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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fair
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Digging into the Taste of Madison
Is this what all the hubbub is about?
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I got a serving of really great vanilla bean panna cotta at the Lombardino's stand that cost me $3, and could easily have cost twice that at the brick-n-mortar location.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

After my the sixth opportunity since moving to Madison, I finally made my first trip to the Taste of Madison today. I hope that you know me well enough by now that you don't expect me to wander in, wide-eyed. I don't come here to necessarily praise -- or bury -- the annual festival, but to try to figure it out.

The simple truth is that I haven't made it to the Taste -- with all due deference to Great Taste of the Midwest, I'm already tired of typing out "Taste of Madison" -- not because of an active disdain, but simply because we're just never in town over Labor Day weekend. I will admit, however, that part of the reason our plans have taken us out of town is knowledge of the fate that befalls many "Taste of" festivals: played out-edness.

Yeah, I know. I've been to the Taste of Chicago event, and I know it's a pale reflection of the depth and breadth of the Chicago food scene. The Taste is meant to be accessible, welcoming. It's not supposed to highlight culinary artistry, or even the character and cuisine of the city. It really is less a taste of Madison, and more a taste of the Madison Yellow Pages. Its reputation precedes it, and that's not a vote in its favor.

So some folks object on a foodie level. There are more great restaurants in Madison and beyond than are represented in your food event, they insist. It's an offense to the collective palate that Red Lobster and Starbucks are placed alongside Bandung and Sweet Sophie's, never mind the worthy entrants that go totally unrepresented. I totally agree that there's little value to a Potbelly stand, for example; the lack of a line there today perhaps indicates that others feel likewise.

That doesn't change the fact that there are some really great local offerings here. Gotham Bagels has a little pastrami sandwich, for those whose appetites don't allow for the towering hulk normally served there. All sorts of multi-ethnic, locally-owned restaurants dot the landscape, from The Casbah to Buraka, Cafe Costa Rica to Bahn Thai. Sure, the taqueria front is woefully neglected -- how easy would it be to slap together some tacos or sopes or even mini-pambazos? But really, we all live in a city with Rocky Rococo. Certainly the old fellow, birthed in Madison, deserves a stall.

And that's another complaint. Similar to the indictment of the quality is the complaint that chains are out of place at the Taste. We're not really tasting "Madison" when we buy something at Joey's Seafood, are we? Not when it's the same food as served in Sioux Falls? Well, not everyone has the level of interest or commitment to roll the dice on an unfamiliar local joint, especially if they're new to town. And Melting Pot, Old Chicago, and any other chain site, is going to at least be fairly consistent. Madisonians work there, don't they? It's still sort of supporting the local economy.

Value is the third big critique, with complaints that everything's getting smaller and pricier at the Taste. Well, I wouldn't know about the chronological perspective, but I can tell you this. I got a serving of really great vanilla bean panna cotta at the Lombardino's stand that cost me $3, and could easily have cost twice that at the brick-n-mortar location. In fact, their menu features a variant of the same dish that costs $6.50. Pleasant Springs Fish Hatchery sold ample beignets at two for a dollar. There's definitely value to be had; as with any dining experience, a little forbearance and good judgment are in order.

(And something tells me that it probably costs a relative fortune to get a slot at Taste of Madison. Maybe that's something that should be looked at by the organizers, since people complain about issues -- like price and variety -- that could be resolved by a slightly lower entrance fee.)

Honestly, if you have the time in your life to get upset that the deep-fried cookie dough egg roll from Bluephies is emblematic of your city to many folks, then you need to find a new hobby. Because they're just plain good. So are the cheese curds from The Old Fashioned, and the brats from Brat Und Brau, and the lamb from King of Falafel, and...

All right, so maybe I can complain about the over-eating.

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