The Champaign Park District’s Taste of Champaign-Urbana has had some work done. It’s gone off to fat camp, lost some weight, had some plastic surgery, and made itself more desirable to its target demographic. It has new dates and a reinvigorated design — a facelift, if you will. For the last several years, the West Side Park event has taken place in June. For the last four or five years, it’s rained that weekend. It’s now mid-August, and Taste of C-U is this weekend, and the forecast is looking drier, at least.
At first glance it seems like event planners were listening to the suggestions (and complaints) of attendees. Even though there are about the same amount of vendors, the event seems a little more streamlined. That could be largely in part to a new design for the promotional materials (design matters, people!).
Some things are the same this year: tickets are required for food, drink, and entertainment, and are sold in sheets of 4 for $5 ($1.25 per ticket). The event, though, is only on Friday night and all day Saturday (in the past it has run through Sunday). I think this one and a half day time frame is more than appropriate, and will actually lead to a more successful event. Restaurants and other vendors don’t have to commit to and pay for their booths for the entire weekend, and patrons will either go on those two days or not. I’d go so far as to say that if the weather is nice, I bet attendance will be high.
The layout of the event makes more sense, too. All of the family-friendly kids stuff is on the north side of the park, right next to the playground. Instead of a mechanical bull, there will be pony rides (5 tickets, $6.25), inflatables (1 ticket per ride, $1.25), an inflatable rock wall (two climbs for 5 tickets, $6.25), joyful bubbles (2 tickets for demo, $2.50; unlimited wristband for 10 tickets $12.50), face painting (3 tickets, $3.75 for mini; 5 tickets, $6.25 for full), and zucchini cars (3 tickets, $3.75). These events are certainly more child-appropriate than a mechanical bull, but they will cost you a pretty penny.
For the adults, there is beer. The beer corral is on the southwest side of the park, away from the kids. Instead of mediocre Bud Light or whatever was served last year, you’ll be able to purchase locally brewed beer from Destihl (Bloomington), Triptych (Savoy), the Blind Pig (Champaign), and JT Walker’s (Mahomet). Triptych and The Blind Pig will have 12 ounces of beer available for 4 tickets ($5), and JT Walker’s will have 12 ounces available for 5 tickets ($6.25). Destihl seems to have lost its mind, and is selling 12 ounces for a whopping SEVEN tickets ($8.75). At that price, you might as well walk the two blocks to Destihl and buy yourself a cheaper beer. [Editor’s Note: Since the publishing of this article, a representative from Destihl has contacted us to indicate that twelve ounces of Strawberry Blonde or Abbey’s Single will be 4 tickets ($5), and twelve ounces of Hoperation will be 5 tickets ($6.25). Tasters of all three beers will be available for 1 ticket ($1.25) each. I’ve referenced published prices from the Champaign Park District.]
There are fifteen local food vendors and eight chain restaurants. There aren’t many local brick-and-mortar restaurants participating, but Taste of C-U regulars like Nitaya Thai, Siam Terrace, and Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas will all have booths. After last year’s flop, I’d stay away from Nitaya Thai. Siam Terrace always delivers, and your best bet will be a taste of pad thai or basil chicken for 1 ticket ($1.25; regular size for 5 tickets, $6.25). If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, try the banana blossom salad for 4 tickets ($5). Auntie Lee Chinese Kitchen (Champaign) will have a fairly robust menu and full-on meals for 6 tickets ($7.50).
Participating food trucks include The Pop Stop Inc., Cracked, Kona Ice, Pandamonium Doughnuts, the Empanadas House, and Chester’s BBQ. The Pop Stop is one of C-U’s newest trucks, and sells homemade popsicles (2 tickets, $2.50). I saw this truck at the market last weekend, and the popsicles looked pretty good. Smile Politely has covered Cracked, Pandamonium Doughnuts, and Empanadas House quite a bit, and you can check out those reviews here. We’ve also covered Chester’s BBQ at Blues, Brews, and BBQ. You can’t go wrong with sammies from Cracked (½ sandwiches of Morning Bender for 3 tickets [$3.75], Goy Vey for 4 tickets [$5]). Pandamonium’s menu does not include any vegan or gluten-free options this time around, which might be a bit of a missed opportunity (2 or 3 tickets, $2.50-$3.75). At Chester’s, check out the Italian beef slider (4 tickets, $5).
Although I generally find the food at Mamma D’s Smokehouse to be completely inedible, I was more than impressed with the Mountain Dew Apple Dumpling at Blues, Brews, and BBQ. At only 2 tickets ($2.50), it’s money and calories well spent.
I’m looking forward to trying some doughnuts from Ye Old Donut Shoppe (law building, U of I campus). At only 1 ticket per doughnut ($1.25) and 5 tickets for six doughnuts ($6.25), it could give Pandamonium a run for its money.
Caribbean Grill will have a booth again this year, and I’m totally looking forward to chowing down on some BBQ jerk meatballs (2 tickets, $2.50) and jerk chicken (2 tickets, $2.50). If you’re feeling hungry for a more complete meal, get the meat with rice and peas for 6 tickets ($7.50). Caribbean Grill just had a Kickstarter campaign meet its funding, so expect to hear about that.
This year’s line up of food vendors seems to be a little safe. There are definitely more tastes, which is a change from the past. There aren’t any crazy or experimental foods being offered. This makes complete sense to me: I want to taste what these local places have to offer, and then be moved to visit the brick and mortar restaurant to eat an entire meal. Prices are expensive, for sure, but you can easily string together several one or two ticket items to create a substantial, albeit multi-flavored, meal. The beer offerings are awesome, and I’m super excited that these local breweries are on board with participating. Having buy-in from these places lends some legitimacy to the event.
If last year was a transitional year — growing pains and all — this could be the year that Taste turns into one of the best summer festivals in C-U.
Here’s what you need to know:
What: Taste of C-U
When: Friday, August 15th, 5-11 p.m. and Saturday, August 16th, 11 a.m. to 11 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. Tickets are necessary for food, beer, and entertainment.