Concerns that this 32nd Taste of Chicago would be poorly attended, given its shorter span (five days, its shortest run since 1985’s seven-day festival) and fewer participants (40 food booths, down from 59 in 2011), disappeared under the bright sunshine and blue skies of a glorious summer afternoon.
And, on this afternoon at least, the crowds were in force.
Once past the various entrances (where bags, purses and backpacks were, as usual, being inspected), lines were 25 people deep at the ticket booth closest to Monroe Drive (the festival stretches along Columbus Drive from Monroe to Balbo Drive) and some of the food vendors — particularly Original Rainbow Cone — struggled to keep up with customer demand on this hot afternoon.
The biggest lines, predictably, were at booths offering freebies. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources occupied a tent handing out free Asian carp sliders, mini-burgers (topped with a spicy tomato chutney) made from the notorious invasive fish species, and the line stretched around the corner of Congress and Columbus with people eager for a free handout, even if it was carp on a bun.
The wait was nearly as long at the T-Moblie booth, which was handing out free chocolate-covered ice-cream bars. The lines moved more quickly for the free samples of Sierra Mist soda, mostly because the workers there were so adept at filling the three-ounce cups.
Indeed, despite all the changes forced upon Taste of Chicago this year, Wednesday’s crowd was sizeable, energetic and hungry.
“It sounds like we had a good day,” said Marc Schulman, president of Eli’s Cheesecake. “Let’s hope we keep it going.”
Some of the newest features at Taste acquitted themselves well. At the three so-called Pop-Up booths, which feature a different restaurant lineup each day and are restricted to first-time Taste vendors, Beat Kitchen served up piping-hot and delicious (though curiously adobe-colored) chicken-mole empanadas, and at adjacent Jin Ju, Korean kalbi (a spicy pork sparerib) could be had for a mere five tickets (minus the amenities fee tacked onto every sale, tickets are worth approximately 50 cents each). Marie’s Pizza, another Pop-Up participant, offered cheese-filled ravioli in a green-pepper tomato sauce.
"What does Pop-Up mean?" one visitor wanted to know.
A worker at Marie’s held up an index finger.
"One day," she explained. "We’ll be back on Lawrence (Avenue) tomorrow."
Another new feature, the Celebrity Chef du Jour booth, features well-known chefs offering special dishes prepared (under the chef’s direction) by students from the Washburne Culinary Institute. Wednesday’s chef, Carlos Gaytan of Mexique, created Jamaican-glazed pork belly over julienned jicama and green papaya — easily one of the fanciest Taste of Chicago creations ever.
Gaytan is one of five chefs cooking special three-course, sit-down dinners (inside an air-conditioned tent) each evening, but Gaytan’s dinner — along with dinners by Tony Mantuano, Graham Elliot and Stephanie Izard — sold out weeks ago. Tickets remain only for the Sunday lunch by Jimmy Bannos (available on a walk-up basis; tickets are $40) which probably says more about Sunday crowds than it does about chef Bannos.
Other random observations on Taste’s first day:
Strangest layout: Though there a third-fewer vendors at Taste this year, the booths are packed as closely together as ever (more closely, groused one restaurateur), leaving open gaps at the south end of Columbus Drive and east end of Jackson Boulevard. Why not stretch out a little?
Oddest bargain: Polo Cafe is selling slices of Dutch apple or pecan pie for five tickets, but you can get a whole, boxed pie, equivalent to eight slices, for 32 tickets. It’s a good deal, but who wants an entire pie? As of 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, nobody, but owner Dave Samber is hopeful that the take-home pies will appeal to “last call” patrons.
Best buy: The four-ticket ($2) steak, tilapia or chicken tacos, with tomatillo sauce (hot sauces available) at Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill. The perfect street food.
Spiciest food: There’s a reason Tony Hu calls his chile-laced chicken dish “Never Forget Chicken.” Whether it’s delivering pleasure or pain (or bits of both), you will not forget this dish.
It remains to be seen how evening attendance and the rest of the weekend will play out, but so far, Taste is off to a respectable start. Keeping in mind that, as the saying goes, you can’t please everybody.
“Seven tickets for a hot dog,” snorted one gentleman, passing the Gold Coast Dogs booth, apparently deeming $3.50 a scandalous price for a Chicago-style dog.