Smile Politely

Washed out and in transition: A review of Taste of C-U

Saturday afternoon we set out to properly sample food from the local vendors participating in this year’s Taste of Champaign-Urbana.  There were samples of tasty food to be had, and we discuss accordingly below.

Let me begin by stating that I understand the enormous amount of time, money, and work that goes into organizing and staffing an event of this size. Kudos to the volunteers who staffed the event in shit weather and managed to do so with a smile. I also think that CPD should be applauded for responding to feedback and making some adjustments.

Considering the weather was pretty awful Saturday afternoon, there were a surprising amount of people at Taste in the late afternoon, and by the early evening, it was pretty crowded.

As my preview indicated, you were able to purchase beer this year, but would not be permitted to leave the entertainment area with said beer. When I was there, the entertainment area was pretty desolate. Surely the unfavorable weather played a role, but I’m more inclined to believe that people were confused by the process and more interested in tasting food than drinking beer. For future events, it might be worth looking into fencing in the entire event area and providing wristbands to the 21+ crowd upon entry. 

There weren’t many surprises with the food — if you’ve eaten at any of these places in town, you more or less know what to expect. However, there were definitely some clear winners: Spoon House Korean Kitchen, Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas, Siam Terrace. The best vendors provided taste portions of tasty food. Wingin Out offered an Insanity Challenge to Taste patrons: eat one super hot wing and if you can wait 60 seconds without drinking water, you win a prize! I rose to the challenge, suffered through the 60 seconds and indeed won my prize. This was a fun little game — I got a free chicken wing and a prize! (Clearly it doesn’t take much for me. Scroll down to Seth’s review for details on the prize.) A tween-aged girl took the challenge at the same time and she too, won a prize; I’m not quite sure my 13-year-old self would have been able to do it, so I was impressed. Good for her!

Each year patrons complain that the portions are too big and the prices are too high. The CPD very clearly indicated this in the vendor application, and vetted vendors based on menu pricing, menu quality, and menu type. Most places took this into consideration and offered both tastes and entrees. Some places, though, did not. Peking Garden’s menu seemed haphazard and out of place. What was up with watermelon for two tickets? I’m not going to spend $2.50 on watermelon from a Chinese food restaurant at Taste of C-U. I want to eat Chinese food!

All in all, it wasn’t such a bad way to spend a humid Saturday evening. I definitely left there with a full belly, and it was for a good cause. (These kids are our future!) There are some restaurants I won’t seek out, but there are a few others I’ve just discovered and am eager to visit very soon. (JH)


I can understand Jess’ assessment above. But for me, seeing the weather and the small crowds as a result, I feel as though the event would have been a lot more fun had it simply been a day like yesterday as opposed to Saturday.

I had some tasty foods, and from local restaurants. After having come to terms with my histrionic impressions of Taste in years past, I was just glad to see that the ratio of locals to nationals had come down to 2:1. That’s a good place to be right now. Hopefully, in the future it winds up at 3:1 and then, eventually, all local. That’s on them, and I think it’s possible, especially with a few more food trucks and brick-and-mortar players coming to town soon. (SF)

Here’s what we ate with corresponding ticket prices:
Tickets were sold in sheets of 4 for $5.

Cracked Truck:

I was very pleased to see that these guys had adapted their menu items a little. They offered a taste of the Morning Bender (3) and a taste of the Sloppy Tots (2), which I sampled willingly. The Morning Bender was really quite tasty; the bread was the right amount of chewy, the cheddar was gooey, and the cream cheese was appropriately portioned and smeared. The egg was a little bit overdone, but this didn’t bother me too much, as I was pretty entertained and distracted by the cheese. The Sloppy Tots — tater tots with chorizo and sriracha sour cream — were just okay. The tots weren’t homemade; they were clearly frozen at some point.

The chorizo was a little overcooked and didn’t stick to anything, so it just fell to the bottom of the paper dish like sad, crumbly cast offs. The Cracked guys were very generous with the sour cream, which needed more sriracha. I expected a bit of a kick from the chorizo and sriracha, but when I did not receive it, I went back to the sandwich. (JH)

Caribbean Grill: I was recently informed that this joint now has walls. They exist inside of the Refinery over on west John, close to Centennial. It’s a gymnasium that does catered events upstairs in a lovely space really. These people run their game out of that kitchen. On Wednesdays between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., they serve lunch to go, and that menu was well represented at Taste.

Really, they had the best food all day, outside of Manolo’s, which just seems to kill it more and more each year.

We got each of the samples, which were maybe overpriced at (2), but (1) ticket seems like it might also be too little? Anyhow, we couldn’t resist.

The jerk chicken wing was delicious. Perfectly spicy, and sweet enough without making you feel like it was from a jar. Could it have been? Sure. But I am going to assume that if these folks are touting jerk anything, that at a minimum, they are making their own rub from scratch. A question for a future feature, I think.

Anyhow, the only thing that was a little suspect was the jerk meatballs. Oh, they were good and all. But a little small, and underwhelming. Maybe I am just never going to be able to like anything that doesn’t look and taste like my wife’s Italian family’s meatballs, but these were a little small and dry. I like small meatballs. Köttbullar, which derives from Sweden is one of my favorite treats of all time. But these could use some improvement.

The mac n cheese was badass. And the rice and peas, while kinda mushy — but hey, it’s a catering event in shitty weather —  played nice with the juices from the jerk chicken wing.

One thing, however. Both Jess and Emily, my guest, bought the Island Punch (3), or whatever it was called. It was shit. And there’s a reason for that:

Yep. Straight from a jug. And the fact that it might have been mixed and not store bought is irrelevant. If you’ve ever tasted Hi-C Fruit Punch, you know that’s what it was, or some knock off. Island punch? Come on. Put some coconut milk in there, and add some papaya what-have-you and a maraschino cherry or whatever, and let me pretend. Needless to say, it was awful, and undrinkable.

All in all, though, a fine job on the food. I look forward to having a true meal there some hump day soon. (SF)

The Empanadas House: Dulce de Leche with Walnuts (2); okay, maybe this was the worst food I sampled. This empanada was just about inedible. The pastry tasted like freezer burn and was hard. Not crispy, just straight up hard. The filling was boiling hot and tasted like chemicals. That solid piece in the runny filling? Walnuts, right? Nope, just my broken tooth. (JH) 

Karen’s Cheesecake Confections: Key Lime Cheesecake Dipped in Chocolate (2); Oreo Cheesecake Dipped in Chocolate (2). This seemed like a no-brainer: who doesn’t love cheesecake and food on sticks? The Oreo was the clear winner over the key lime, but I wasn’t in love with either, really. The key lime cheesecake lacked the tangy punch of a key lime. The Oreo cheesecake lacked the creamy-chocolaty-ness of the cheese and Oreo combination I was so desperately seeking. I’m inclined to believe that these two items were victims of being dipped in chocolate and put on a stick and then being transported and stored outside. Too many temperature changes, perhaps? The cheesecake crusts were slightly soggy and the individual flavors were overpowered by the chocolate casing. However, I’m willing to bet that an actual cheesecake from Karen’s will be much tastier than the dipped sticks, and I think it would be worth paying the shop a visit in the near future for a follow up. (JH)

Mamma D’s Smokehouse: Smoked Beef Brisket (2). I was excited to try the brisket sliders. My guest and I were received in a tepid manner and our inquiry regarding the two types of BBQ sauces (a red and yellow — named as such) was met with ambivalence. We received our sliders on cold, store-bought buns and decided to try both BBQ sauces and decide for ourselves which was better. The Red BBQ Sauce was runny in consistency and watery in flavor — -so much so I could hardly taste it at all. The Yellow BBQ Sauce was thicker, but lacked the Kansas City-style I expecting, and maintained a muted flavor. What was even more surprising is what was being passed off as brisket. This was not like any brisket I have ever had — the absence of a rub was noticeable upon glance and the lack of smoke upon flavor. In fact, the meat resembled more a dry pot roast than brisket. (CS)

Wingin’ Out: It’s been decided. Recently, my friends and I have been doing something a little too much fun, and a little nasty as well.

It’s called a Wang Bang.

Try not to go there, please. And with that, it is what it is. Many humans gather together, and eat entirely too many chicken wings in one sitting. It’s really quite disturbing, yet so primal and fully rewarding. Oh, you feel it the next day, and if you really banged it out hard, into the day after as well. But let’s face it: we only get one shot at this life, and you may as well enjoy it in different ways. Life was meant to be lived without some sense of hate eating.

So, here is Wingin’ Out, a relatively new player in Campustown that occupies the revolving door that is the restaurant on southeast corner of 4th and Green. They were giving out FREE wings. Literally. You could buy three for (3) tickets, but straight up: free if you wanted one taste.

Applause to whoever decided to go for broke and exploit what the Taste is really all about: it’s promotion. It’s a chance to connect with people who might never even drive by your establishment. It’s a chance to make a future sale, ultimately. And so, they did that, and they succeeded admirably.

Walking up to the booth, you saw a chicken holding a sign for the Insanity Challenge, which is exactly what you think it is: eat a super hot wing and get a prize. The prize was a beer koozie, which quite honestly, the worst prize I’ve ever been awarded in my life. But that aside, the wing was great. Pretty fucking hot, honestly. But not enough to make me drink something in 60 seconds, which was the challenge. But for that, I was glad! Man, have you ever eaten something too hot, and that’s it for you for the rest of the day? I figured that it wasn’t going to break me down, so I went for it, won, and moved on to the next booth.

And yes, the wing was good. I can guarantee you this, when we start our new series on the Wang Bang, Wingin’ Out is going to be at the top of the list. Nicely done. (SF)

Manolo’s Pizza & Empanadas:

BBQ Pork Empanada (2); Italian Potato Pizza (1); Spotted Goat Pizza (1). I was set on trying an empanada, while my guest was marveling that a slice of pizza was only one ticket. I received my empanada right away and we moved to the side of the tent for a few moments as a young man warmed the slice of pizza on a stone in a gas grill. My empanada had a slight crackling crust that coated the chewier inner layer of dough before exposing the sweet pulled pork on the inside. The pork was juicy and tender and pulled apart easily. While I was very happy with my choice, my guest’s pizza stole the moment; his slice had a crispy, buttery crust that held up to the well-balanced and flavorful toppings. The red sauce and mozzarella made for a nice complement without overtaking the presence of the potato. We were so impressed we decided to order another slice, trying the Spotted Goat pizza. The crust on this slice was equally crispy and flavorful and the creamy goat cheese pleasantly chased the flavors of the tomato and spinach. (CS)

Nitaya Thai: Egg Roll (1); Pad Thai Chicken Taste (2). This was the worst food I had. The egg roll was cold. The sad Pad Thai was flavorless and mushy. The best part of this tent was leaving it. (JH)

Shanghai 1938: Steamed Pork Dumplings (1). I saw they were featuring steamed pork dumplings, and my guest and I couldn’t help but try one. Our dumplings came out hot, fresh, with the sweet and sour soy dipping sauce I can never get enough of. After cutting into my dumpling, I could see the vibrant green of the scallion and the flavors of the savory pork made Shanghai 1938 a wonderful beginning to my visit. (CS)

Spoon House Korean Kitchen: Beef Bulgogi Taco (2). The simple setup contained very visually appealing signage, and I was immediately drawn to the beef bulgogi taco. Bulgogi is traditionally Korean barbecued beef and is not often spicy, but very flavorful as ginger and rice wine make the sauce dance. Our tacos were beautifully presented on homemade flour tortillas with lettuce, onion, and a lime wedge. The vegetables were cold and crisp and the beef tender, juicy, and flavorful — a wonderful twist on Korean BBQ.  (CS)

For the record, this was also the best food I had. (JH)

Siam Terrace: In a strange twist of fate, I ate and enjoyed Siam Terrace twice on Saturday. First at the Taste, and then for a sit down meal after the Urbana Museum of Photography exhibit. Both times, it was great.

Siam Terrace is just really pretty great, by comparison to most places in town. At Taste, the service was so friendly, you almost wanted to pull them aside and ask them to cut the shit. I mean, after all, look at the Papa John’s fella. That dude couldn’t give two shits:

And then the food? It was awesome, and was priced accordingly. You had a choice of (1) ticket for a sample or (5) for a full meal. Exactly. Like, here’s the damned Blue Ribbon Siam Terrace. You get it! Nice!

We sampled all three (1) pad thai, (1) crab rangoon, and (1) basil chicken with white rice. Sure, it was all for the American palette and there wasn’t a hint of heat, which is completely insane, considering we were eating Thai food, but it all tasted great. Mix in a little of the pepper paste, and you had a winner each time out.

Siam Terrace is now a staple in a growing Downtown Urbana food scene. To commend them here any further would be exhausting for me, and more importantly, for you. Are they perfect always? Nope. But who is?

In the end, they put out great food, and that they impressed more than anyone at Taste this year came as no surprise to me or any of the people I was with. (SF)

[gallery taste_2013_slideshow]
gallery photos by Eric Ponder

[gallery champaign_taste]
Kaya Defehr, our newest food writer and baker at Silver Creek, took these photos over the weekend as well. More from her soon!


Taste of C-U takes place each year in Downtown Champaign at Westside Park. For more information, please visit the website.

More Articles