Smile Politely

Tasty teaser: What to expect at Taste of C-U

It’s back, folks. The 43rd annual Champaign Park District’s Taste of Champaign-Urbana takes place this weekend and we’ve got the run down on what to expect.

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana takes place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at West Side Park. This is the Champaign Park District’s major fundraiser for youth programs. Before you dismiss this historically less-than-awesome event, take notice of the changes the Champaign Park District has made, as there have been a few.

This year’s event looks to be more about tasting C-U than past years. I’ve counted sixteen local food establishments that cover a variety of flavors, including pizza, Chinese, Thai, BBQ, crepes, and wings. Each vendor has its menu published on the CPD website with the corresponding number of tickets required to purchase each food item. Tickets are sold in sheets of 4 for $5.

The menus are predictable and safe — handheld foods with plenty of BBQ and pizza. This year’s most unique item is from Louie’s Dixie Kitchen in Urbana. In addition to the standard BBQ fare of mac & cheese and pulled pork, they will also be offering up alligator bites. I’m assuming that isn’t a euphemism for something else (it is a family-friendly event after all), and unless the person inside of the alligator suit actually bites you, this could be the most interesting thing you put in your mouth this weekend. At six tickets, these bites will cost you a sheet and a half (or $7.50), but it seems like a small price to pay to tell your friends that you ate alligator this weekend. In East Central Illinois. Totally fresh, I’m sure.

The Cracked truck will be there, so if you haven’t yet made the trek on an early Saturday morning to the Farmer’s Market to grab a breakfast sandwich, or managed to find it around town during the week, you are in luck! You can sample their famous Morning Bender or Goy Vey sandwiches.

For those of you who frequent The Refinery, you’ll be familiar with Caribbean Grill. If you aren’t familiar with them, here’s your chance. They’ll offer Jerk Chicken and Rice ‘n Peas (2 tickets individually, 6 for chicken AND rice n’peas). Easy way to sample some Jamaican food, which I am hopeful will be delectable. 

On the sweet side, you can grab some ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery (2–6 tickets, toppings 1 ticket each), froyo from TCBY (2–5 tickets), a strawberry smoothie from Smoothie King (1–3 tickets), or a Nutella crepe from Crepe Delicious (2 tickets). Crepes are hard to do well — too often they are just too thick. But if you smear enough Nutella on anything, it’ll taste delicious. Karen’s Cheesecake Confections promises chocolate dip cheesecake (2 tickets) and cheesecakes cups in classic, turtle, or heath (3 tickets). Noodles and Company will have cookies (2 tickets). 

Perhaps the most exciting news is that this year you will be able to purchase BEER with your tickets. For three tickets (the equivalent of $3.75), you can purchase twelve ounces of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy or Coors Light. Looks like CPD has responded to requests from Taste patrons. Here’s the catch, though: You can only purchase and consume beer in the entertainment area, on the north side of the park, which means you won’t be able to mosey along the row of food vendors with a beer in hand. 

I can understand the impulse to keep drinking people away from small children. Makes perfect sense, really. (Or does it? Could provide an excellent teaching moment.) And I’m sure there are some rules and regulations about open containers and people wandering the streets of Champaign with beer (minor details). But let’s be serious; most folks won’t get drunk at Taste (it’s too expensive), and who wants to be washing down BBQ, nachos, pizza, or empanadas with soda? Not most, I’m sure. There is a fence keeping the drunks inside the entertainment area, far, far, away from the Arts & Crafts vendors and American Family Insurance Fun Zone, but there is plenty of seating, so at least you can take a load off.

Another exciting addition to this year’s event: a mechanical bull (4 tickets/$5) for a single ride. Not food or drink, but should be a good time nonetheless, and I felt it was my duty to alert you to its presence.

I can’t help but convert tickets into their equivalent monetary value, and am simultaneously excited by the affordability of some items and annoyed by what I can only presume will be overpriced items. The Cracked Truck appears to have the most expensive items: Morning Bender (6 tickets); Hungry Chief (6 tickets); Goy Vey (7 tickets). These end up being $7.50 and $8.75, respectively. Add that to a 20 ounce bottle of Pepsi Product (2 tickets), $2.50, or a beer (3 tickets), $3.75, you’ve just had very small taste of C-U for $10-plus. This isn’t exactly the best deal if you’re trying to feed a family AND partake in some of the entertainment.

I am certain that I’m not the only person who has had a less than memorable experience at past Taste events, and I too was first dismissive of the list of vendors this year. Where are the restaurants whose food I crave and really, really want to eat? Not here, which I think might be okay. It’s easy to revisit the same places over and over again. I’ve never tried food from a handful of these vendors, so here’s an opportunity to discover something I might enjoy (or won’t).

It’s too easy to completely write off the CPD and the Taste. In doing so, we’re not giving Taste organizers an opportunity to respond to past failures and visitor feedback and make changes. So I’m committing to having a good time. I’m hopeful that this year will be better than the past. And if not, at least my money is supporting programs for our community’s kids. The weather forecast is dry, but hot as hell (high of 90 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), so slather your kids in sunscreen and drag them outside for some good, wholesome fun. Just keep the kids away from the drunken quarantine. And the mechanical bull. And Papa John’s.

Here’s what you need to know:
What: Taste of C-U
When: Friday, June 21, 5:00–10 p.m.; Saturday, June 22, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday, June 23, 11 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
Where: West Side Park, Champaign. (Just west of downtown, between State & Elm, Church & University.) Parking is available downtown and in the Hill Street parking lot (enter from Randolph).

Tickets are sold in sheets of 4 for $5 and are NON-refundable. CPD takes cash AND credit. Tickets are necessary for food, beer, and entertainment.

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