Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Taste of Chicago

We live in a city that, for the past 25 years or so, has held an annual sweatfest the week prior to 4th of July featuring overpriced, fair-to-middling food offerings from mostly mediocre eating establishments for a million or so of its closest friends. This, my dear readers, is known as the Taste of Chicago and it is normally avoided like the plague by most sane, reasonable-thinking individuals. We here at the Commissary, however, clearly do not fall into that category. Since the progeny have been around and with the creation of Millennium Park, Mrs. Hackknife and I have developed a routine whereby we drag the kids downtown to said fest (preferably on one of its lesser-visited days), set up camp on a grassy knoll away from the Mongol hordes on the main thoroughfare, do some controlled gorging on selected food items, then head over to the fountains in the park so that the kids can cool off and splash around. I could go on about how rewarding it is watching Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette negotiate the fountains and mingle with kids from all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds in the process, but this, after all, is a food blog and I can tell that you're mostly interested in what I ate this year (or at least that's what I'm interested in documenting), so reveal I shall.

In fests past, I would have taken it upon myself to fill up on every deep-dish pizza slice, bratwurst, oversize novelty turkey leg, cheesecake, and frozen chocolate-covered banana I could find; now, I try to be more selective and seek out the more exotic offerings, which are a little harder to locate. I did some homework before we arrived this year and I came armed with a hit list and a Taste phone app to help me track down my quarry. Unfortunately, cost, time, and weather constraints kept me limited to about half of my list, so here's what I did manage to sample. First up was some jollof (spicy rice) and braised oxtail from Iyanze, a West African restaurant in the city's Uptown neighborhood. I really enjoyed the rice, but was a little disappointed with the oxtail, which was tougher to eat than I imagined it would be (it was flavorful, but hard to pull off the bone, especially since they only gave me a spoon to work with). Even after using my hands, the oxtail seemed like it was just too much work. What followed next put a spring in my step: Vermillion (think sort of a cross between Indian and Latin cuisines) offered a maharaja sandwich, which was shredded spicy beef topped with mint mayo and crispy onions, like an Indian sloppy joe. This was probably the only stand where I could have willing tried everything on their menu without hesitation (of course, the privilege would have cost me a pretty penny to do so). Next up was Lao Sze Chuan, a Chinatown restaurant that was one of the few places represented at the fest that has gotten largely positive press from the foodie cognoscenti. I tried their crispy honey shrimp and was surprisingly disappointed as they tasted like they had been sitting out for a while, chewy and lukewarm. Dessert help improve my mood, with a nice stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate bits) gelato from Franco's (on the West side). By this time, I had gotten pretty full on not only my sampling, but the sampling of Mrs. Hackknife's food as well (most of which seemed to be better, if not cheaper, than my choices) and the skies were darkening with rain clouds, so we thought it best to call it a year and head to the safety of the underground parking garage. Overall verdict: some good food, some bad, most too expensive for what you received, try going to a smaller Taste fest in one of the suburbs....

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