Michigan & Congress, Chicago, IL 60604
Web: Taste of Chicago
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"The proper name should have been Frozen Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Coated in a Chocolate Toffee Crunch Shell - we'd skipped it because the cheesecake part was left out."
Our real Chicago Chow coverage is coming - we promise! But after a second stop at Taste of Chicago, we decided that we wanted to publish one last article worth of coverage regarding this event, filling in a few blanks on dessert options (see Part 3) while adding a few notes on both the event itself (see Part 1) and a few other notable food items (see Part 2). In short, and not surprisingly, the foot traffic at Taste of Chicago was up dramatically on a Saturday around dinner time, with nearly wall-to-wall people filling Columbus Drive. Yet booths were staffed well enough that lines were short and in many cases non-existent, so it was easy to pick a stand, make selections from the menu, and walk away with food within two or three minutes, total. For such a big event, it's certainly run well by most of the exhibitors.
This time, we were mostly interested in sampling desserts we'd missed on our first visit, so after canvassing the many options and seeing lots of choices that were easy to skip - more fried dough, cookies, and so on - we decided to stop at two previously mentioned venues to see what they had. And we couldn't resist trying a few non-dessert options, as well.
Chef's Table. According to official Taste of Chicago literature, the dessert options at the Chef's Table were selected by a local food expert from a collection of fancy dessert items prepared by culinary students for various restaurants. As a result, patrons could select from 12 different desserts in glass display cases, and watch as the students plucked them from on-site refrigerators to serve.
From a restaurant called Julius Meinl, we selected the Vienna Torte (7 tickets), a dense chocolate cake that shouldn't be confused with the Viennese Sacher Torte, an apricot- or raspberry-infused dessert. By comparison, the Vienna Torte is fruitless and therefore a bit plain, leaving the tongue to focus on the almost hard, lightly sweetened chocolate center and the layer of softer ganache on the outside. Neither of us liked this torte, and though we tried to finish it, we found ourselves pitching it out after a few bites.
We also sampled the Chocolate Caramel Passion (4 tickets) from The French Pastry School, and split on opinions. Granted, it's obvious from our photograph that this isn't merely a caramel and chocolate dessert for those who are passionate about such items - our hope before ordering it sight unseen. As it turns out, there's orange passionfruit on the top and bottom of the cup, with a semi-sweet, decorative swirl of hard chocolate above it, and soft chocolate and caramel filling in the center. One of us thought the combination of fruit, chocolate, and caramel flavors was nice but not great; the other pooh-poohed it almost instantly. It was small enough for one of us to finish regardless.
Eli's Cheesecake. On our prior visit to Eli's Cheesecake, we said that "we can't imagine why people would pay $30 a cake, minimum order two, to ship these across state lines." But we stopped back again to see if we could figure that out, and almost came up with an answer. It wasn't the standard cheesecake, which we tried this time covered in strawberries (6 tickets full, taste portion, 4 tickets) - seemingly just a gooey canned strawberry filing - but rather a somewhat amazing little item called the Frozen Chocolate Chip Toffee Crunch (6 tickets).
The proper name should have been Frozen Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Coated in a Chocolate Toffee Crunch Shell, as that's what it actually was - we'd skipped it the first time because we hadn't realized from the sign that cheesecake was inside. What a mistake that had been: this triangle of cheesecake on a popsicle stick was truly memorable in the way that anything good covered in a chocolate and ground toffee coating would be; its center was actually more than good, however, as it was made from soft, fresh cheesecake packed with miniature chocolate chips. Sadly, this frozen dessert would never survive a FedEx shipment out of Chicago, but we'd understand why people would want to try. It was great.
Polo Cafe and Catering. We'd had to skip this stand on day one because it was running slow on both of the attempts we made to visit, the rare place where patrons were standing around waiting for items to come out. But on day two, it was obviously operating at full speed, churning out two crowd-pleasing items. First was the Crispy Noodle Shrimp (9 tickets, 4 for a two-shrimp taste portion), which we really liked: rather than tempura-battering or coconut-coating its prawns, Polo covered each in soft flour noodles before deep-frying them, offering a neat twist on the classic fried shrimp we've had a million times before. Hot Chili and Sweet Chili dipping sauces were offered alongside the shrimp, as well.
Polo was more heavily pushing the Shark Veracruz, which was amongst very few items at the Taste of Chicago to sell for the maximum of 10 tickets; people at the booth were making loud Jaws references and wearing t-shirts referring to the dangerous fish. Having enjoyed shark many times while in California, the novelty of the meat wasn't a major selling point to us, but we did enjoy both the tender, five- or so ounce filet and the tomato chili pepper sauce it was cooked and served in. Of the two items, the Crispy Noodle Shrimp was more novel, but we'd certainly eat a meal at this place after sampling both of these items.
BJ's Market & Bakery. We'd visited the day before for the Mustard-Fried Catfish, but came back this time for the Sweet Potato Chips (6 tickets), a huge plate of freshly made, bright orange chips made from - you guessed it - sweet potatoes. As long-time fans of Terra Chips, there's nothing totally amazing to us about potato chips of this sort, but what was interesting about BJ's chips was that they weren't all perfectly crispy, as one might expect from a bag; rather, they were occasionally a little soft, revealing the taste of fresh sweet potatoes, and sometimes hard and crunchy. There's something to be said for trying even common items again when they're handmade; discovering the impact of imperfections can, in and of itself, be satisfying.
That's it for our Taste of Chicago coverage. Next up: Intelligentsia Coffee, Frango Chocolates, India House, Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Smoque, and the Grand Lux Cafe. Expect the next round of major updates soon.