When most people think summer, food and Chicago, their minds instantly wander to the loud, over-hyped Taste of Chicago. As many Chicagoans will tell you, the Taste of Chicago actually seldom recreates the full scope of the city known for its amazing food. Instead you get the tourists’ version of Chicago with tents for Eli’s Cheesecake, Lou Malnati’s, Giordanos and a plethora of other institutions that food shows love to feature in their Chicago specials.
Most Chicagoans have adapted to the idea that Grant Park is, for all intents and purposes, off limits until July 6, when the cleaners come and wipe clean the streets, making them inhabitable for humans again.
This year Katie and I foolishly made our way over to the Taste on July 3rd (no, I don’t know why) and my belief that no one can actually find that undulating mass of bodies a good time were only solidified. We were packed into the streets like sardines, unable to move at every intersection, and basically had to take on a mob mentality to even get to the booths.
I previously read that “they” (an unknown shadowy Chicago entity) were trying to make the Taste more affordable with 2 dollar taste portions. Either we missed every tent with this option, or it was a grand myth; because everything we wanted to try started at 4 tickets and only got more expensive from there.
The highlight for us was easily Soul Vegetarian and their offerings up BBQ “Beef” sticks and sweet potato pie. Each “taste” was 4 dollars, and a desperate attempt to get by Manny’s and their massive turkey legs. And that only brings up another question; why are turkey legs and ears of corn the biggest seller at the Taste? Why come all the way to Chicago and get the same fair food you can get at any small fair or festival? Doesn’t that defeat the point of the Taste of Chicago? Because I can guarantee that normally you don’t see anyone wandering the downtown streets with a gnawing on a turkey leg the size of a baby.
But, I could spend the entire article railing against the Taste, decrying that tourists who come down only for the Taste will never know the true flavors of Chicago; but it’s already been done by better writers many times over.
What people outside of Chicago don’t realize is that the summer is FULL of festivals, from the free cultural offerings at Daley Plaza to the neighborhood festivals that celebrate all weekend long.
Some of Chicago’s restaurants are too small to ever have a presence at Taste of Chicago, relying solely on the smaller festivals to get their names out there.
No, they’re not all great. Most of the free festivals in Daley Plaza are cookie cutter versions of larger festivals. They all have 3-5 food tents focusing on the cuisine of whatever country/continent is being featured that week. The rest are typically craft tents that all seem to sell the same things. During the African festival I even noticed some tents featuring Chinese products. I’m know geography wizard, but I think they may have their continents confused.
And don’t get me started on the 5-10 dollar “recommended” donation that most, if not all, of the neighborhood festivals have. It’s not a donation if you have someone at the gate keeping you from getting inside until you hand over your money. Just call it what it is, an entrance fee, and be done with it. We all know what it is, and we’re cool with it.
Yet, even with these complaints, the most fun we’ve had this summer has been at things like the Andersonville Midsommerfest. The streets were lined with local shops and restaurants; those without booths opened their windows to serve food to anyone interested. It was here that I was able to try a Simon’s Tavern glog slushee, some seitan chorizo tacos, topped off with some delicious ice cream from George’s Ice Cream and Sweets.
We’ve also had the opportunity to drink a ridiculously large plastic stein of beer at Mai Fest, and try some seitan ribs from Delicious Cafe at North Center’s Rib Fest.
Out-of-towners, do yourselves a favor and plan your summer trips around some of these neighboorhood festivals instead. No, they’re not as big, and they’re not all a spectacular spectacle; yet if you want to see what Chicago is really like, these festivals are your best bet.