Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Crowds are Back!

It was a slow few days, but as I suspected, the crowds are thickening up with the onset of the holiday weekend. Makes getting around the Taste a bit more tedious, but it's good for sales, so we'll take it!

The main entertainment today was Trey Songz. I don't know what he sings, but I've heard the name and he's apparently one of the hot hip hop celebs at the moment. So, we had a young, rowdy crowd, which always translates to more issues, cops, and attitude. Moral of the story: if you come to Taste, pay attention to the entertainment schedule when deciding the days to attend.... Come on the days when they have Broadway or Country & Western - the crowd's pretty mellow on those days!

Speaking of Country & Western, the copper cowboy is here every year, posing, scaring unsuspecting passers-by who haven't noticed he isn't REALLY a statue. Just one of the many sideshows you might catch on any given stroll through the Taste (not even including the sideshows who just show up among the crowd!)

Between errands before arriving and being so busy with the extra crowds, we didn't get a chance to eat much today. That's probably a good thing as my pants are already tighter than when I arrived! We did stop for a few snacks along the way, though. Got more of that chopped salad from Malnati's. Asked this time and was told that delicious dressing is a sweet vinaigrette. I'll have to try to recreate when I get home!

Hope got a pork taco from Adobo Grill for one of the guys working at BJ's. Looked pretty good, but too many onions for my middle-aged digestive system! I, on the other hand, was already thinking ahead for the next morning and on my way back to Lagniappe-Creole Cajun Joynt for beignets.... The order came with 2, so I chomped down 1 (before the photo again!) and saved the other for breakfast. I promise, it was much more appetizing than the photo can depict! The generous amount of powdered sugar had already started to get moist by the time I snapped the pic, but the dough was fried to crispy perfection and soft and sweet inside. I hope it will taste as good tomorrow as it does when warm and freshly served!
That's about all we had time for because it got so busy at BJ's booth that even Hope donned a visor and went to work. Bri was aching to work also, but Mom forced her to wait it out until the crowd thinned.

And the upside to all that hard work on the crowded days: MORE work for the support staff counting tickets! (If you've never been to Taste or I-fest in Houston, you have to buy tickets from the city in order to buy food. No currency exchanged at the vendor booths. That way, the city ensures they get their take, 15% in the case of Taste, when it's time for the vendors to cash in!)

So, we had a BIIIIG pile to dump when we arrived at ticket counting central, Hope's mother-in-law's, Juanita. Here she is taking in the sight of the mountain of tickets to be sorted and
counted, along with sister Linnie who works the early shift and collected a good portion of those tickets. Linnie comes in every year from California to help out and also likes to go around the Taste collecting all the freebies she can find: bags, t-shirts, water bottles, frisbees, you name it! If they're giving it away, Linnie's gonna find the source!

It's all a family affair for BJ's at Taste of Chicago! Hope and I pitched in, (with Linnie in the middle), for Ticket sorting duty, too! Brianna helped as well.... See that smile on Hope's face - she looooves to get those biiiig piles of tickets! Mo' money, mo' money, mo'money!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ahhhhh,... My kind of Town, Chicago is....

I don't think there can be anything as great
As a summer day in Chicago by the lake
When it's clear and sunny with a temp of 78!

Wednesday was the kiddos turn at the Taste! Brianna and her two girlfriends were our charges for the day. Tried to tire them out right from the start with a round of jumping. May as well try it now,... at 12 and going into 6th grade, this may be the last year they're interested in the inflatable amusement activities!
As we would soon discover, it would only take Malnati pizza slices, Gold Coast Dogs Firedogs (a spicy hotdog smothered in grilled onions and mustard), and sweet potato chips on a short picnic break to replenish the energy tanks.
I had to try the more adult fare today of a petite grilled sirloin steak sandwich with Bernaise sauce from Polo Cafe. The steak was Taste-y and tender. The bread (my second biggest weakness behind chocolate) was soft, buttery and delish, as good as it looks! Didn't know what Bernaise sauce was, but I won't shy away from it in the future! Yes, that is a bite, I keep getting distracted by my salivary glands on the way to taking pics!
After the picnic, we were off and running! Along the way, Hope and I had a brief wait by the Pritzker concert Pavilion, shown against a backdrop of a small fraction of Chicago skyline, while the girls raced each other across the BP Bridge over Columbus Dr.

After that grueling physical workout, they needed another rest with the feet hanging in the water by the Lurie Gardens.... Refreshing, relaxing and good for a little girl talk! Then off we go again, making our way to The Crown Fountain for a little (actually a LOT of) reveling in the water and drenching under the water falls and spouts.

What kid can resist being spit on by a huge face projected from an interactive column display! While the energetic ones played in the fountain, I took short walks to enjoy more of that beautiful landscaping Mayor Daley has provided, to experience the hustle of a real downtown on Michigan Ave (sorry Houston, just no comparison!), and to take in...
some of the many art displays - this one part of a display labled "Contemporary Art from China."

Once the girls were sufficiently saturated, we stopped at the restroom for a quick (well, as quick as you can be with self-conscious 12 year old girls changing clothes) dry off and then headed back to the festival.

Along the way, that Molten Lava Chocolate cake kept calling my name from the JR Dessert Bakery booth. Well, I haven't had my chocolate fix yet today, so it may as well be now! What a perfect confection of rich, dense chocolate cake, thick, creamy, warm chocolate sauce oozing from the middle.... mmmmmmm. I had mine unadulterated (without the optional vanilla ice cream).... Please forgive my diving in before the photo... too tempting again to resist! Thank you JR Dessert Bakery for bringing a little cup of paradise to the Taste!

Hope showed more restraint, opting instead for a cup of Bissap Sorbet, frozen Hibiscus leaf tea with whipped cream, from Iyanze. It was deliciously refreshing!

One last walk to entertain and educate the girls: to the 30 minute Chicago inner harbor boat tour. The view of the Adler Planetarium (America's first planetarium), Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum from the boat.... I now know these museums were all made possible by generous donations from executives of 2 major chicago retailers: Max Adler (Sears Roebuck) and John G. Shedd and Marshall Field (Marshall Field's). Learn something new every day!

Got just a little chilly on the open waters, but we were prepared for
anything as any native Chicagoan knows to be! Even Brianna bundled up...

A view of Navy Pier against the Chicago skyline.

Nearing the end of our adventure, it's back to the Taste festival grounds where I've just noticed that even here we have reference to the on-going environmental catastrophe playing out in the Gulf of Mexico....
Those poor gulf coast fisherman have a long road ahead of them.... So glad to be disassociated - thanks for the walking papers, BP!
One last dessert before the night is done ( I think I went on sugar overload today!): the Banana and Chocolate Egg Roll from Tamarind. I like bananas and need say no more of my affection for chocolate, so this just sounded too interesting to pass up. I could taste the bananas and there was just the right balance of chocolate wrapped and fried, then drizzled with MORE chocolate. Oh so yummy! And at least there was fruit to provide SOME nutritional value!

Hope's last indulgence was a bag of Chicago Mix (cheese and caramel popcorn) form Garrett Popcorn Shops, famous in Chicago for some time, made more famous by Oprah's celebrated cravings (pre Bob Greene!)

Tomorrow will be back to work. Still trying to make opportunity for that physical exertion.... Already feeling like I'm 5 months pregnant - Gee, I wonder why?!!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Eating my way through day 2....

"I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail." H.L. Mencken
(Hope and me, in front of Buckingham Fountain and ONE of the great downtown skyline views.)
Well, I have to admit, I have not seen a chitling at the Taste of Chicago (thank goodness!), but there's always the famous Robinson's if you have a yen for spareribs! BUT, if you want a healthier option, there's BJ's Market's TURKEY ribs: the breast meat still attached to the rib, cooked oh so fall off the bone tender in BBQ sauce. Healthy never tasted so decadent! And that's how we started the feast today, before even leaving home, with some of BJ's turkey ribs for lunch. I topped it off with a half beignet from Lagniappe Creole Cajun Joynt leftover from yesterday. (Don't know how I forgot to chronicle this little lump of heaven in yesterday's Taste-imonial! I'll be going back for more and tell you about it again, I'm sure!)

Of course, eating lunch before didn't mean we ate any less once we arrived at the Taste! I decided today would be adventurous. On the way in, I decided to try the spinach, mushroom and feta crepe from Shokolad Pastry & Cafe. It seemed like it would be a healthy way to start the evening graze,... until they handed it to me adorned with a HUGE dollop of sour cream! I endeavored anyway and found it quite Taste-y. So much so, that I had it devoured before the thought of taking a photo even occurred to me.

I passed on the Gyro I'd been craving for a few days (preferring to wait until my stomach was emptier because this is one of the larger items at the Taste). Rather, I stopped to try a pork filled banana dumpling and Key lime shortbread from Sabor Latino. They were only 4 tickets each so I figured they couldn't be that large. The dumpling was a bit more than I thought it would be, but it was a Taste bust so I didn't waste precious calorie consumption trying to finish it. The dumpling didn't taste anything like banana and, although the pork WAS quite Taste-y, I was hardpressed to find more than a few morsels of it in the center. (Not exactly what I would describe as "stuffed.") I stuck the shortbread in my pocket, for I'd seen a sign listing the intriguing mashed potato stuffed chocolate cupcake at Polo Cafe & Catering Bridgeport USA. (Stuffed items seemed to be becoming the theme for the day!) I like mashed potatos and I LOVE chocolate cupcakes, I just couldn't figure out why anyone would think to put them together, ... and then top it all with powdered sugar! Since I couldn't imagine it, I just had to try it!

Hope inquired of the chef, who was out front of his booth on the sidewalk hawking his cuisine, and she was told that he formerly had been a baker, hence the chocolate cupcake, and now ran a restaurant where they sold a lot of mashed potatos, so he decided the combine them and wrap them in a silver foil cup to commemorate the restaurant's 25th anniversary. Ooookaaaay! Well, gotta give him kudos for creativity! So the chocolate cupcake was excellent and the mashed potatos were pretty good, but I think I'd still have preferred them during separate courses than in the same cup!
Now, we're still just in transit and haven't even reached the BJ's Market booth until this point! Once we arrived at the booth, brother-in-law John asked if we wanted to go to a party, the party put on for the vendors. This is one of the perq's of being related to a vendor! He gave us wristbands and led us on over to the tent where there was a hog heaven of food to sample from various vendors, wine, beer, and reserved access to the concert going on at the Petrillo Band Shell - no food tickets required! We nibbled on Iyanze's jerked chicken; Guey Lon's tempura vegetables; prime rib quesadillas from The Grill on the Alley; Timothy O'Toole's Pub buffalo wings (THE absolute TASTE-IEST thing I had today! As buffalo wings go, they wer simply perfect!); Cakey Brownies from Ina's (too appropriate for my namesake restaurant to offer one of my most favorite desserts AND they were MOST EXCELLENT!); Tutto Italiano's fried ravioli; fried okra from Harold's Chicken; Italian breaded steak sandwich from Ricobene's; .... there may have been more that we consumed and there was much more offered, but I was too busy consuming to take notes (or photos)!
So after pilfering a few more plates for the kids, we waddled on back to BJ's booth, where Brianna was all too happy at our return (not sure if she was happy to see US or the plates we were carrying)...

After Bri had opportunity to benefit from our partaking at the vendor party trough, she, Hope and I took a walk to Buckingham Fountain and enjoyed the beautiful Chicago lakefront environment and gardens. A perfect ending to a lovely day at the Taste of Chicago. Thank God for Montgomery Ward who had the foresight to protect this area from developers and the current Mayor Daley who has done such a wonderful job of beautifying the city. The area around Buckingham Fountain has even been paved, making the stroll much cleaner and easier on the shoes. I have to say that I DO miss the pea gravel and dust for sentimental reasons. Strolling on pavers is just not the same as running through and kicking up the dust from my childhood. It's progress, though! And the gardens surrounding the fountain are now downright gorgeous.

There was some mention of ice cream on the way back from the fountain, but I think we were all a bit too chilled in the evening air and more than a bit engorged from our prior feasting, so ice cream was put on hold for another day. However, I DID remember the little square of Key lime shortbread I'd stashed in my pocket earlier and Hope and I stuffed a few bites of that in. It was definitely worth stuffing!
I MUST get a workout in tomorrow! After all, I've already spied the upside down caramel cupcake at Abundance Bakery, petite grilled prime sirloin steak sandwiches with Bearnaise sauce at Polo Cafe, Japanese shrimp tempura burger & white sweet potato tempura from Summer Rice & noodle,.... and there's still the beignets to repeat! So much still to Taste and only 4 days left to fit it in...!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finally Taste-ing!!!

Ahhhhh.... Back at the Taste of Chicago and BJ's Market & Bakery!

Was held up on the airplane in Houston due to some undisclosed maintenance issue, so lost a couple hours, but I have finally arrived!!! Adding insult to injury, however, the airplane food (even in 1st class) upset my tummy - NOT the way to start at Taste. So I did my best to recover and took it a LITTLE light for my first evening.

I heard they had great attendance on opening day Friday, but the pace has been pretty slow since then. The "down economy" just keeps taking its toll every direction you turn. Nonetheless, we will take advantage of the smaller crowds by venturing out and visiting as many vendors as we can while the lines are short. I expect, down economy or not, lines WILL get longer as we approach the holiday weekend.

So, there can't be much better way to start ANY visit to Chicago than with PIZZA! My first Taste stop just had to be Lou Malnati's for a flavorful sausage slice of Chicago style (deep dish for those who aren't connoisseurs) pizza. And, from past experience, the "Taste-iest" way to get your roughage at the festival is Lou's chopped salad with just the right mix of Romaine, tomato, olives, feta, bacon bits,... in a light and mild dressing that must be their own creation. It is DEEEE-lish!

Since I arrived late and with questionable digestive status, pizza and salad was the only gastric delight I planned to have on my first outing. BUT THEN,....

My niece, Brianna, had to come sit her overflowing plate of crispy sweet potato chips from BJ's Market & Bakery next to me. She must have noticed my longing glance. She told me I could have some - just the temptation I couldn't refuse! So I nibbled on just a few perfectly crisp, nicely cinnamon and sugar spiced chips. MMM..mmm! Had to keep it to just a few, though. The week is still young.

Meanwhile, my sister, Hope, and Brianna acquired a boat of pot stickers from the Star of Siam booth next door. They were both quite satisfied with this time-tested favorite. I Taste-d just a corner. Pot stickers aren't really my thing, but I must admit, the sauce was more than worth the nibble....

Back at the BJ's Market booth, I found my brother-in-law, John Meyer (chef extraordinaire and owner of BJ's) working doggedly - HA! (He's the one reclined on the right.)
To be fair, he was just taking advantage of the lull in the crowds, as were we....

We took a few more strolls around the festival to scope out the offerings and begin plotting the rest of the week's culinary escapades. Every time I would comment, " ooo, THAT sounds good!" in reaction to menu item postings, Hope would ask if I wanted to try it. I kept responding that "I have to pace myself!" and made a mental note of where I'd be returning later in the week....

That pretty much covers MY 1st day at the 30th Annual Taste of Chicago. I DID have one last indulgence. It got cool in the evening, for which I was unprepared in my short sleeves. (After leaving 95 deg. and 95% humidity in Houston, it didn't take long for the refreshment of 8o deg. to transform into the goosebumps of 70 deg!) So, since I was quite chilled and forced to stay until the end, I figured a nice boat of warm BJ's peach cobbler would be just the thing to help me stay comfortable! Sorry, was too busy spooning and moaning in pleasure to snap a photo, but I have 5 more days.....

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Taste-monial Intro!

It's time to Taste again and I'll be back to report! This year I'm going to try to get a little more technologically current and blog my Taste-imonials, capturing the sights and sounds, but most importantly the TASTES of Taste of Chicago! I'm getting a bit of a late start because I couldn't afford the air fare to get there for the kickoff today. BUT I'll be there Tuesday - Saturday and report on my abbreviated experiences. Hope you enjoy Taste-ing vicariously!