A Girl’s Gotta Eat – The Taste of Chicago

The very first Taste of Chicago kicked off on July 4, 1980 on a blocked off section of Michigan Avenue.  Organizers anticipated 100,000 attendees but over 250,000 showed up.  The event moved to Grant Park the following year and became one of the world’s largest food festivals.  Additional changes were made in 2012 when organizers shortened the event from 10 days down to 5.  It also moved the event dates away from the July 4th weekend.

This year’s event runs from July 11-15 in Grant Park.  Wednesday – Friday hours are 11:00 am – 9:00 pm and then Saturday – Sunday hours are 10:00 am – 9:00 pm.  Admission is FREE but then you have to purchase tickets for food and beverages.  A strip of 14 tickets will run you $10.  You can purchase these online prior to the event (and pick them up at will call I am assuming), however, you are limited to only 2 strips per purchase this way.  And you will be hit with an additional $3.00 amenities surcharge.  Per strip.  And let me tell you, 14 tickets will not get you very far.  Here is what you should expect to spend, according to their website:

Plan Your Purchase:
“Taste of” Food Portions: 5-6 tickets
Full Food Portions:10-12 tickets
Soda/Water: 7-8 tickets
Beer: 11-14 tickets
Wine/Cocktails: 10-14 tickets

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This year over 80 eateries will be participating.  Some of these will be restaurants that are set up for all 5 days.  Some will be food trucks.  And some will be pop-ups that will only be there for one or two nights.  The Taste’s website has a great list of who will be there and what they will be serving.  It also tells you who will be in the rotating pop-up stands on each night.

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Beverages were available in all forms as well.  Goose Island, CH Distillery, and Stella Rosa all had their own tented lounge areas, but you could get other beer, wine, and cocktails at bar stands scattered throughout the festival.

Beverages

Apparently, there is entertainment as well.  I was only there for the food.  Music and cooking demonstrations are taking place all day.  You can see the full schedule here.

But let’s talk about the food.  Like the food truck festivals, this event is better with a group so you can try a variety of foods.  There were many Chicago staples there such as Lou Malnati’s pizza and the Billy Goat Tavern.  We are big fans of trying new things so here are some of the things we tasted:

Jerk Chicken with red beans and rice from Vee Vee’s African Restaurant:

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Mango Beef Salad from Arun’s:

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Snake Bites from Chicago’s Dog House:

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Five Spice Szechuan chicken from Lao Sze Chuan

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Cheddar Bacon Bun from Buscia’s Bacon Buns

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Italian Beef & Giardiniera Grilled Cheese from Doom Street Eats

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And then we finished strong with dessert.  The first was a Funnel Cake Sundae from Churro Factory – Xurro:

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And then some of us opted for something a little lighter with a scoop of Mango Ice Cream from Star of Siam:

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Parking is always an issue downtown, but you can get a discount at the millennium garages if you pre-purchase them online.

So, plan a day downtown during the fest and pop in and out for lunch, dinner, and dessert.  There is so much to choose from!

tastemap2019

Chicago Food Truck Festival

(Not from Chicago?  Don’t want to have to drive into the city?  Google “Food Truck festivals near me”)

Mark your calendars for next year.  The Chicago Food Truck Festival only comes around once a year.  It usually takes place the weekend after Father’s Day and is a two-day festival of food (and some drinks).  This is the second time I have attended, and much has changed from two years ago.

First, let’s start with the good stuff.  Well, it’s all good when food is involved, but one of the best things about this food truck event is the fact that the tickets are FREE.  Free, people.  Free.  When you “purchase” them, it automatically gets you entrance for both days, however, you can only use them for one of the days, not both.  Which is great, because then you can wait to see what the weather will be like.

Another goodie is the free parking.  In Chicago.  How often does that gem pop up?  Granted, we got there right when it opened at 11:00 am, so I cannot vouch for any available spots in those lots any time after that.  But is does exist at some point.

The location was also different this year than it was two years ago.  And, it changed at the last minute this year because they had more trucks sign up.  Which was another bonus from two years ago.  More dining options (see list of vendors below):

Food Truck List collage

I suggested we do a lap first and see what was available and then start digging in.  That didn’t last long.  Too many enticing smells.  We started with a truck called The Fat Shallot.  Their selection sounded interesting.

Fat Shallot collage

We ordered the Truffle BLT and the Spicy Sesame Fries.  Pro Tip:  go with one or more couples.  This way you can order lots of different foods and only have a bite or two.  You also won’t fill up after the first truck.

Fat Shallot 2

Our second stop was the Pierogi Wagon.  Being the good polish girl that I am, I had to get the 6 for $8.95 and do a mix and match with two of each flavor.  We also got a side of sour cream and chopped bacon.  Yum!

Pierogi Wagon collage

The next stop on this culinary tour was the Happy Lobster truck.  I liked their Happy Lobster Roll so much the first time I tried it two years ago that I had to have another one this year.

Happy Lobster collage

Stop number four was at the Taste of International.  This was more of a food stand than a truck, but who am I to tell them they can’t be there?  I am not a fan of curry, but our friends are and wanted to try the curry chicken.  They were cooking it up right there in front of you and I will say it did smell delicious.

Taste of International Curry

Stop number five almost caused a complete break in our couples’ friendship that day.  First, the husband of the couple wanted to stop at a hot dog truck (Hot Dog Fiend).  Pretty basic when you have 40+ new things to try.  Granted, they offered some great combinations to at least make the hot dog interesting.

Hot Dog Fiend collage

But then . . . he did this:

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Ketchup!  Just.  Ketchup.  He’s lucky we have been friends for almost 20 years, or this could have ended a lot differently.

Final stop, and one very full stomach later, was dessert.  Stations by Decadent Flavor offered up mini donuts with sugar/spice toppings.  My SO and I got the small bag with half pumpkin spice (him) and half salted caramel (me).  So good.

Decadent Flavor collage

As I mentioned previously, there were over 40 food trucks/sponsor tents there that day.  There is no way we could hit all of them.  As much as we wanted to.

Beverage options were also available.  There was a beer/sangria/water tent right when you walked in.  You had to buy tickets for these.  You could pre-purchase these online before you go.  A VIP upgrade was available that included early admission and drink tickets.  There was also a pretty cool looking old-fashioned soda pop truck.

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And then there was this:

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A cored pineapple with the insides pureed like a slushie.  Topped with a skewer of gummies and fruit roll-ups.  With a generous sprinkling of Nerds candies.  And yes, alcoholic versions were available.

Some tables/chairs were available, but the event organizers recommend bringing your own.  You should also bring your appetite.  Happy Eating!

A Girl’s Gotta Eat – First Bites Bash and Chicago Restaurant Week

Not from Chicago?  Restaurant week is a national event.  To find out when your city is hosting theirs, click here.

First Bites Bash is the kick-off event to Chicago Restaurant Week.  It is a one-night celebration of food and the local chefs that make our city/state a foodie paradise.  This year (2019), the event was held at the Field Museum of Natural History.  More than 70 chefs and restaurants were represented this year.  Tasting portions, from savory to sweet and everything in between, were available.

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Tickets for the event were $125.00.  This covered all the food you could taste in three hours along with the various beverages offered.  Stella Artois, Don Julio, and Josh Wines were just a few of the liquor vendors there.  And these were not tasting portions, they were full pours.  The bash is also a fundraiser and this year’s recipient was Pilot Light, which is a non-profit that helps children make healthier choices through food education.

In addition to delicious tasting food, presentation was well-thought out for a few of the chefs.  And if you watch as many food shows and I do, or even if you only watch one show, you know that presentation is one of the key things contestants are judged on.

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As I mentioned in the first paragraph, sweets were available as well.  Mini portions of cheesecake, donuts, and ice cream sandwiches were there to tempt your sweet tooth.  There was also a chocolate fountain with a variety of foods for dipping.

Chicago Restaurant Week, now in its 12th year, is an annual event that actually takes place over the course of two weeks and involves some of the best restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs.  Participating restaurants put together a special “prix-fixe” menu for their location featuring some of their best dishes.  Prix-fixe means a set price for a complete meal.   Restaurants are challenged to provide a multi-course (usually 3-4 courses) dining experience for under $50 (some locations are more expensive).  Because you are getting a full meal for a discounted price, the portions are smaller.  This year (2019), Chicago Restaurant Week runs from January 25 through February 8.

One of the great things about the prix-fixe menu dining experience is sharing.  My SO and I decided to try a restaurant in the city that we had never been to before called Somerset.  They offered 4 different options for an appetizer, 3 different salads, 4 main courses, and 3 desserts to choose from. So, between the two of us we were able to try 8 different dishes.  You can see the list of all participating restaurants, and filter them by location, here.  Use this as an opportunity to try a place you have never been to before.  Or maybe a place that just opened.  Or a cuisine you want to try but are afraid to invest a whole dish on.  So many reasons to take advantage of Restaurant Week.

Happy dining!

Below is a list of the First Bites Bash participating restaurants and what they were serving that night:

First Bites Bash menu

A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Food Hall: Eataly

Not to be confused with a food court (the fast food variety usually found in shopping malls), a food hall is an artisanal shopping and eating experience all under one roof.  The concept is said to have originated in Europe and is fast becoming a go-to dining experience here in America.

Since we were going downtown for a smaller activity, we decided to make a day of it and include one of the more well-known destinations, Eataly, into our plans for the day.

Eataly is an Italian food hall concept that was brought to America through a partnership that includes famous Italian chefs such as Mario Batali*, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich.  They have locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and two in New York.  The one in Chicago is considered to be the largest in the U.S.

This two-story location is overwhelming when you first walk in but, fortunately, they have a map and guide that walks you through each department so that you don’t miss out on anything.

Self guided tour

We decided to do the self-guided tour and, as directed, we started upstairs and got a glass of wine.  You can walk around with it so, sure.  From there, we hit the olive oil department, and this is where you realize what you have really gotten yourself into.  ROWS and ROWS.  I had no idea there were so many types and flavors of olive oil.  I expected this from the wine department but not olive oil.  Every department is like this.

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And bring your appetite – hence the Girl’s Gotta Eat connection.  There are a few sit-down restaurant style options.  They are smaller spaces, but we had no problem getting seated.  Take away counters are available as well for sandwiches, panini, and other Italian specialties.

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But don’t fill up upstairs.  Once you get back down to the main level you have way too many desserts to choose from.  There is a gelato bar, pastry counter, cannoli bar, and Nutella station.  Oh, and coffee.  I’m getting full just remembering this visit.

So, all in all, this was a great way to spend a couple of hours together and share some great food as well.

*For those of you who are aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against Mario Batali, Eataly has terminated its relationship with the chef and all products bearing his likeness have been removed from the shelves.

Day Drinking AND A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Bacon and Beer Classic

Bacon.  AND Beer.  What?!?!?  Yes.  And it was just as good as you are imagining.

This year was the 4th annual Bacon and Beer Classic in Chicago.  You can also catch this tour in other cities but the food and beer vendors will be representative of those locations.  The event was held at Soldier Field and took up the entire walkway on the Mezzanine level.  There were over 100 beer vendors (craft beers) and over 30 bacon dishes.

General Admission* got you entrance into the event, three hours of eating and drinking, and a really nice souvenir cup.  No throw-away plastic here.  This one was ceramic.

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There was also a VIP option (which I might consider upgrading to next year).  You get an additional hour of tasting (before the General Admission crowd comes in), designated bathrooms, and a lanyard that hold your souvenir cup.  Trust me when I say this would have come in handy when I was trying to juggle the mini cup and all of the food I was sampling.

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As I mentioned before, there were over 100 craft beer vendors.  Some were brands you might know like Pollyanna, Bells, and Founders.  My SO and I are always up for something different so we were trying out the local vendors.  There were also a couple of cider vendors as well as a few spiked sparkling water booths.  A little something for everyone.  One stop that put a smile on our faces was the bacon bourbon table.  I wish I could tell you what it tasted like but they were mixing it with their special brand of Bloody Mary mix.  So it looks like I’ll be making a trip to Binny’s (I already Googled it.  They carry it.).

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Now, let’s talk about the food.  With the exception of a few places, you were only getting a tasting portion.  Which was fine because there were over 30 food booths.  A few of our favorites were a pork belly fried rice, a bacon beignet, and a bourbon glazed shredded pork over mashed potatoes.  Seriously, they weren’t playing here.  But hands down, our two favorites were the bacon topped jalapeno popper and the spiced pork belly with a pineapple relish.  We went back for seconds on the latter one.

Bacon favorites

My one tip for you – if you pass a beer or food vendor and don’t want to stand in the long line, you will not be able to go back later.  Well, you will, but the chances are pretty high that they will be out of their product.  Especially the first-time and local vendors.  Trust me, the line was long for a reason.  I found out the hard way when I missed out on a bacon topped Krispy Kreme donut.  Someone is in the dog house for convincing me we should come back later.

*I thought I saw this event on Groupon but, since I already had tickets, I did not save the link.  Look for it next year.

A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Sidewalk Food Tours of Chicago

A food tour is a great way to get a taste of the flavors that a city has to offer.  A 3-hour walking food tour is an even better way to get to know about the city as well.  That is exactly what Sidewalk Food Tours of Chicago has to offer.  You get a sampling of iconic Chicago dishes as well as some treats you maybe would not have tried on your own.  Plus, you get a little commentary on the architecture and history of the city itself.

My SO and I were in the city overnight and, knowing that we had to check out by 11:00 am, figured we would have lunch before heading home.  Instead of going to a standard restaurant, we decided ahead of time to give a food tour a try.  I found out about Sidewalk Food Tours of Chicago through Groupon.  They have two options to choose from: River North and Wicker Park.  We went on the River North tour and met our guide, Jake, at 11:00 am just outside of the Merchandise Mart.

They like to keep it the groups small so there were only 12 of us total.  Yes, we were the only couple from Illinois, but that is not unusual.  Our first stop on the tour was an adorable little doughnut shop called The Doughnut Vault.  We each got a Buttermilk Old Fashion.  Not a sample.  A whole doughnut.  And maybe I should have saved some for later but it was soooooo good.

The Doughnut Vault

From there, we moved on to Lou Malnati’s pizza.  When you come to Chicago, you HAVE to try some deep dish pizza.  Now, I have had my fair share of deep dish pizza, including Lou Malnati’s, so this was nothing new to me.  But you can’t have a food tour in Chicago without a stop like this.  And I love deep dish so I was more than happy to get a slice of this iconic style pizza.

Lou Malnati's

The next stop took us to a small Mexican café called Xoco.  This is an Aztec word that means “little sister”.  It is a smaller companion piece next to Frontera Grill.  This was a necessary stop as chef Rick Bayless is a Chicago culinary treasure.  He has won just about every culinary award out there and I have a super foodie crush on him as well.  Here we were treated to some Mexican style street food.

Xoco

With a 3-hour tour there is plenty of walking so you can work off all of the food you are eating.  By the time we got over to Café Iberico, I was ready to eat again (almost).  This is a tapas bar/restaurant.  Tapas is a Spanish word that means “small dish”, like a snack/appetizer.  That was about all I had room for anyway.  We each got an individual portion of chicken with rice and sautéed onions.

Cafe Iberico

The final stop on the tour was, naturally, dessert.  We ended up at a bakery called Fabcakes.  This little gem has been serving European style meals and pastries since it opened up in 2012.  Each of us got a chocolate cookie sandwich with Nutella cream filling.

Fabcakes

All of the food we ate on the tour was delicious and a genuine representation of Chicago and its culture.  If you are thinking about taking one of their tours, and you should, I have two recommendations.  First, check out their FAQ page to see what is/is not allowed, especially when it comes to dietary restrictions.  Also, bring a bottled water with you.  Only two of the stops on the tour are dine-in.  The other three are truly sidewalk eating experiences.

A Girl’s Gotta Eat – a recurring blog theme

As I have mentioned before, the main idea for this blog is to try to provide you with ideas for spending time together that are alternatives to the usual “dinner and a movie” theme.  That being said, this does not mean that dinner (or any meal) cannot be included in your plans.

I like to eat.  A lot.  My nickname in college was “little hunger pain”.  These days, if you look up the word “hangry” in the dictionary you might just find a picture of me.  Just ask my husband.  Or my college roommate (right, LeNora?).  Or my kids.  Or . . . the list goes on.  I watch a lot of Food Network and other cooking shows (Top Chef is an all-time favorite).  I also have a list of chefs whose restaurants I want to visit and I google “famous chef-owned restaurants” when we go out of town.  I don’t cook at this level at home of course, so I like to treat myself when we go out.  Because, while “dinner and movie” gets old after awhile, so does eating the same type of food or eating at the same restaurant.

Sometimes, eating can be a fun adventure into different flavors and eating concepts.  Sometimes, it can be the whole activity for the day.  Food Halls, Food Truck Festivals, and Food Tours are some examples of this type of culinary exploration.  Chicago’s annual Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet have a wide variety of foods to sample.  You can also find flavor-specific festivals that highlight a culture (Italian, Greek, Mexican) or a food-specific one that showcases ribs, lobster, or burgers.

Whatever your dining preferences are, there is something for everyone.  And I am here to gobble my way through Chicago and its suburbs to help you find the right food activities for you.