Last year at this time I was all geared up for the Taste of C-U 2016, but unfortunately I had to miss it and I was really bummed. Although I was able to get a great recap from last year’s review, I still wish I could've been there. I was extremely joyfully delighted to cover the event. 

I showed up at Taste of C-U, family in tow, at around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, while the sun was still bright and warm in the sky. The evening was originally supposed to be a relaxing date night for 2, but hey, life happens, right? Lucky for us the event turned out to be fun for all ages. I got my beer wristband as we entered and then headed towards the ticket tent conveniently located right in the center of Westside Park. The tickets were sold in sheets of 5 for $5, no refunds. I purchased a few sheets to get us started and we headed over to food vendor alley to start our taste adventure. While we explored the various tents we got to enjoy the sounds of local rock band We are Animals. (Great show, guys!)

This year the food trucks and food vendors came out in greater numbers than previous years. There were 17 food vendors and 6 food trucks represented this year, and to my delight there was a vast array of cuisines to choose from. Auntie Lee’s Chinese Kitchen, local favorite Caribbean Grill, American fine dining at Baxter’s, healthly food at Salad Miester and Fit Hybrid Food, popsicles at Pop Stop, empanadas and pizza at Manolo’s, and barbecue from Mama D’s Smokehouse Restaurant, just to name a few. I was disappointed that Dragon Fire Pizza wasn’t there; and what else can I say? The Domino’s booth just looked sad and empty. Full meals ranged from 5-8 tickets and “tastes” were 1-2 tickets per sample. In my option the tastes at the vendors I tried were just the right size. It was enough to get a true taste on your palate, but not enough to fill you up completely. 

Salad Meister

New to the event this year, Salad Meister offered 3 salads and 2 soups. The friendly servers suggested I try the Southern Spice Salad, so I ordered a sample for 2 tickets and watched as it was assembled. After a quick wait, I was handed a bowl that contained a rainbow of veggies and other goodies including, sweet crunchy corn, crunchy red pepper, spring greens, black beans, shredded cheese, fresh broccoli and tender chicken topped with salty tortilla strips, spicy Sriracha and a roasted red pepper dressing. It was so fresh tasting and had a kick of spiciness, and the textures worked wonders on my palate. To my surprise, it was by far my favorite dish of the whole evening. The hearty sample was the way to go at this vendor, the full salad at 8 tickets only saved .99 off the regular menu price of $8.99.

Hybrid Fit Food

The friendly folks at Hybrid Fit Food offered a variety of choices. A jerk bowl for 6 tickets, chicken tacos for 5 tickets, and a turkey burger for 5 tickets and all of the samples were offered at 2 tickets each. I selected the turkey burger with melted cheddar cheese. I could taste the fresh herbs and veggies, and the meat was seasoned perfectly. I would have liked a toasted bun for a little crunchy texture, but overall this burger packed a lot of flavor in a little bite. The full turkey burger was a great deal. It saved around $3 off of their regular menu price of $7.99.

Baxter’s Bar and Grille

I was excited to see Baxter’s American Bar & Grille in attendance this year. I had eaten there several times before and was always impressed with the quality and taste of the food. They had three main dishes at 8 tickets each for a full meal, a full wedge salad for 5 tickets and a gooey butter cake for 4 tickets. The main dishes were 2 tickets a taste, and the salad and cake were 1 ticket per taste. Due to the higher prices at this restaurant the items were all a great value. I sampled a taste of the Seafood Jambalaya and the Brazilian Steak Kabobs. The jambalaya lacked that traditional southern spiciness, but the rice was cooked well and the avocado added a nice creamy texture. The steak on the kabob was tender and cooked to medium, the roasted cherry tomatoes and caramelized onions were mouth-watering.

Beer

I was pleased with the number of craft beer vendors that came out for the event. Drinks on the beer side went for 4-5 tickets and included Coors Light, Miller Light, Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Angry Orchard Cider, Blue Moon, and Margaritas. Over on the Craft Beer side of things, the drinks cost 6 tickets for a full beer and 2 for a taste. Riggs, JT Walker's, Blind Pig, Desthil, and Triptych were all in attendance, offering a vast array of beer to enjoy. I got a taste of my two favorites, Riggs' fruity and refreshing hefeweizen and Triptych’s bold APA style Dark Meme. Blind Pig won the best value by offering their Reserve Brew for only 4 tickets. Thanks Blind Pig!

After all of the sampling and picture taking the kids were getting restless. We decided to reward them and headed over the Pop Stop for some popsicle samples (1 ticket for tastes). We got two adorable little birthday cake flavored popsicles and watched as the kids voraciously gobbled them down. Next, I persuaded my husband to take the kids over to the chambanamoms.com Kids Zone for bounce houses and bubbles while I finished up.

I grabbed at nice cold Blue Moon beer with my last five tickets and stared to wander around the large grassy area in front of the bandstand to take some notes and do some people watching. While I watched, I got to enjoy the smooth sounds of the Jim Markum Swing Band. They were cranking out some seriously good golden oldies from the big band era. I loved it! As the soft light from the sun and the gentle breeze brushed my skin I thought about all we’d tasted and seen that day.

The atmosphere, like most Champaign-Urbana events, was high-energy, and every where you turned you saw smiling faces and heard children’s laughter. The event was family friendly, had plenty of seating, and the food vendors and trucks get better every year. If you haven’t yet experienced this fun summer event you are missing out. This food festival has it all: live music, diverse food, local beer, arts and crafts, and a huge kid zone. Although next year, it will be a date for two, and a whole new and exciting experience.

More information about Taste of C-U is available on the Champaign Park District's website

All photos by Rebecca Wells.