Think of the Taste of Tacoma as a pop-up food court serving the greatest hits of fair dining in a beautiful park setting. Deep-fried cookies, corndogs, sandwiches loaded with meat and fat, roasted corn, Hawaiian shaved ice and a whole lot of other food your mother told you never to eat. The Taste runs through Sunday at Point Defiance Park.
The Taste has transformed over the years from a festival showcasing Tacoma's restaurants to a collection of fried fair food made by traveling vendors. Each year, the menu items sound more like food dares than culinary spectacles. And that's just fine - but you need to go to the festival knowing that what you're eating does not reflect Tacoma's restaurants. However, there is one way to see what's cooking in Tacoma kitchens. Head to the stage for The Taste Cooks, a first-time series of cooking demonstrations at the Taste. All weekend, some of Tacoma's top chefs and food personalities will cook live at the stage. Click here to see the schedule.
I spent the better part of this afternoon grazing through the offerings at Taste of Tacoma and I'm here to report that the offerings looked like they should be nominated for the Deep-Fried Hall of Wonders. They're also expensive - you can drop $20 in about five minutes, even though the admission is free. Ouch. Take a tour with some of the deep-fried gullet bombs I consumed. I also took a bite out of food trucks that are new to this year's festival.
FIND MENUS HERE: Find photos of more than 20 Taste of Tacoma restaurant menus here.
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Restaurants With A Steering Wheel
New to the Taste this years are four mobile food trucks. I sampled something from each. If you're someone who appreciates adventurous food, stick with the trucks. Not only were they the best deals, they also served some of the most interesting food.
My Chef LynnSampled: Lamb slider, $3; quinoa salad, $4If there's a truck you shouldn't miss, it's My Chef Lynn. The Issaquah-based truck serves gramma style comfort food with modern spins. For the Taste, the abbreviated menu at this truck was all about sliders and flavorful side salads. The slider should be the first thing you order. The ground lamb slider came with a Thai sweet chili glaze, the bun swiped with spicy peanut sauce. The flavors expertly seesawed between sweet and spicy. The quinoa salad should be on every vegetarian's watch list - if not for flavor, than for value for the size of the salad. The quinoa was threaded with arugula, pumpkin seeds and currants and dressed with a walnut champagne vinaigrette.
Tokyo DogSampled: The traditional Tokyo Dog, $6This Seattle-based mobile truck has been catching buzz for its hot dogs fused with Japanese flavor. We stuck with the truck favorite, a Tokyo Dog made with a cheesy bratwurst on a Kaiser bun with buttery caramelized onions and diced bacon. The dog was topped with a cascade of umami - a drizzle of tonkatsu sauce, sweet Japanese mayo and a sprinkle of furikake, a blend of ground dried fish, sesame seeds and nori seaweed.
Chopstix Sampled: Duck taco, $4; Ratatouille slider, $3.75The woman running the truck told me Chopstix would be paying a visit to Moveable Feast, the second annual food truck meetup, held July 28 at Cheney Stadium. Chopstix did a fine job of merging two things I love - Chinese pork buns (hum bao) and roasted duck. Only they turned it into a taco. Pure genius. The taco shell was a soft and puffy dough - just like a good hum bao should be - stuffed with roasted duck that had been marinated in a sweetened bean paste and soy. The ratatouille slider was a tangle of slow-cooked veggies on a tiny brioche bun. Full of flavor - and something you should try if you want something lighter and veggie-centric.
Ezell's Express: Spicy chicken strips, $6This mobile version of the Seattle-based fried chicken chain had an abbreviated menu of its normal chicken offerings - boneless strips and wings. The strips come in regular or spicy. I was handed an order of strips very quickly, which is always a bad sign at a place that fries its food. Fried foods have such a short shelf life and Ezell's strips tasted as if they had lingered under a heat lamp for 10 minutes too long. The strips - made of white meat- tasted dry. The spicy coating was only mildly dosed with heat, but the breading was full of nice crunch. Strips a la carte come with a small roll and your choice of dipping sauce.
From The Deep-Fried Hall of Wonders
These fantastically fried foods ought to be considered end-of-festival eats, unless you intend to curl up into the fetal position and take a nap on the sprawling green lawn at Point Defiance Park. Eat these with caution, and know that you'll be looking for a bottle of antacids for relief.
The food crime against humanity: Cotton candy wrapped corndog,$5The booth: Sweet SensationsA corndog already is an abomination - a meat log ensconced in a sweetened cornmeal batter and dumped into a deep fryer, yay! But when you add a whirl of cotton candy on top of it? That's just preposterous. I couldn't make it beyond a couple bites, I found it far too cloying and the dog was a touch gristly. If you're under the age of 15, this one's probably a sure bet for you.
The food crime against humanity: Deep-fried Girl Scout cookie kebab, $5The booth: Sweet SensationsIt's a new American pastime to deep fry just about anything sweet and serve it a festival or fair - bubble gum, Oreos, Pepsi, Kool-Aid, candy bars, Twinkies, even butter. It was only a matter of time before someone would get around to frying Girl Scouts cookies. At the Sweet Sensations booth, you'll find three cookies - a Do-Si-Do, Samoa and Tagalog - threaded onto a kebab stick, dipped in a sweet batter and deep fried until it's a hot, puffy golden mess topped with chocolate syrup. I liked these more than I probably should.
The food crime against humanity: German corndog, $7The booth: Corn Dogs of the WorldI knew I was in trouble when the cashier turned around and handed me a pre-made corndog from under a heat lamp. At least the concept was neat - a Bratwurst dipped in batter and fried into a corndog. It would have been much better had the corndog not been greasy and lukewarm. Serious fried-food fail here, people.
The food crime against humanity: Fried PB&J Sandwich, $6The booth: Deep Fried PB&JsThis is the sort of sandwich fit for Elvis - a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on good ol' American white bread, dipped in batter and deep fried. I say this every time I eat one, but who knew that deep-frying spongy white bread would turn the texture so fluffy. I loved the crunchy exterior that, once broken into, oozed peanut butter and warm grape jelly. This is a second year for the booth at the Taste and their offerings have expanded to eight different deep-fried sandwiches filled with everything from marshmallows to nutella.
Deep-fried things I didn't eat and glad about that: I kept an eye on the booths churning out some of the fattiest concoctions and I have to say that Piggly's seemed to be winning in the competition of Who Is Using The Most Grease. A Huge pile of Cheesy Riley Fries ($7) were covered in nacho cheese and the plate of fried zucchini ($6.75) was piled high. I had no intentions of trying the Krispy Kreme doughnut bacon cheeseburger - made with two half-pound burger patties - at the Sweet Sensations Booth. No amount of hazard pay could make me attempt that $10 burger. I think the Sri Racha fries ($5) at the Pho Cyclo booth looked to be the menu item most likely to kill you slowly through heartburn.
Healthier Eats With Big FlavorsThe neat find:
Halibut taco on a whole wheat tortilla, $6The booth:
Eduardo's Famous Fish TacosThis is the taco for those who want their fried fish with something healthy, too. Served on a wheat tortilla with vinegar-splashed cabbage and pico de gallo, the fried halibut taco was tasty.
The neat find: Veggie falafel sandwich, $7The booth: Moe's FalafelThree creamy discs of fried falafel - ground chickpeas and spices - tucked into a warm pita with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and a healthy ladle full of tzatziki. This was good eating - and a fair price considering falafel sandwiches at most local joints cost $7-$9. The folks working at the booth gave a good tip - make the sandwich vegan if you skip the yogurt tzatziki sauce.
Also try: The quinoa salad at My Chef Lynn seemed suitable for a vegetarian - and was a bargain at $4. See above for details.
Last Bites: Sweet and Cold Things to Eat Before You LeaveMargarita Village:
Do stop by here for a $4 iced slushie made with ultra sweet fruit juice (it tasted fortified with a lot of sugar). It's ultra sweet, but equally refreshing after eating a lot of greasy food in the sun. I liked this booth because they offered free samples - as many as you wanted. Try the peach-lemon and the pina colada. Nearby are two shaved Hawaiian ice booths. One adds the syrup for you, the other has a self-serve station where you can add your own flavors.
Peaks Frozen Custard: This Seattle-based custard business serves custard, just like ice cream, but so much more creamy. You can buy Peaks Custard by the pint at Proctor's Metropolitan Market. We ended the festival with an ultra decadent custard sundae - a salted cream custard sundae with caramel sauce, whipped cream and cashew nuts, $6. It was perfect. This booth gave away as many free samples as you could stomach.
Emerald Queen Taste of Tacoma 2013When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. SundayWhere: Point Defiance Park, TacomaAdmission: Free, except the cost of food. The cheap bites have returned for $3.75 each (usually a smaller menu item). Menu items top out at $8.Tip: BRING CASH. There are cash machines throughout the festival, but very few vendors take plastic.Parking: $10 in the Funland lot across from the park, or park for free at Tacoma Community College and catch a free Taste Shuttle. Buses run all days and hours of the festival.Information: tasteoftacoma.com or 253-759-8272Bring with you: Sunscreen and an umbrella, hand wipes, sanitizer and make sure you wear your stretchy pants. There is limited seating, but attendees can bring blankets or portable camping chairs to set up impromptu picnic areas.Music: Four entertainment stages — the Bowl Stage with classic rock; the Pond Stage with R&B, folk, gospel and world music; the Jazz Stage; and the Rock the Bowl @ Point D Kids Stage. Find the schedule here.More entertainment: A comedy club, wine garden, a carnival, arts and crafts booths, commercial and vendor booths.No smoking allowed: All areas of Tacoma public parks are smoke free. Also, leave the dogs at home.Outside the park: Nearby Goldfish Tavern (5310 N. Pearl) is hosting a beer garden to raise funds to reopen the tavern. Not affiliated with the Taste but worth a stop before or after.