Today is so hot and sticky that we wouldn't blame you if you really just want to down beers and pig out on cheesecake, but we dutifully swept through the Taste of Chicago nibbling at the budget-priced tasting portions (2–4 tickets, approximately $1-2) and sorting out the bad from the good with 1-5 star ratings. Here are 16 of the highlights and lowlights.
The list below is organized by booth #, not by rating.
#1 Bobak Sausage Company
All natural hot and spicy Jambalaya (4 tickets tasting portion) 3 stars
Large portion of nice and spicy sausage is light on the meat but piping hot.
Jerk Chicken (4 tickets tasting portion) 4 stars
This western African take on the dish consisted of spicy-sweet, slightly crispy pieces of chicken sitting over a bed of brown rice, with the odd bean thrown in for good measure. A sort of shredded fried chicken-wing; it had a very similar texture and flavor. The sample portion was small, but enough to get a feel for this somewhat exotic cuisine. Those with a hunger for off-beat fare should look no further.
Bissap Sorbet (4 tickets tasting portion) 3 stars
A small cup filled with partially frozen Hibiscus leaf tea, topped with whipped cream, made up this sweet beverage. The tea taste doesn't really come through; it is actually closer to a fruit-like flavor somewhere between a grape and a berry. The portion we tried contained a fairly large chunk of ice that had to melt before it could be totally finished. Need something cold and sweet? This is a good bet.
#8 Billy Goat Tavern
Half Cheeseburger (4 tickets tasting portion) 4 Stars
Although three quarters of this half of a classic sandwich from the famed burger joint is the hamburger bun, the juicy meat taste gets through the bun wall. Slap on some pickles and onions and you're golden.
#10 Bacino’s Pizza of Lincoln Park
Stuffed Spinach Pizza (4 tickets tasting portion) 4 stars
Our slice was neither very thick nor thin but had a nice sized, crispy crust. With tomato sauce on the top and the Spinach wrapped with cheese holding from middle down, the first bit was interesting. Tomato flavoring hit first followed by cheese and a some what subtle spinach taste. Nonetheless, still awesome for the price and size.
#11 Abbey Pub
Irish Egg Roll (4 tickets tasting portion) 1 star
On the outside this roll looks like any other egg roll you've had a million times but its devoid of any traces of Asian flavor. Crack the shell and you'll find a roll stuffed with small strips of beef, white cheese and some sort of kraut. Bland taste + greasy = not worth four tickets.
#12 The Grill on the Alley
Gazpacho with Avocado and Chopped Chives (4 tickets tasting portion) 5 stars
Aside from beer, this may be the only non-sweet dish to cool off with. The tasting portion is a little stingy, but it more than makes up for size with taste. A large chunk of avocado sits in a chunky tomato soup with onions and chives. If this blazing weather keeps up, they’ll be sold out. Plus, this carries Humana’s seal of approval for healthy Taste options. So you’ll feel better about indulging in a slice or two of Eli’s Cheesecake afterward.
#13 Polka Sausage and Deli
Polish Sausage Sandwich with Kraut 4 stars
Tubed meat fans rejoice; Polka's signature Polish sausage is a juicy and succulent addition to your eating binge. The sample portion is about half of the regular-sized sandwich and comes complete with a hearty bun and a good-sized helping of kraut thrown on top. Just make sure not to ruin a good thing with addition of any of those pesky condiments.
Elote (4 tickets tasting portion) 2 stars
Elote...sounds like the ambrosia of the Aztecs, or something equally unique. Don't be fooled. It's just roasted corn on the cob made into a hash. You know, the stuff you grill every week. While the corn is sweet, you can find sweeter at the Dominick's booth. So if you stop here, spend your four tickets on a fire-grilled steak or tilapia taco.
#21 C’est Si Bon
Cajun Meatballs (4 tickets tasting portion) 3Stars
These meatballs are both good and evil. The meat taste like your mundane TV dinner peppersteak wrapped in plastic. But the hot sauce smothered on the meatballs leaves a lasting taste that makes you quenching for water. Something you might want to try to fill your stomach.
#27 BJ’s Market and Bakery
Mustard-Fried Catfish – 4 tickets tasting portion: 4 stars
A winner. A crunchy exterior seasoned with loads of herbs coats this fresh tender catfish. A tasting portion is generous – two big catfish tenders. We drizzled ours with tangy honey mustard sauce to complement the spicy catfish. Even on a hot day, we enjoyed this, so we will definitely be visiting their South Side restaurant for some soul food come winter.
#22 Vee-Vee’s African Cuisine
Sauteed Goat with Jolloff Rice (4 tickets tasting portion) 2 Stars
Mundane rice and mundane meat, despite the enticing name. The highlight was putting a bunch of hot sauce on it. File this under entrées you won't mind skipping.
#36 Sabor Latino
Pork filled banana dumpling (4 tickets tasting portion) 2 stars
Fried and just as unusual as it sounds. Plantain lovers will enjoy—everyone else is in for an adventure.
#47 Shokolad Pastry & Café
Eggplant, Snow Peas, Potato and Indian Spice Sauce Varenyky (2 tickets tasting portion) 1 star
When I saw “Snow Pear” on the menu, I was intrigued, imagining some exotic fruit growing in the mountains of Siberia. Alas, ‘twas only a typo. Snow peas are less exciting, but I gave it a try anyway. The tasting portion is just one bit-sized dumpling, with perhaps two peas and one cube of eggplant inside. The “Indian Spice Sauce” was flavorless and the dumpling looked and tasted as if it had been sitting in the freezer for a couple months. Steer clear.
#50 Lagniappe-Creole Cajun Joynt
Beignets (3 tickets tasting portion) 5 stars
For those who haven't been to New Orleans or just don’t know: A Beignet is what would happen if an American doughnut and a funnel cake had a child who got into the powdered sugar hidden in the kitchen. And if Beignets were real children, they would be extinct due to their deliciousness. Light, airy and sugary. Great breakfast treat or small dessert. Effecting a Cajun accent is totally optional once you're sated, but encouraged.
#51 Abundance Bakery
Upside Down Caramel Pecan Cupcake (8 tickets) 2 stars
A soft, moist yellow cake doused in caramel and topped with a meager helping of pecans. If we're paying an extra ticket for pecans, we want more than half a pecan crumbled on top. Abundance was out of tasting portions, so being gluttons, we went whole hog and got a full size. Definitely a waste of tickets. We were half expecting a caramel or cream center, but no luck. This cupcake satisfies a sweet tooth, but TOC would have preferred thicker caramel. For a true caramel cupcake, check out More’s Salted Caramel.