Smile Politely

A sweet weekend: Taste of C-U 2014 reviewed

The Champaign Park District’s 44th annual Taste of C-U food festival took place this past weekend. Twenty-plus food vendors and four local breweries came out, set up shop, and divvyed out food to hungry patrons. The event was better organized this year than it has been in the past; the kids and family friendly happenings were north of the vendors, the beer and main music stage south of the vendors. The ticket tent was centrally located, as it has been in past years, but ticket sales seemed to be a little more streamlined. As is standard with this event, Saturday’s weather was gloomy and ominous. The rain held out, though, and people didn’t seem too concerned about the skies opening up and colossally drenching them. This was one of the better Taste events I’ve attended, and although there are always areas in which events like these can improve, all in all it seemed pretty successful.

Tickets were $5 for a sheet of 4, which works out to $1.25 per ticket. When I attended on Saturday afternoon, there were plenty of people out and about, but the ticket lines were short and moved quickly. The Champaign Park District didn’t necessarily advertise that credit cards were accepted for ticket purchases, and I think most people arrived with cash in hand, contributing to the quickly moving lines.

The beer area, complete with local breweries, was on point. This is the second year for beer, and moving the location and adding local breweries made it worthwhile. However, only Destihl offered tasters of beer (at 1 ticket/$1.25 each); since the event is Taste of C-U, the other three breweries (Triptych, The Blind Pig, and JT Walker’s) should have done the same.

On first glace it appeared that the CPD weeded out some of the waste-of-space chain restaurants that had booths in the past (goodbye, Papa John’s) in order to make room for more C-U-based eateries. This wasn’t exactly the case, as there were plenty of chain restaurants representing, and a few random places like Schnuck’s with large vendor tents. As I’ve said on numerous occasions: I understand these events are expensive and difficult to staff for restaurants. Nevertheless, I don’t want to attend the Taste of C-U event and eat some brats from Schnuck’s—I can do that any day of the week. Likewise, there didn’t seem to be much diversity in the types of food available. Of 22 food vendors, six served some sort of dessert sweets (frozen treats, doughnuts), four served Asian food (two Chinese restaurants; two Thai restaurants), three served barbeque, three served pizza, and two served empanadas. Outliers serving foods outside of the aforementioned cuisines were Caribbean Grill and the Cracked truck. Manolo’s knows a thing or two about success at these events: pizza slices and pasta salad were 1 ticket ($1.25) and empanadas were two tickets ($2.50). The food is affordable, delicious, and easy to eat on the go.

There were some newcomers to the event and to the C-U food scene. Two notable newbies were The Pop Shop and Ye Olde Donut Shoppe. The Pop Shop is a food truck specializing in popsicles and shaved ice; you can find the truck at Urbana’s Market at the Square Saturday mornings. If you’ve been around town for some time, you may remember Ye Olde Donut Shoppe. After a few years away, it’s back in limited form: it currently operates out of the café in the University of Illinois Law building, and also does special orders. Pandamonium Doughnuts also had a booth and there were constantly people in line for some of those doughnuts. 

In an effort to further engage festival attendees, CPD launched initiated a hashtag (#TasteCU) and a contest for the best vendor. Patrons were encouraged to vote for their favorite food vendor by texting that vendor’s assigned number to another assigned number. I’m not sure how many people voted, but a quick search of #TasteCU on social media reveals a number of lovely photos of the event.

The hardest part of this festival to swallow was the price tag. I attended the festival with my husband and SP food writer Pamela Saunders. Between the three of us, we spent $70. That’s some serious cash for a couple of hours, and we didn’t participate in any of the family-friendly entertainment. It was certainly more than the cost of lunch or dinner around town, and I can’t help but feel frustrated by the cost of attending this event. Some menu items were priced on a one to one ratio (Pandamonium Doughnuts, for instance, kept their prices exactly the same at $2.50/2 tickets and $3.75/three tickets), whereas some other menu items were more expensive than usual. (Food vendors were required to pay an entry fee of $150 and donate 30% of proceeds to the Youth Scholarship Program.)

Finally, there seemed to be some miscommunication between food vendors and the Park District regarding pricing. Folks at Destihl claimed that CPD initially said tickets were $1 each, which therefore justified the published price of 7 tickets for 12 ounces of Hoperation. Whatever happened behind the scenes, Hoperation was available for 5 tickets instead. The Pop Shop, Inc., also seemed to have some issues; according to the food truck, prices for popsicles and Hawaiian ice were misprinted at a lower cost.

This year’s event was a step up from those of the past few years. The change in logo, dates, logistics of event layout, and patron engagement strategies all positively contributed to the success of the event. Although I complain about the price tag, I can acknowledge that someone who isn’t reviewing the event could have easily spent less. With a few tweaks (better communication with vendors, more local eateries serving different cuisines) I think next year can be even better. (JH)

The following reviews were written by Jessica Hammie and Pamela Saunders. Photos courtesy of Jessica Hammie. 

Auntie Lee’s Chinese Kitchen: taste of orange chicken (2 tickets, $2.50); one piece crab rangoon (1 ticket, $1.25); one spring roll (1 ticket, $1.25)

By the time I got to Auntie Lee’s booth, there weren’t any pork egg rolls left, which was disappointing. But the orange chicken looked pretty good, and so I ordered a taste of it. It smelled like vinegar, and the thick sauce was tangy from it. The vegetables—carrots and onions—were incredibly tender and tasty. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to eat at Auntie Lee’s, especially when I can get some killer orange chicken from Golden Harbor.

On another note, Shanghai 1938 is owned and operated by the same folks, and will close its doors. If you’re looking for Shanghai 1938, you’ll have to go to Auntie Lee’s. (JH)

I ate a mélange of fried things here, including the crab rangoon and a spring roll. Jess ordered the spicy orange chicken. If you’re into that thick, hot, tangy glaze that makes orange chicken what it is, you’ll dig this place. It honestly wasn’t very spicy, but it was delicious. The portion was also very generous! As for the mélange of fried things, they were just fine. I wondered if the crab rangoon did in fact contain any crab-like substance, since I could only taste the cream cheese. I have already forgotten the spring roll, though that’s par for the course with me and spring rolls. (PS)

The Blind Pig: Down Under IPA (4 tickets, $5)

I’ve been spending so much time and money at Triptych and J.T.Walker’s lately. They’ve just got such good stuff to try. It made me realize, though, that I’ve been neglecting the one that started it all: the Blind Pig Brewery. So Jess and I hit up the Blind Pig and went for their “Down Under IPA.” It was fantastic. I’m not sure why the hops have to come from Australia, but it doesn’t matter. This beer was hop-city, USA, but against a backdrop of fragrant mango-like nectar with a citrus finish. The scent wafted up out of my cup before I even had a sip. I love a good, perfume-y beer. At nearly 7% ABV, The Down Under IPA was a little much for an outdoor summer festival, but it felt decadent and left me feeling woozy and content. I will definitely have this one again. If you’re an IPA fan, the Down Under IPA is not to be missed. (PS)

Caribbean Grill: Taste of mac and cheese (2 tickets, $2.50)

I can’t say enough good things about the food from Caribbean Grill. It’s delicious. I ordered the mac and cheese with my last two tickets, and I was not disappointed. The pasta was perfectly cooked, and in addition to pasta and creamy cheese, there were red peppers and scallions. The peppers and onions were aromatic and flavorful, and lent some depth of flavor to the side while making it different than the other mac and cheese sides available at Taste. (JH)

Chester’s BBQ: Taste of mac and cheese (2 tickets, $2.50)

I went here exclusively for the mac n’ cheese, which was great. It was cheesy and creamy, and came out hot. I can understand that it’s hard not to overcook the noodles when you’re making pasta for the masses at an all-day festival, so I’ll give them a pass on the slightly mushy noodle consistency. The only thing that would have taken this mac and cheese to the next level is if the individual servings had some burnt cheese crust or breadcrumb situation on top. You know what I’m talking about? That crust is what dreams are made of. (PS)

Nitaya Thai: taste of pad Thai with tofu (2 tickets, $2.50); pot stickers (1 ticket, $1.25)

I was super disappointed with the pad Thai last year, but decided that it might be worth another try this year. I was wrong. The pad Thai was colorless, flavorless, and inedible. The pot stickers were greasy and gross. (JH)

I hate to be a hater, but this was the biggest disappointment at Taste. The pad Thai with tofu just seemed… wilted, and the tofu was sparse and had the texture of scrambled eggs. I usually prefer my tofu in thick, well-sauced slabs, either fried or baked. I wasn’t getting the amazing balance of flavors that I look for in pad Thai; I just got salt.  I’m not sure what happened with the pot stickers, but mine tasted off and I threw them out after one bite. I’ve dined at this place more than a few times, and I’m surprised that this was what they had to offer at Taste. Let’s hope for a better showing next year. There was one thing to praise, though: a friend of mine is allergic to shellfish and was pleased as punch that the vegetarian pad Thai had no fish sauce. If you’re in a similar boat, you may want to check this place out. (PS)

The Pop Stop, Inc.: Plum yogurt tarragon and s’mores popsicles (5 tickets $6.25)

This newbie food truck has been at the market the past few Saturdays. I’ve been meaning to check it out, but coffee always trumps popsicles on a Saturday morning. This was my first stop at Taste, and the published prices were only 2 tickets ($2.50) for a popsicle, which was in line with the pricing I’ve seen at the market. When I got to the truck, the menu indicated that popsicles weren’t 2 tickets, they were 3, or two popsicles for 5 tickets. When I asked about it, the young man working inside told me that there was a misprint in the CPD guide.

I tried the plum yogurt tarragon popsicle. It was the most sophisticated flavor on the menu, in addition to being the most appealing to me. The popsicle was a beautiful plum color, but not at all creamy in appearance. The plum flavor was pronounced: it was incredibly tart and refreshing. There was hardly any sweetness the popsicle, which was totally fine by me, but it was lacking in yogurt flavor and creaminess. The tarragon, too, was lacking; I did spot some flecks of green, but there wasn’t any herbal flavor in the popsicle. Despite not living up to its description or sophistication in flavor complexity, I did enjoy the frozen fruity treat and will make a point of finishing my coffee before I go to the market next Saturday. (JH)

This place was great. Jess had the plum yogurt tarragon popsicle, and it was delightfully tart and plummy. Even more tarragon next time, please! I had the s’mores popsicle, and it was the bomb. Giant chunks of milk chocolate and graham crackers were suspended in frozen milky goodness. A great way to enjoy s’mores when you don’t want to spend any time near an open flame. Our pops weren’t sickeningly sweet, either. The key to making a “grown up” popsicle is to cut the syrupy sweetness with other interesting flavors, like bitter herbs or bread-y graham crackers. The Pop Stop clearly understands this principle, which is why I’ll be coming back for more. (PS)

Siam Terrace: taste of pad Thai with tofu (1 ticket, $1.25)

Siam Terrace has the best pad Thai with or without tofu in town. It’s well balanced in flavor and the tofu is crispy and well cooked. Siam Terrace also knows how to successfully attend an event like Taste. With taste portions at 1 ticket, attendees are free to try other menu items and food vendors. It also makes the restaurant look really good and as if they are actually in touch with reality and the long game of gaining and keeping customers. (JH)

Siam Terrace is consistently delicious, and this was no exception. Jess and I really enjoyed the pad Thai here – it was hot and tangy, with well-coated noodles, thick cubes of tofu, and crunchy bean sprouts. Pad Thai is one of those dishes that I will never be able to make at home, so I’ll gladly shell out for the good stuff. I need more of this pad Thai in my life. Right now, even. (PS)

Tang Dynasty: chicken fried rice (4 tickets, $5); scallion pancake (2 tickets, $2.50); lamb meat stick (1 ticket, $1.25)

I’d never had any food from Tang Dynasty before Saturday. My husband and I shared the chicken fried rice, and it was surprisingly good. It was pretty salty, but had a robust amount of sesame oil added. The sesame oil added some depth to an otherwise uninteresting, uncomplicated dish: it was only comprised of rice, chicken, and some egg. I sampled some of Pam’s scallion pancake—it was salty, too, but really tasty. It was more like scallion fried dough, and admittedly could use some more scallions, but the chewy salty wedges were treats in my mouth. The food was good enough that I might venture out to Lincoln Square Mall to have a real meal. (JH)

At Tang Dynasty I ordered a “meat stick” that was either lamb or beef, or some combination of the two. It was (surprise!) a stick of gyro-like meat, and was tender and well seasoned, though the abundance of fennel made it taste like a breakfast sausage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for someone who loves breakfast meats (i.e., me). But what really stood out was the scallion pancake. It was one of the best deals there, in my opinion. Flaky fried dough dotted with scallions and sprinkled with salt. It came out hot and greasy and cut into wedges for sharing (not that you’d want to). You should get it, and then get it again! (PS)

Ye Olde Donut Shoppe: half dozen doughnuts: tiger twist, lemon blueberry, strawberry cake, cinnamon bun, old fashioned, Aztec warrior (5 tickets, $6.25)

There were fourteen different doughnut flavors available; seven at one ticket each and seven at two tickets each. I ordered a half dozen doughnuts of the one-ticket variety (see list above). On the whole, the doughnuts were a little sticky—they were all glazed and that glaze desperately wanted to be one with my flesh. Of the six doughnuts I sampled, I most enjoyed the cinnamon bun. It was a chewy yeast-based doughnut with just the right amount of cinnamon swirled in. In addition to the glaze, chocolate was drizzled around the top. The chocolate was an unexpected but delicious addition. Another winner was the tiger twist, a plain yeast doughnut with a bit of chocolate yeast doughnut twisted in. It was incredibly sweet and generously glazed.

One doughnut worth discussion was the Aztec warrior: a yeast doughnut topped with a spicy chocolate fudge. The combo of heat and chocolate is as old as the Aztec, but I found this particular doughnut to be slightly lacking. The heat was supplied by a healthy dose of cayenne pepper, which is a one-note source of heat. This doughnut was lacking the element of smoke, and the combo of chocolate and chipotle would have been better.

A final bonus: there was a massive container of doughnut holes dipped in chocolate and rolled in sprinkles—on sticks—for folks who go on and like the Ye Olde Donut Shoppe Facebook page. Those little things were good.

I do also have to say that while I appreciate the Donut Shoppe’s attempt at being the coolest kid on the block (unique flavors, a big banner, hip music), I found the women’s t-shirts—doughnuts on the breasts—to be tasteless. (JH)

This was the portion of Taste where Jess, her husband, and I sat on a bench and ate a half dozen doughnuts. It’s a tough job, folks. There were two standout doughnuts for me. First, the lemon-blueberry cake doughnuts was simply amazing. It’s a pretty assertive blueberry-lemon flavor, so if you appreciate neither lemons nor blueberries I cannot recommend it. But if you’re into that stuff, dig in. This doughnut was moist and tart-sweet, and it was a hilarious blue color that made me feel like a five-year-old. It’s cousin, the strawberry doughnut, was just too much for me. It tasted like fruity pebbles, and it was louder flavor-wise than the lemon-blueberry. The other standout, though, was the cinnamon roll. Never underestimate a good cinnamon roll. In this day and age, with our new, bougie, weird-gourmet flavor combinations, sometimes it takes a really well made cinnamon roll to remind everyone what’s real. What’s real is stretchy sweet cinnamon dough laced with sticky glaze and rolled up tight so you can pull it apart with your hands. Nothing more, nothing less. This cinnamon roll will have you rethinking your use of “basic” as a pejorative. (PS)

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