Monday, June 24, 2013

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana from my perspective

Saturday Levi and I attended the Taste of Champaign-a food event with merch vendors, live music and this year-beer!  Here are the photos from the progression of the event, for the article a few of us from SP (Smile Politely) split up the food vendors to review.  To read that article, please visit HERE.  For my article alone, please continue reading:
A sculpture in West Side Park

While I hesitate to begin another article discussing the rain, the fickle weather has certainly decided to make its importance clear for yet another outdoor event, the Taste of Champaign.  Relying on Twitter to update me on the progress of the 3 hour rain-delay, I was fortunate not to have it interrupt my plans of attending on Saturday evening. 

Upon arrival, there was no shortage of families enjoying the day, as children danced through the bubble machine with faces painted in tiger stripes and holding their coveted balloon animals.   My guest and I made our way through the pop-up restaurant row that formed in the middle of West Side Park.  We were looking to get a lay-of-the-land before embarking on our revelry of food, but I was surprised to feel as though there were fewer food vendors than I remember-as it has been a few years since I have attended the Taste. 
What was nice about going to this event, was the Champaign Park District posted a map on their website complete with vendors, menus and prices-so I was easily able to budget for the event and plan my dinner from appetizer to dessert-keeping my total bill at $10 for the evening.  I had quickly decided against participating in the beer tent for two reasons: 1. the inflated rates on Coors and Leinenkugel Summer Shandy ($3.75/12oz) and 2. the restricted area in which the beer was offered.  While I understand why the restrictions were in place, I opted not to drink and maintain my freedom to walk among the food.

Nevertheless, I began my dinner experience with Shanghai 1938.  I saw they were featuring steamed pork dumplings and my guest and I couldn’t help but to try one.  Shanghai utilized a kitchen trailer and upon our order, the lady made her way into the kitchen to retrieve it.  Our dumplings came out, hot, fresh, with the
Shanghai 1938's steamed pork dumpling
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.

Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas was our next stop.  I was set on
BBQ Pork Empanada
trying an empanada, while my guest was marveling that a slice of pizza was only 1 ticket.  Upon the recommendation of the helpful girl at the counter-I decided to try the BBQ Pork Empanada and my guest, the Italian Potato Pizza.  I received my empanada right away while we moved to the side of the tent waiting for a few moments as a young man warmed the slice 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 as I moved through the empanada.  While I was very happy with my
Spotted Goat Pizza from Manolo's
choice, my guest’s pizza stole the moment-as 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.

Next door to Manolo’s was Spoon House Korean Kitchen.  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 a favorite of mine.  Bulgogi is not often spicy, but very flavorful as the ginger and rice wine make the sauce dance.  Our tacos were beautifully presented on homemade flour tortillas with
Beef Bulgogi Taco
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. 

Moving on to Mamma D’s Smokehouse 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.  My guest is from the South and grew up in an area that prides itself on good BBQ-while visiting, we stop at every BBQ stand we can find to enjoy brisket, pulled pork and homemade BBQ sauce.  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.

Our final stop was Crepe De Licious, a franchise from Canada that has made it to our fair town.  The visual appeal of the setup was professional and vibrant-the menu simple.  While I understand there is a strong Nutella following, I have yet to jump onto the bandwagon that Crepe De Licious seemingly has taken the head of with the dozens of Nutella containers adorning their counter.  None-the-less I tried their ‘Black &
Red & Black Crepe
Red’ a crepe with Nutella and strawberries.  The gentleman quickly poured the batter on the flattop, demonstrating without words he has done this hundreds of times.  The crepe was constructed in about a minute and I elected for only a light touch of crème and cinnamon.  The spongy and thin crepe was sweet and the warm Nutella changed my mind on this chocolaty spread-a delicious ending to my dinner experience.

Overall, the Taste is called as such because it gives our community an opportunity to try new places without much of a monetary commitment.  Those looking to gorge on food for little-to-no money may want to try another event more appropriately named ‘the buffet’. 

Runner getting ready for the Pie Run-they actually get pies thrown at them.  And that's my sister, Boogie, pointing at the left-she found a friend doing the run.

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