Food & Dining - Hits and misses at this year's Taste

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Food & Dining -
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Hits and misses at this year's Taste
30 Jun 2011, 8:00 am

There may not be any fireworks at this year's Taste of Chicago, which runs through Sunday in Grant Park, but the annual food and music festival is providing quite a few sparklers, and a few duds.

Counting today, there are four more afternoons and evenings left to this year's festival. I've given some food items firecracker ratings (the more firecrackers, the better, and duds are, well, duds) to give you an idea how you should spend your money in the remaining days:

An enthusiastic three firecrackers to Bobak, whose offerings include an excellent Polish sausage and an eye-opening chicken chipotle sausage, available in full and Taste (small portion) sizes. The full-size chicken sausage earned a "Healthier Choice" designation from Humana, so the Taste portion (4 tickets) is that much better an option.

Two firecrackers to the steak tacos at Carbon. Not only is it a decent value at 5 tickets, but the tomatillo salsa (the medium-spicy option) has a tangy, lightly spicy kick. Not bad at all.

Two firecrackers for the mustard-catfish nuggets at BJ's Market. A Taste portion (4 tickets) is all you need.

Two firecrackers for the barbecue pork sliders (8 tickets) at Polo Cafe, but only one firecracker for Polo's close-but-no-cigar salmon burger — though I give Dave Samber's operation credit for ambition.

Three firecrackers for Lou Malnati's cheese pizza (6 tickets). Malnati's has been at every Taste except for the 1980 inaugural event, and they continue to put out a great effort.

Four firecrackers for my favorite new dish at Taste, the dry-chili chicken from first-time vendor Lao Sze Chuan. For 10 tickets, you get stir-fried chicken chunks and enough chili peppers to scorch your tonsils. This isn't just the spiciest dish at Taste; this is the spiciest dish in Taste history. And no, I'm not complaining.

Two firecrackers to the turkey meatloaf "cupcake" (8 tickets) from Parrot Cage. Parrot Cage is the student-run dining room operated by Washburne Culinary Institute, and this student-produced dish, a well-seasoned turkey meatloaf in the shape of a cupcake, topped with whipped-potato "frosting," is one of the most interesting dishes at Taste.

A conditional three firecrackers to Smoke Daddy, for its pulled pork sandwich. It's a great little sandwich, rich with smoky flavor, but at 14 tickets it sets a new high-water mark for price. I really like this sandwich, but 14 tickets? (Those who tried this sandwich late Monday afternoon got a bonus: Smoke Daddy ran out of mini-buns, so it served its 4-ticket "mini" sandwich on a full-size bun.)

A dud to the lobster roll set out by Cubby Bear. Not only is the bun wrong, not only does the sauce taste like Thousand Island dressing, but the chunks of lobster are fleshed out by what appears to be surimi. All this for 12 tickets? Pass.

A dud to the beef shawarma sandwich (10 tickets) at Alhambra Palace; the sandwich is an overcooked snore.

A dud to Beggars Pizza; I found their sausage pizza barely acceptable, hampered by a flat, cardboard-y crust. At least Beggars Pizza offers half slices at Taste portion prices (4 tickets). Then again, Bacino's does the same thing with its stuffed-spinach pizza, a much better option (two firecrackers for Bacino's).

A firecracker to Vermilion's maharaja sandwich (11 tickets), an inventive blend of shredded beef, crispy onions and mint-mayo sauce.

A firecracker to the just-spicy-enough jerk wings (8 or 4 tickets) at Banana Leaf.

And a grateful two firecrackers to Original Rainbow Cone, a Chicago classic, for being there when I needed them. Specifically, immediately after I downed a plate of that dry-chili chicken. That stuff is hot.

Twitter @philvettel

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