The Champaign Park District’s Taste of Champaign-Urbana was this past weekend. I don’t understand how and why it always seems to rain on at least one of the days of this festival, each year, without fail. It’s pretty incredible actually. I attended on Friday evening, and it was gorgeous. It was a spectacular night to be out and about.
The Taste of C-U event is now in its 46th year, which means it’s pretty much old enough to a) have a kid in college, and b) know what has worked and what hasn’t. A lot of people in town are critical of the event and often find it lacking. Leading up to the event, I was excited that local breweries were going to be participating again. But when the food vendor list was released, I was bummed. Knowing the plethora of eating options in town, the list didn’t seem very diverse or truly reflective of all the tastes C-U has to offer. Of the twenty-four vendors (Brixx Pizza was supposed to attend, but did not; eleven of the vendors were food trucks), there were four pizza places, three Chinese food places, and eight chain eateries.
With a title of Taste of C-U, I (and I’m sure many others) understand and imagine the event to be a food festival like other “Tastes” are (Taste of Chicago, for instance). But after giving it a little more thought, (and rereading the CPD’s description of the event), I think Taste of C-U serves a different purpose for our community. It seems to be that food as the keystone of the festival is slowly being usurped by other activities, and the food is in service to them. Sure, I’ll go to a free concert in a beautiful park on a beautiful summer night and drink a bunch of local beer. But I’ll need some food to go with it. It feels like Taste of C-U has evolved into something more akin to “Champaign-Urbana Summer Festival,” and should perhaps incorporate more music or other activities. I say bring on the food trucks; it’s certainly easier for them to be on site and preparing food than local restaurants (that don’t really participate anyway).
Thinking about Taste like a summer festival that isn’t focused on food is more productive for me. In doing so, the food and drink vendor line-up might actually be reflective of C-U’s food scene. Like any other town in the US, C-U has a bunch of chain restaurants. C-U has a bunch of pizza places, and Chinese food places. There are food trucks. The event, after all, is called Taste of C-U, not Best of C-U, or C-U Food Festival. (That's not to say that some great eateries don't attend.) If I consider the event more broadly as a sampling of the community, the food vendor line-up is indeed reflective of what the C-U has to offer.
Consider visiting the event as an out-of-towner. Look! C-U has live music, with once-awesome-but-now-nostalgic musical headliners. Look! C-U has family-friendly events! Look! C-U has chain restaurants, and local ones, and a decent amount of food trucks! Look! C-U has local breweries — that’s breweries, plural! Not so bad, eh?
This year the Champaign Park District lowered the prices of tickets (necessary for all food, drinks, and events) from $1.25 to $1 each. While I prefer my secondary currency to be 1 to 1, it is important to remember that Taste of C-U is a fundraiser for the CPD’s Youth Scholarship Fund, and the overhead on an event like this is hefty. Instead of the twenty-five cent mark up on tickets, attendees were asked to donate $5 at the entrances. I’m curious to know how successful that was; I hope that people donated.
Food vendors were required to offer at least one item in “taste” format, at only 1-2 tickets. Some vendors did the taste portions well. Others, not so much. Some places were simply offering sides as taste portions.
One of the best features this year was the availability of taste portions of the local brews. For one ticket ($1), attendees were able to sample the local beers, and pours were quite generous — at least a few sips, not just one little mouthful. For those who don’t like to drink a lot, or who were low on tickets, or who had to drive a car shortly thereafter, these were perfect and allowed visitors to try a bunch of stuff.
Over the last three years, Taste of C-U has improved. Organizers were listening to feedback from attendees and vendors. Those positive changes are still being implemented: more seating, no beer pen, an electronics charging station, local beer, and cheaper prices. I think that the event is still improving, but more importantly, it’s evolving into something else, something the community is more interested in supporting.
There were twenty-four food vendors, and four local breweries, which makes twenty-eight eating and drinking opportunities. There were twenty-nine Community Corridor tents, and twenty-four arts and crafts vendors. That’s twice as many opportunities to spend time and money on something other than food and drink. Taste of C-U is a community celebration, not a food and drink event. And that’s ok. (Here's a link to a full list of vendors.)
But since this is a Food and Drink article, check out my thoughts on some of the vendors.
This newbie food truck seems super promising. With an eclectic menu that changes, I’m exciting about trying some things in the near future. I tried the sample (1 ticket) of no-churn ice cream and it was DA BOMB: creamy and milky and full of the good stuff. I had both the birthday cake and the cookie monster, and I’m now sad that I am not eating more of it as I write this. It was delicious.
If you haven’t yet had Caribbean Grill, you must. Immediately.
Caribbean Grill always serves delicious food, and on this occasion I had the mac and cheese (2 tickets), and the taste portion jerk meatballs (2 tickets). As I shoveled the mac and cheese into my mouth, I said aloud, “I think this is the best it’s ever been.” It was delicious and a little spicy. And cheesy and creamy. The jerk meatballs were earthy and a little spicy and a little sweet. I need to have a party and have CG do the catering. Immediately.
Dragon Fire Pizza
Dragon Fire is a regular at these events, and the consistency of seeing the truck at community celebrations is matched by the consistency in the pizza. It’s delicious. While options at these ticketed events are limited and a bit of a downer (cheese, pepperoni, or pepperoni and sausage), I hope that the taste (2 or 3 tickets) is enough to encourage folks to check out the truck at a later time, and order a pizza with slightly more adventurous toppings. It’s worth it.
This was one of the more disappointing few bites I had. I opted for the taste portions (2 tickets each) of the cashew chicken and the orange chicken, and a pork egg roll (1 ticket). The orange chicken was fine; it was standard Chinese food take-out. The eggroll, too, was fine. The cashew chicken sauce was good, but there wasn’t any chicken in my taste portion, which was the worst.
Piato to Go
Piato had one of the most extensive menus of all the food vendors, because it offered its normal menu, at normal menu prices. There were three items at the “taste” portion that were specials for the event: chicken salad cup (2 tickets); southwest wrap pinwheel (I ticket), and a mini chocolate chipotle bacon cupcake with maple frosting (1 ticket). A friend had the chicken salad and liked it. For $2, the portion seemed a little small. I had the cupcake, which was also small. The cupcake was super moist, but I felt that there were just too many flavors and textures happening on such a tiny little cake.
The line in front of the Minneci’s table was consistently lengthy. I wanted to try the arancini (2 tickets), but the wait was about five minutes and instead of letting us pay and wait, we were encouraged to come back. I did not, especially because the line was so damn long. Instead I had the cannoli (2 tickets). I had the same thing last year and was curious to see how it stood up a year later. It was presented the exact same way, and as I said last year, it didn’t need all the toppings. It didn’t need the chocolate sauce. It was too messy and too much. But the filling was fine, and though I think the cannoli were better last year, this was a decent enough sweet treat.
I generally like most things that Triptych brews, and this occasion was no different. I opted for the taste of There Be Dragons (1 ticket), a triple IPA that was rich and layered and at 10% ABV, a real knockout. It was delicious. At only 1 ticket, it was one of the best values.
White Oak Brewing
Normal, Illinois based White Oak Brewing was also on hand serving up a few brews. I selected the taste of the Belgian IPA, “Seems Legit,” and it was crisp and refreshing and delicious. If you see it locally, give it a try.
Have you had bubble tea before? If not, give it a try. Don’t be afraid of those balls. The folks at the Latea table were super friendly and informative. I was really hoping to try the rose milk tea listed on the flyer, but it wasn’t available on Friday night. Instead I opted for the house milk tea, make with black tea. It was quite good. I have found that bubble tea can sometimes just taste like a sugary milky beverage, but this one tasted like tea. The taste potion was 2 tickets and a pretty hefty size. If you’re near its Campustown location, give it a go.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.