Attendees pick up cheesecake and basil lemonade from Schweet Foods on Saturday, June 11, 2022, during the neighborhood pop up event for the Taste of Chicago in Chicago's Austin neighborhood. | Alex Rogals

Austin residents and visitors from across Chicago and beyond filled the Mt. Olive Baptist Church parking lot, 5720 W. Chicago Ave. on the afternoon of June 10, as the 2022 Taste of Chicago kicked off with the Austin neighborhood event.

This year, the annual Taste of Chicago launches with three neighborhood pop-up events. Similar neighborhood events will take place in Pullman and Little Village over the next two Saturdays, with the traditional Grant Park festival taking place July 8 through July 10.

The Taste of Chicago in Austin featured food from catering companies and eateries from across the city. It also included performances by the Chicago Blues Festival regulars under the Chicago Soul City Blues banner.

The vendors ended up doing brisk business and the organizers were impressed with how many people attended. The attendees said they enjoyed the food and the music, as well as the diversity in the crowd. Austin residents said they appreciated having a safe place to gather and have a good time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taste of Chicago was cancelled in 2020. The 2021 Taste was a series of neighborhood pop-up events. This year’s Taste is something of a mixture of last year’s iteration and the more traditional version.

In a statement to the media, Erin Harkey, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which runs the festival, framed this year’s format as a way to “showcase the food and music of Pullman, Austin and Little Village this summer.”

“After an all-virtual Taste in 2020 and community pop-ups in 2021, we are thrilled to bring Taste back to Grant Park and back into our neighborhoods in 2022,” she said.

The majority of the food vendors at the Austin event were catering companies. In keeping with the Taste tradition, they offered smaller “taste” samples, as well as full-fledged menu items. Cooking from the Soul Catering is based in East Garfield Park’s The Hatchery food incubator, 135 N. Kedzie Ave., offered a jerk chicken and fries plate, as well as seafood macaroni, chicken Alfredo pizza, jerk chicken tacos and a watermelon blast drink. For the first half of the festival, it had by far the longest line and it ran out of half the samplers by around 3 p.m.

The only vendor with a clear Austin connection was Schweet Foods, 5248 W. Chicago Ave., which sells homemade cheesecakes. During the Taste, it sold MooMoo cheesecakes and $3 lemonade.

“It’s been pretty good so far,” said owner Chamille Weddington in the brief pause before another rush of customers came in. “It’s been going very nicely.”

Other caterers represented included Sole Ingredient Catering, based in Chatham, and Catered by Kish and Doom Street Eats, whose physical locations in Chicago are unclear. Cynthia’s Gumbo Express, which is based inside of the Near West Side’s Kitchen Chicago shared-use kitchen at 324 N. Leavitt Ave., had a food truck parked at the Taste.  Mr. Quiles Mexican Food, Ms. Tittle’s Cupcakes and Whadda Jerk food trucks were represented as well.

Restaurants represented included Chatham’s iconic Josephine’s Southern Cooking and West Elston’s Razpachos Mexican-style dessert shop. Oak Park’s Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs had a food truck out, but it left by 3 p.m.

Musical acts included Mzz Reese, Joe Pratt and The Source One Band, Mary Lane and The No Static Blues Band, Tail Dragger, Demetria Taylor, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) whose ward includes the festival site, took the stage at 1:18 p.m., saying the event showed the city “that we can come together in peace and harmony. Thank you so much for coming out to the 29th ward and having a great time, listening to some great blues this evening.”

When Austin Weekly News caught up with Taliaferro a few minutes later, he said that he tried food from three vendors and “it’s been great” and that he believes that “the blues music really brings the family together and the food brings it all together.”

Sheila Tillman, a member of Mt. Olive’s choir, said that she didn’t expect so many people to attend.

“It’s great to see people in Austin come together and be with each other,” she added. “I think it’s wonderful.”

“I think the music has been really great and it’s really nice to have the community space in Austin,” said Christian Snow, of Austin. “I think [the food] is pretty good. I think it gives the community members, people in Austin, [a chance] just to get together and hang out. It’s a good vibe, for those who live in Austin.”

CONTACT: igor@growingcommunitymedia.org