A taste of Taste dispels the love-hate

July 13, 2012

After all the talk about this year's Taste of Chicago — much of it on the turkey legs that wouldn't be there and the Asian carp sliders that would be free —  I hopped on the bus from Navy Pier to check out opening day for myself.

I did indeed taste the slider. You should know by now that I love the fish and hate that it's called an invasive species. This thick, hardwood-grilled patty — made with fresh garlic, lemon zest, oregano and nutmeg, bound lightly with olive oil and panko and crowned with a tomato jalapeño chutney — was a lovely, summery bite. The firm-fleshed fish flashed flavors from the Mediterranean and the Caribbean Seas.

Dirk and Terry Fucik, the husband and wife team behind Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop, created the sliders at the request of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources's Target Hunger Now! program. According to IDNR, "Target Hunger Now! is one of the largest humanitarian efforts undertaken by the State of Illinois." The state and its corporate partners hope "to encourage hunters and anglers to donate deer and Asian carp for processing into healthy, ready-to-serve meals."
 
The Fuciks served all of the 750 sliders they made for opening day by early afternoon. People waited in a line half a block long to get one, and the general consensus was that they were good  — surprisingly good — which was the point; though research now suggests this "Asian invasion" may not be dangerous after all.
 
If you missed this batch of sliders, Dirk's grills up free samples every Saturday. The restaurant also sells Asian carp burger patties for $8 per pound. 
 
Another new, must-see Taste feature was the Celebrity Chef du Jour booth, which kicked off with Carlos Gaytan of Mexique. His dinner was long sold out, but diners could buy his signature jamaica glazed pork belly on a celery root slaw (the dish was made and served by Washburne students, as WBEZ's own Niala Boodhoo reported). Jamaica (pronounced HUH-my-kuh) are the blood red hibiscus calices used to make agua fresca that looks like punch.
I didn't actually taste this one myself. This dish pictured above was ordered by George Nydza of Chicago, and his friend, Rita McGuire of Grayslake, Ill. They've been friends for 30 years and have been coming to Taste since the beginning. "I saw the chef making it on WGN this morning," said Nydza. "I've heard a lot about pork belly but never had it, so I thought this one has got to be good — and it's not that expensive." At ten tickets, Gaytan's huge pork belly portion came out to $6.67; at Mexique, a lunch-sized pork belly sandwich rings up at $12.95.
 
I hear the complaints: that Taste is too hot and crowded, that the food's no good, that nobody goes anymore. I've made those complaints myself. But a walk-through on a relatively cool opening morning reminded me why other people still love it and have always loved it. It's big city life — or at least a taste.