped Banana, Chocolate Dipped Strawberry, Combination Plate
Taste Portions: Chocolate Fudge, Baby Frozen Chocolate Dipped Banana
Now, I know that if you’ve ever been to the Taste of Chicago or any other big city festival, it can be hot, crowded, expensive, and anything but fun. However, for me finding peace in such busy places is often more a state of mind, and the food your eating can help a whole lot too. Whether you’re feeling adventurous or simply stick to the classics, find comfort in the meals you eat.
What’s your favorite comfort food or most bizarre culinary experience?
TRAVEL NOTE >>> Whether you are visiting Chicago for the first time or a native Chicagoan, check out my Sweet Home Chicago city guide. I’ve pinned all the above eateries for you and more of my favorite Chi-town spots all mapped out on Pinterest.