The Taste of Chicago – Gluttonous Delights for the Windy City Traveler

Today’s guest post is by an old friend and food expert, Tris Bisgrove. Tris left his Fortune 500 career a few years ago to follow his passion of teaching. I love Tris’ take on a great culinary tradition, the legendary Taste of Chicago.

For a week and a half, culminating around the 4th of July, The Taste of Chicago offers the wonders and thrills of Chicago at the tip of your taste buds.  Begun in the early 1980s, Chicago restaurants created the Taste as a way of showcasing their talents and wares to the people of Chicago. Today the Taste of Chicago is a bacchanalian festival of music and gastronomical overindulgence.

The famous columnist Mike Royko, whose comedic shorts frequented many papers, was an expert taste tester. He somehow managed to create a contest amongst many of the vendors of the Taste and what resulted was a happy writer, and even happier visitors.

I mention Mike Royko, not because I found his writing humorous, which I did, but because he had impeccable taste in BBQ.  To this day, one of the top Taste participants is Robinson’s #1 Ribs.  Even if you can’t make the Taste, it’s worth a visit to this BBQ mainstay just west of downtown on I-290 to Oak Park for a sample of the subtle yet slightly spicy BBQ sauce with which they coat their mouth watering ribs.

Another Taste regular is Lou Malnati’s.  Chicago is synonymous with deep dish pizza, and Malnati’s is a worthy representative.  Particularly tasty is their sausage pizza which somehow seems like it was marinated in beer before baking, and just as mouth watering as if straight from the tap of some delicious pizza joint.

As usual, Eli’s and their cheesecakes provide a gluttonous yet sumptuous topping in your choice of ice cream or cheesecake. While some of their Taste choices vary year to year, they never fail to satisfy.

A word of caution, though, must be made. Actually, several words should be made.  First, never go to the Taste in the evening.  Concerts are a regular feature of the early evenings and the resulting crowds are unbearable from around 4pm-8pm.

Second, food is not purchased with money, but rather with tickets which can be purchased at each entry point.  This takes some planning as many of the booths only offer five or six options, four of which are full sized portions, as well as two sample sizes.  The full size portions usually range from eight to twelve tickets while the samples are typically four tickets.  Twelve tickets recently went for $8, so keep that in mind.

Frequently, I will size up the Taste map for places at which I want to eat, and then eyeball the sample sizes of people walking away from the booths before ordering.  Some full size portions from one vendor are minuscule compared to others’ sample sizes, so bear that in mind.  I usually bring a drink with me as well so that I’m not stuck purchasing an overpriced one from their drink vendors.

Since the Taste is located in Chicago’s Grant Park, just off Lake Shore Drive, it is very accessible to the “el”, as well as car, or even by train if you are in the outer suburbs.  Parking can be a bit exorbitant at $25 for all day parking, even if you are there for only an hour or two.  My best advice is make a day of it by hitting the Taste and possibly the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, or another local site. Many locals, until recently, would make an early trip to the Taste and stick around to view the Chicago fireworks from Lake Shore Drive, but as of 2010, the downtown show has been canceled.  Of note, there are several very good fireworks displays on July 3rd and July 4th in neighboring parts of Chicago, and well within “el” or driving distance should you still want to make it “a dinner and a show”.

As for me, I’m holed up at my parents-in-law, letting my BBQ rib sandwich, fried ravioli, churro, key lime pie on a stick, cheezboorger (yes of SNL fame, made within walking distance of the United Center), and even some mango-cumin fries with tamarind chutney (not necessarily in that order mind you) digest, and I didn’t even put a dent into what was available.  Sure hope I can roll out of town.

By: Tristram Bisgrove

5 thoughts on “The Taste of Chicago – Gluttonous Delights for the Windy City Traveler”

  1. Gretchen Wilson-Kalav

    Sorry Tris… You should have bypassed Lou Malnati’s and Eli’s to put a dent in the really good stuff. Malnati’s is a staple, as are Uno’s Due’s, Gino’s and Connie’s (plus a few more) – but that’s about it. I have to say the same for Carson’s ribs but you did hit the nail on the head with Robinson’s. (There’s a Robinson’s on Armitage in Lincoln Park too.) Hecky’s is another great rib joint and usually represented at Taste.

    We’ll be trying out a new pizza place this weekend. Won’t know which one until delivery time on Saturday. (Family gathering and they are doing the ordering.) But, glad you enjoyed the rest of your “feast”! (Mmmmm – cheezboorger… Yum!)

  2. Gretchen-
    Good call on Hecky’s. I lived in Ravenswood, Evanston, and Oak Park during my formative years in Chicagoland. Have never had the luck of finding Hecky’s at the taste. I still prefer Buffalo Joes for hot wings, but they are never there either. As for pizza, we all know no Chicago resident can agree on pizzas. My wife swears by Giordano’s, I prefer Malnati’s, and Connie’s, well, I guess that is left to the Jewel-Osco crowd…

    I’ve been to the taste every year for the past 7 yrs now, but each year, my desire to navigate the crowds diminishes. Possibly, that is because I’ve eaten at pretty much every booth between then and now. Lately, I leave it to my stomach and my tongue to decide, and for that I am always rewarded.

  3. Looking back at my comment… I should clarify my Jewel-Osco comment as I have never found excellence in the frozen food aisle. I only hope that the pizza is profoundly better fresh, in their restaurant.

  4. Gretchen Wilson-Kalav

    Tris – Pizza is coming from Sarpino’s. (Family has coupons and 15% off if ordered via website.) Only time will tell if it’s good or not.

    ps: Have lived in Niles, Wauconda, Braeside (Ravinia), Wilmette, Skokie and a 5 year stint on the Winchester Ave. (Damen/Milwaukee) before it was revitalized. Do you remember the Busy Bee Cafe by any chance? It’s been closed for a few years but was under the Damen Street EL tracks. Now live out with cornfields and Pizza Hut. (We make our own instead.)

  5. Gretchen-
    How was the Sarpino’s? Or better yet, to what other pizza would you compare it? I’ve never had their’s before. Moving to an area with only Pizza Hut, I can see why you’d only want to make your own.

    As for the Bee, I went once. I was at Damen/Foster near the Ravenswood Hospital for about three years just as the revitalization was going on in the area.

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