The 45th time seemed to be a charm for the Champaign Park District’s annual Taste of Champaign-Urbana event, held in Champaign’s West Side Park. If nothing else, the perfect weather was enough to call this event successful. At a glance, the list of participating food establishments seemed better, or at least, more considered. There were fewer places than last year (only 19 to last year’s 20-plus), two-thirds of which were locally owned, non-chain restaurants.
Tickets were required for everything except artisan goods, and were $5 for a sheet of 4. For the buyer, this meant $1.25 per ticket. Vendors, though, were only given $1 per ticket and were responsible for paying 20% of proceeds to the Champaign Park District’s youth scholarship program. All proceeds from the event benefited the scholarship program.
A reorganized layout funneled visitors through four openings at the corners of West Side Park. I’m assuming that this adjustment was made to keep beer drinkers within the park, unable to exit easily, which allowed CPD to eliminate the ridiculous beer pen from previous years. Instead of positioning the food vendors on the east to west sidewalk, they were positioned along the north-south sidewalk, with food trucks east of the fountain. The best change this year was the placement of picnic tables across the sidewalk from the food vendors. Brilliant! Even though it was nearly impossible to find an open seat at these tables, it was nice that someone had thought about logistics.
Food vendor newbies included Dragon Fire Pizza, ROKs Tacos, Minecci’s, Ricardo’s Grill Catering (El Progreso, Urbana), and Dancing Dog Eatery and Juicery. Dragon Fire was serving up quarter-pizzas for 3 or 4 tickets ($3.75 – $5), which seemed totally reasonable compared to the ROKs truck next door, with the hefty 5 tickets ($6.25) for regular sized tacos (taste-sized were 2 tickets, or $2.50). I think coming out to an event like this was a smart move by Dancing Dog, although its booth was the penultimate booth on the north side of the food sidewalk, sandwiched between TCBY and Smoothie King. Brilliant placement? Or lack of opportunity for the vegan restaurant? When I stopped by to get some of their food, most of it was sold out, which hopefully meant that people were super pumped about vegan options at a traditionally vegan-unfriendly event. (Reinforcements were on the way.)
The not-so-dramatic drama about beer vendors leading up to the event meant that the beer distributor provided only Miller and Coors (4 tickets, $5 each), Angry Orchard, Blue Moon, Leigenkugel’s Summer Shandy (5 tickets, $6.25 each). JT Walker’s was the only local brewery at Taste, and each of the three brews were 6 tickets, or a whopping $7.50 each. That’s insane. Tastes of beer were available for one ticket each. I didn’t spend my money on any beer at Taste. Instead, I spent it at the inaugural Champaign Craft Beer Festival.
Each year the Champaign Park District seems to make a handful of changes to this event in an attempt to improve it. And I think it’s safe to say that those improvements have generally been successful. No more fenced in beer pen? Great. Lack of most of the local breweries in C-U? Not so great. Fewer stupid vendors like Schnucks? Yes. This year’s crowded seemed larger than ever, and photos on social media by some of the vendors showed very long lines on Saturday night. Even though it sucks to stand in those lines, it’s great that people are coming out to support the event (and the specific vendors), and help raise money for the kiddos.
SP Food and Drink writer Pamela Saunders and I attended Taste on Saturday afternoon, and the lines were long, but not unreasonable. All in we spent $20, but we were only there to sample and taste, not to eat full on meals, so the average person (or family) likely spent more. We’ve shared some thoughts on a few of our favorite vendors. Check them out below. – Jessica Hammie
Minneci’s: meatball (2 tickets, $2.50); cannoli (2 tickets, $2.50)
Minneci’s is a go-to family-friendly Italian restaurant, so they were a perfect fit for an event like Taste of Champaign. Sometimes you’re not looking for an adventurous dish to push you out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you want to stay squarely within that comfort zone, eating the most comforting foods possible. The meatball and cannoli we sampled was made for such occasions. It’s hard for me to be critical of meatballs, because they combine my two favorite things: meat and spherical foods. I found the meatball from Minneci’s to be generously portioned, hearty, and well-sauced. The cannoli was the real star, though. It was petite, chilled, and sprinkled with pistachio. The shell was thick and had that soft crunch I like, and the filling was sweet and creamy and just right. I will seek out this cannoli in a larger size in the near future. (PS)
I admit I’m a bit of a snobby brat when it comes to Italian food. I’m too close to it, and nothing is ever as good as I think it should be. But that cannoli? I was completely surprised. In addition to winning the best looking/best plated prize, it was delicious. Perfectly creamy. Not too sweet. Definitely didn’t need the chocolate sauce, though. Arguably the best bite of the event. (JH)
Ricardo’s Catering/El Progreso: pan de yucca (1 ticket , $1.25); pulled pork slider (1 ticket, $1.25)
The pan de yucca was served hot and wrapped in a banana leaf. It had a grainy texture that reminded me of sopes. It was nicely salted, and the edges were delightfully crispy, but sadly it couldn’t hold its own next to the pulled pork slider. I want to commend Ricardo’s Catering/El Progreso for their well-priced treats. Their pulled pork slider was maybe the best deal at Taste. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and served on a substantial slider bun that was slightly sweet. So tasty, I regret not having two. (PS)
Dancing Dog Eatery and Juicery: snickerdoodle cookie (2 tickets, $2.50); taste of juice (Quencher, 2 tickets, $2.50)
On Saturday afternoon, everything except for a handful of baked goods was gone. No hummus wraps, no juice. The woman working the booth mentioned that the restaurant sold out of everything pretty quickly, mostly as a result of not really knowing how many people to expect. That’s good news for DD. While I waited for reinforcements to arrive, I bought a massive snickerdoodle cookie. It was delicious, and as much as I love some TCBY, I can say it was a way better treat than froyo. The cookie was soft and chewy, and the cinnamon and sugar combo was perfect. I took my cookie and walked around for a bit, eventually circling back around to see if the new food arrived. It had, and I ordered a taste of the “quencher” juice: apple, carrot, and orange. The bright orange juice was thick and very carrot-y, with just a bit of apple and orange flavors coming through. At first it seemed like a generous pour, but I spent the equivalent of $2.50 for half a cup of juice. Not such a deal after all. (JH)
Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas: spicy veggie curry pizza slice (2 tickets, $2.50)
Manolo’s always delivers. Always. You know exactly what you’re getting, and it’s pretty damn good. I’ve never had this particular slice before, and it was absolutely yummy. The curry was sweet and spicy, and the veggies were crisp-tender. This was a nice way to wake up the taste buds. (JH)
Caribbean Grill: macaroni and cheese taste (1 ticket, $1.25); corn on the cob (3 tickets, $3.75)
I was excited to hear that Caribbean Grill has a food truck! I hope to see them around town, but not too often, otherwise I’d blow my paycheck on their awesome jerk chicken. This year we sampled the macaroni and cheese, which was a little spicy and flecked with red peppers. I will say this again about macaroni at food festivals: I think it’s a pretty brave thing to attempt because it almost always comes out overcooked and mushy. The macaroni at Caribbean Grill was slightly overcooked by my own personal standards, but the cheese was creamy and spicy and a total treat. The corn on the cob was amazing. I was not expecting it to come out dripping with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, but it was delightful. It was visually great, too, with the long husk left on as a handle. Corn on the cob is so messy, but I think that makes it perfect for an outdoor food festival. It would be awesome shaved off the cob as a side for lunchtime at the food truck. The corn on the cob at Caribbean Grill was maybe my favorite item from Taste this year. (PS)
All photos by Jessica Hammie.
Check out the other side of Taste of C-U, music, culture and more, here.