By: Carolyn Walkup
This year’s 26th annual Taste of Chicago, which starts June 24 and continues through July 3, features a dozen new vendors in the total mix of 59, adding even more cultural diversity to the expected Windy City favorites.
While a large number of vendors, nearly a dozen this year, continue to offer some of Chicago’s iconic hot sandwiches, pizza and barbecue, it’s the ethnic specialties that truly demonstrate the richness of the city’s restaurant world, offering a microcosm of Chicago’s pattern of immigration. Representing countries from around the world, cuisines include Chinese and Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and other Latin, African, Caribbean, Jewish, Greek, Italian, Brazilian, Polish and British flavors.
All vendors are serving six dishes, of which two are smaller “taste” sizes for $2 or less. A total of 20 menu boards will have a “green apple” icon next to an item, signifying Humana Healthier Choices endorsements for entrees under 500 calories or appetizers and desserts under 320 calories. Newcomers to the Taste this year are Alhambra Palace, Banana Leaf Restaurant, Beggars Pizza, Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery, The Fudge Pot, Lao Szu Chuan, Loving Hut, Parrot Cage Restaurant, Ryba’s Fudge Shops, The Smoke Daddy, Starfruit Cafe and Texas de Brazil. Marc Schulman, chief executive of Eli’s Cheesecake Company, notes that the Illinois Restaurant Association, which manages the restaurant and beverage operations at the Taste, recruited this year’s newcomers to add more culinary diversity.
“Chicago is a great dining city. I think the Taste is one of the things that makes Chicago special in the summer,” Schulman said. He recalled the inaugural Taste event in 1980 when his dad, the late Eli Schulman, worked the booth, cutting cheesecake in one of the trademark suits he wore as host at his then-restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steaks. That first Taste marked the debut of Eli’s Cheesecake, which has since vastly expanded its flavors. This year’s choices include a 110-calorie Skinny Chocolate Cheesecake.
Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery from the Northwest Side, one of the new vendors, is presenting a variety of desserts, including eclairs, sweets on a stick and a parfait cup. Customers can treat themselves with no guilt, because owner Tom Kailis plans to donate profits to his college-bound employees, their children and two of his late partner’s teens. Culinary students at Washburne Culinary Institute also will benefit from both paychecks and experience they gain by working the Parrot Cage Restaurant booth, representing the restaurant the school operates in the South Shore Cultural Center. “This gives students an opportunity to do large production food and to interact with the public,” said Bill Reynolds, provost. Parrot Cage’s most unusual item is its turkey meatloaf cupcakes. Shaped like cupcakes, they actually are mini-meatloaves topped with mashed potatoes. Another protein item is a crab salad in a pretzelcracker cone.
Texas de Brazil, a protein palace in River North where waiters in gaucho garb bring all-you-can-eat portions of meats on skewers to diners for tableside carving, will lose its churrascaria charm in the confines of a Taste booth. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s Isabel Correa hopes the food will attract new customers to the restaurant. She is especially proud of the combo platter, containing garlic sirloin, bacon-wrapped chicken breast and Brazilian sausage.
Likewise, Alhambra Palace will not be able to showcase its 1,200-seat dining and entertainment venue in the West Loop that features live music, salsa and Middle Eastern dancing. The four-year-old establishment wants to expand its following beyond its loyal regulars, said general manager Fareed Nobahar. Featured foods will be a beef and lamb schwarma sandwich, falafel sandwich, chicken kabob basket, hummus with pita and baklava. Cincinnati native Richard Bailey will offer Caribbean and Cajun flavors from his Banana Leaf Restaurant on the South Side. Developing a passion for those cuisines through travel, Bailey will have a jerk lamb chop, blackened tilapia with rice, curry vegetable stir fry and jerk wings.
Even vegans can find something to eat this year at Loving Hut from the Edgewater neighborhood. “There are a lot of meat substitutes; you are not missing anything,” said owner Wenqing Li. “You can reduce greenhouse gases by getting away from a meat-based diet.” Among Loving Hut’s dishes are a home run ball (fried vegetable textured protein with a sweet/spicy sauce and crushed cashews) and a noble burger (a smoked vegetable patty with condiments). The local Loving Hut is one of 219 related restaurants around the world. Some veteran Taste vendors said their participation has paid off in winning new restaurant customers. “There are a lot of people who tried us at the Taste and came to the restaurant, sometimes months later,” said Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion, an Indian/Latin fusion restaurant in River North. A spokesperson for the Chicago Park District, which has taken over managing the Taste from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, said there will be more seating this year than in the past. There also will be less music, returning the Taste’s primary focus to its original intent — showcasing Chicago’s diverse restaurants. Carolyn Walkup is a local free-lance writer.