Friday, July 19, 2024

The Cambridge Chamber of Commerce’s Taste of Cambridge event returned Tuesday to University Park for the first time since 2019. The Taste, now in its 18th year, is Cambridge’s largest outdoor food event, and the chamber uses ticket sales to benefit local nonprofits – by now, issuing nearly $300,000 in grants.

This year, I decided to see if the event was worth the hype, even without the good deed.

Here’s the gist: From 5:30 to 8 p.m., for the price of a $67.50 ticket, you get unlimited access to food and drinks from 41 vendors – local eateries including Shōjō, Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, New City Microcreamery, Cambridge Common, State Park, Veggie Galaxy and plenty more. There are usually upward of 750 people in attendance.

I showed up a few minutes after 5:30 p.m., turning down Sidney Street and suddenly among throngs of people streaming toward the entrance. Evidently, most of this year’s 750 were like me: They wanted to get their full two-and-a-half-hour’s worth.

Once inside the gates, I expected it to feel crowded, but one of the (many) great things about the Taste was that it didn’t. It was easy to walk around, there were plenty of places to sit and lines for vendor tables were never more than two or three minutes long. The other thing I noticed upon entering was how many people were working the event – several people running check-in and what felt like dozens more wandering within the gates, available to take questions and give bathroom directions. Speaking of the bathrooms! There is nothing worse than an event that does not have enough portable toilets to support the number of people present (See: every road race ever), and I am pleased to report this was not the case at Taste of Cambridge. There was a long row of them – clean, in a relative sense – that I never saw people have to queue up for. And, in what I thought was a kind and generous touch for an 87-degree evening, there were large buckets with ice full of water bottles.

In short, I thought the Taste was remarkably well-organized. And then, of course, there was the food. And the drinks. Here are 10 of the best things I tried:

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Masala dosa
Nirvana

I could smell this dosa, which had a fragrant potato and onion filling, before I could see it. The dosas were being made fresh, so when you got your piece, it was piping hot. The dosa itself was light with just the right amount of crispiness on the outside, and the potato filling was soft and well-spiced. It was served with a side of sambar and of coconut chutney, which was especially tasty.

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Hot honey-bacon grilled cheese
Roxy’s Grilled Cheese

Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of Roxy’s (I actually tried its three-cheese grilled cheese for a Snack back in December), which, in addition to being a grilled cheese shop, has a late-night arcade and bar attached to its Central Square storefront. When I saw Roxy’s was serving both a sandwich and a cocktail, I was excited. The sandwich was great, with crispy bacon, melty cheese and well-toasted bread. The honey was the icing on an already delicious cake.

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Rainbow Road
Roxy’s Arcade

The first cocktail of the night! Actually, this was more like the fourth, but the first worth mentioning. The drink options at Taste of Cambridge weren’t quite as good as the food, nor are they as unlimited: With each 21-plus ticket, you get eight vouchers that can be redeemed for eight drinks. The Rainbow Road had gin, sour watermelon and grapefruit, a unique combination that was punchy and refreshing. Bonus points for being one of the more generously sized drink portions, and one of the few over ice.

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Shrimp ceviche
Summer Shack

This little bite of shrimp ceviche, with red onion, tomato, jalapeño, garlic and lime juice, was incredibly good. The big soup spoon was the perfect vessel for a ceviche that was swimming in lime juice (compliment). The shrimp tasted fresh, and the other ingredients help make this into a bright, cohesive bite.

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Beef empanada
Naco Taco

Naco Taco was serving food out of its food truck, which tends to hang out on Newbury Street. Since I haven’t been to the truck or the restaurant in The Port, I went in with no expectations and was blown away by how good this was. The empanada was freshly fried, and the beef mixture inside was spiced and cheesy, but the best part was the cilantro crema it was topped with. I love a sauce of almost any kind, and this one was a perfectly creamy and cilantro-y topping for an already-good empanada.

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Smoked pineapple mai tai
Wusong Road

Wusong Road has fantastic Asian-inspired tapas, but as a tiki bar, it also knows good drinks. This smoked pineapple mai tai was super flavorful: deeply smoky, which added depth to the already bold pineapple. It was intense and creative and unlike anything I have tasted before.

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Snap pea Caesar
Gufo

The snap pea Caesar from Gufo was essentially snap peas tossed in Caesar dressing, but totally delicious. The peas’ crunchiness made them a good complement to the creamy Caesar; it felt light and bright and fresh but also kind of indulgent. A smattering of thinly sliced watermelon radishes helped bulk up the bite, and the bread crumbs on top added a nice textural element.

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Salmon and tuna roll
Fuji at Kendall

This roll had salmon and tuna beneath eel sauce, spicy mayo, tempura flakes and tobiko, which was a super tasty combination. No notes.

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Carnitas street taco
Lone Star Taco Bar

For my second Snack ever, I tried and loved Lone Star’s grilled street corn; this carnitas taco was also really good. The tortilla itself was delicious, with an almost melt-in-your-mouth quality, and the pork it was topped with was tender and full of flavor. The tomatillo d’arbol salsa added a kick of spice that solidified this into one of the best bites (of the best bites) of the night.

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Agua de Jamaica
Lone Star Taco Bar

Like Roxy’s, Lone Star scored not once, but twice. The cocktails were great, but capping the night off with this hibiscus iced tea was a great move. It was super refreshing, with a strong fruity flavor that wasn’t overly sweet. I almost didn’t grab one of these, but was so glad I did.

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So, what’s the verdict? Taste of Cambridge is good. Really good. My biggest takeaway is that we have incredible restaurants here in Cambridge, and if you want to try many of those eateries in the same place, the Taste is well worth it. It is a great value for the money, more so in terms of the food than the drinks – though the cocktails were strong, some were much bigger than others and a couple left quite a bit to be desired. The food more than made up for it, with appetizing offerings from such a range of places that I didn’t even get to some of the things I wanted to try. I practically rolled home, stuffed and happy.