Taste of Chicago on a budget

June 26, 2009 (CHICAGO) The food extravaganza is smaller this year with about 20 percent fewer booths than last year. And because of the economy, our food reporter went in search of a budget meal.

Every year, the organizers at 'Taste' require all of the participating restaurants to offer smaller versions of one or two items at the booth. They call it a "Taste" portion.

I wanted to see if I could assemble a satisfying meal: appetizer, main dish and dessert with just two strips of tickets, or $16.

It's all about ticket management. I start with two strips - that's 24 tickets - setting me back $16. What can you get? Plenty.

At Humboldt Park's Sabor Latino (booth 50), their Taste portion includes a slightly greasy pork-filled banana dumpling; it costs four tickets.

Just down the aisle, at booth 47, Ukrainian Village's Kasia's Deli is the pierogi king. Two plump, potato and cheese versions with a side of sour cream sets me back another four tickets.

I realize Connie's is known for their pizza, but the South Archer flagship - booth 38 here - also offers a mini-meatball sandwich, for just four tickets.

"Very good taste, and consistency, you don't get that in too many places," said Liz Lopez of Oak Lawn when asked what she liked about the sandwich.

Walking through the crowd to booth 33, I spot the famous mustard fried catfish at B.J.'s Market & Bakery, which has been here the past 11 years. They also offer a Taste portion for four tickets.

"For people who don't know, they'll go with the smaller portion, then they'll come back for the large portion," said John Meyer, B.J.'s Market & Bakery.

Time for something sweet. I love the artisanal gelato and sorbets from the South Loop's Canady le Chocolatier (booth 15). And both Taste portions look good - the frutti di bosco sorbet and the chocolate gelato are four tickets each. Hard decision.

Last course. A sweet nibble from The Chef's Table, next to Buckingham Fountain. Some of my favorite desserts from the city are being duplicated with precision by the students at Washburne Culinary Institute. A coconut macaroon from Lovely: A Bake Shop in Wicker Park and the coconut-milk-laced sticky rice with mango from Thai Pastry in Uptown are just two tickets each. They're both delicious and educational.

"Coconut milk, for instance, that Add at Thai Pastry works with. Something totally different product that I'm unfamiliar with that just blew me away, so there's a lot of really cool educational opportunities for all of us," said Tim Coonan, Washburn Culinary Institute.

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