It was a tough assignment but someone had to do it—cover the 37th annual Taste of Chicago event. From July 5th through July 9th Grant Park hosted forty 5-day or pop-up (1 or 2 day) restaurants and sixteen food trucks. The Taste of Chicago festival extended on the streets of Chicago from Balbo Avenue to Monroe Street and from Lake Shore Drive to Michigan Avenue. Admission was free, and I attended the Taste of Chicago on Friday July the 7th to experience it for my first time. In a sea of people, restaurant stands, and a wide variety of tempting food aromas, I made my way through Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard. How many restaurants could I sample before I would be too full to continue? After five booths, I could sample no more.
Carbon Live Fire Mexican Grill employees yelled “Tacos, tacos!” louder and with more enthusiasm than any other restaurant booth hawkers. They were also staffed with so many employees that getting my order was “pronto!” Their Premium Fire Grilled Steak Taco taste size was $5.00, and was better than Taco Bell and on par with the many mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants that I have frequented. Carbon’s Tortilla Encrusted Tilapia was presented as deep fried, though the mild sauce gave it an appealing taste. Food service boxes are out in plain sight in most of the booths, and the soft tacos from Carbon were a bit doughy and nothing special. A 3.5 star rating on Yelp seems about right for Carbon, whose moniker is “Authentic Healthy Mexican Food.”
Next I visited Ricobene’s on 26th Street in Chicago. Sam Ricobene granted an interview amidst the wild activity in his booth. As a third-generation family member and owner, Sam told me about how his grandparents founded Ricobene as a small hot dog stand in 1946. They expanded to pizza, Italian sausage and Italian beef, then their signature deep fried breaded steak in 1976, a unique South Side Chicago dish. Sam was quick to point out that other cultures cook similar versions, such the Germans with schnitzel, Mexicans Milanese with beans and cheese, or Italians with red sauce. Patrons like adding the peppers, which spice up the dish considerably. I sampled the breaded steak sandwich, which was extremely flavorful, though I am not a fan of deep-fried foods. At $6.39 for a regular and $9.39 for a king, Ricobene’s delivers volume and value in their menu offerings. Trip Advisor gives Ricobene’s a 4.5 out of 5 rating. Their many other dishes include Sicilian beef, Italian sausage, meatballs, eggplant parmesan, BBQ chicken and pizza. Good food – could be an alternative to Portillo’s. I cleansed my palate with a $5 bottle of water. Soft and sugary drinks were $5.71; domestic beer was $7.86 for a 16 oz. can and specialty beers $10.00. The Taste of Chicago’s tag line should read, “Come Hungry, but not Thirsty.”
Frannie’s Beef and Catering has been doing outside events for 15 years, and has been in business for 27 years. They are located at 4304 River Road, Schiller Park and they also have two locations in downtown Chicago. This restaurant is family owned and operated by Frannie DiVincenzo, who is the grandmother. Chicago is a hotbed and battle ground for the Italian beef-sandwich turf wars. Al’s Beef, Buona Beef, Johnnie’s Beef, Luke’s and Portillo’s are prominent names on the Chicago Italian beef-sandwich scene. The competition is very friendly, and each has their own style and taste. I sampled the Italian beef sandwich prepared by Frannie’s Beef, and was pleasantly surprised with the light bun, which nearly approaches the taste and consistency of a croissant. Not all Italian beef is alike, and Frannie’s prepares and cuts theirs from scratch. Their Italian beef stood on its own as a substantial and honest sandwich, even without any au jus or peppers. Including setup, the Taste of Chicago is a whirlwind 15-hour workdays, said Russ DiVincenzo. Yelp gives Frannie’s Beef and Catering a 4 out of 5 rating, and Trip Advisor a 4.5 out of 5. For my tastes, Frannie’s gets a 4.5 out of 5.
Thank G_d for small portions. After three samples, making room for Farmers Fridge proved to be a challenge. “Farm. Food. Fast” is their motto, and the wide selection of healthy food, packaged for quick grab and go vending-machine distribution, caters to the heavy traffic locations at which they place their vending machines, currently 60 locations in Chicagoland (i.e. Allstate, downtown Chicago office buildings, hospitals, O’Hare airport). Syed Shah spoke with me about Farmers Fridge, and its unique concept, which has been a private venture for the last four years. Shah says their future is bright, with Freshie and the former CEO of McDonald’s a part of the organization. I sampled the avocado toast, which was delicious. The grainy bread could stand alone, the avocado was fresh, and the pickled onion topped with sesame seed and salt brought out hidden flavors in the ingredients. For a light dessert, I tasted the watermelon with chili powder. Not so spicy toruin the sweetness, and the watermelon was fresh. Farmers Fridge is a unique concept in 24/7 fresh food availability. Farmers Fridge is my generation’s version of the Vend-O-Mat (with healthy food).
Finally for dessert, I stopped by The Fudge Pot, a 4th generation-family candy store located at 1532 N. Wells in Old Town. James Dattalo is the assistant manager, and a family member on the patriarchal side. The Fudge Pot was started by James’ great uncle, his grandfather and his great uncle. Ironically his great uncle was the first employee of the Mar-O-Bar Co. in Minneapolis (Mars candy) of Minnesota, and then brought his grandfather in and taught him how to make candy. They are credited with developing the 3 Musketeers brand. Since 1963 The Fudge Pot has been in its Old Town location, first catering to the counterculture, and evolving an appeal to high culture. Five to six chocolate shops have opened within the last ten years, and eventually closed their doors. James Dattalo pointed out that they have not compromised on the quality of their offerings, evidenced by chocolate-covered pineapple cubes that are made from fresh, not frozen, pineapples. I sampled the chocolate-covered pineapple cubes, and discovered a balanced treat, with the chocolate and pineapple complimenting each other, and the pineapple nudging ahead with a slightly dominant taste. Another delicacy, the chocolate-covered strawberries, were ripe, delicious, had a thick milk-chocolate coating and tasted like they were freshly made, and not prepared days ago. The Fudge Pot came to the Taste of Chicago prepared to capture the sweet tooth of every attendee. The chocolate fudge was dense and had a rich, chocolaty flavor.
To visit the Taste of Chicago is to be bombarded by the smells of food, barbecue smoke, throngs of people milling around food booths, and having to decide which restaurants to sample. The five restaurants that I sampled taxed my eating capacities to the max, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the ability for instant eating gratification. It is a Chicago tradition not to be missed. For more information go to: http://www.mychinews.com/