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Thursday, July 29, 2004 01:01 am

The best of the Taste

Wienerdog, one of nearly two dozen restaurants featured at Springfield’s Taste of Downtown, has a lock on our "best taste of Chicago" category

"How can black beans be so delicious?" a young woman asked Ryan Flynn at Saturday's fifth annual Taste of Downtown. Flynn and chef Eric Lehnen spent 10 hours dishing up pan after pan of fried black-bean cakes at the Augie's Front Burner tent. The unique, tasty cakes were just one of more than 70 items offered during the event.

The question is worth repeating: How do they do it? Flynn and Lehnen shared the recipe, which involves sautéeing jalapeños, celery, green peppers, and onion in butter with a dose of chili powder and other spices; adding mashed black beans; and forming the mixture into balls and freezing them. The frozen balls are coated with an egg wash, dipped in Japanese bread crumbs, and lightly fried. The cakes, which carried a bit of heat from the peppers, were so thick that they tasted a little like meat. The fresh tomato salsa and sour cream were the perfect dipping companions.

Augie's was just one of 23 downtown restaurants serving up samples of everything from sushi and sea scallops to hot dogs and butter cake. The event, sponsored by Downtown Springfield Inc., gave locals and visitors a chance to eat their way through downtown. It also gave newcomers such as Justin Prairie a chance to discover what culinary treasures the city has to offer. Prairie -- who started his day of tasting with a chili-cheese dog from the Wienerdog-- moved here from Springfield, Mass., this month.

In case you missed the Taste, here are some of the best reasons to try dining at a downtown restaurant. Most items served at the event by participating restaurants are available on these establishments' regular menus.

• Best new entry: Dee's Gyros. This restaurant, located at 312 E. Monroe St., opened its doors just three months ago. Owner Alfredo Garcia, who worked at Filia's in White Oaks Mall for 10 years, served gyros and baklava. Sliced beef and lamb were served with pita bread and a cucumber-and-sour-cream sauce. The meat, seasoned with garlic and other spices, was tender and flavorful. The restaurant also serves roast-beef and chicken-fillet sandwiches, cheeseburgers, appetizers, and Greek salads.

• Best drinks: Café Brio's mango margarita and the strawberry lemonade served by St. John's Hospital. Made with fresh juice, the margarita is a staple of colorful Café Brio's menu. The frozen concoction was smooth and sweet, with a definite taste of the tropics. St. John's Hospital's delicious strawberry lemonade was served with a large strawberry perched on the rim of the glass.

• Most popular: Judging from the continuously long line, the cooler weather didn't hurt business at the Del's Popcorn Shop tent. People were willing to wait for scoops of hand-dipped ice cream, ice-cream sundaes, root-beer floats, and lemon shake-ups. Kettle corn was also selling fast. Del's also served roasted almonds and pecans.

• Best deal: The banana-rum puff pastry from the Tea Thyme Tea Room. The large, flaky homemade pastry was delicious -- and just $2. An airy crust was filled with a cream-cheese sauce, fresh bananas, and a caramel-rum sauce that was sweet but not overpowering.

• Most unusual entry: Maldaner's, known for its gourmet dishes, kept things simple at the Taste, serving up homemade potato chips with and without cheese. The large, crunchy slices of potatoes, thicker than packaged chips, resembled french fries, said Leigh Renken. She and husband Josh, who moved here from Chicago last summer, said they enjoyed the event more than the Taste of Chicago because of the smaller crowds. The couple also tried a teriyaki pork sandwich from St. John's and a cheese dog.

• Best dessert: I must again mention the banana-rum puff pastry from Tea Thyme, but the chocolate strawberries prepared by Andiamo were also delicious. The restaurant served up 80 pounds of large berries dipped in Ghirardelli chocolate.

• Best seafood: Sebastian's Hideout and Bentoh's. Sebastian's offered meaty, delicious fried oysters served with a creamy, spicy remoulade sauce. Bentoh's California rolls were perfect: fresh crabmeat, avocado, cucumber and carrots, wrapped in sushi rice and nori and topped with roasted sesame seeds. This was one of the healthiest items offered at the event.

• Best taste of Chicago in Springfield: The Chicago-style hot dog served by Wienerdog owners Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton. The dog is prepared just the right way, with celery salt, mustard, deli relish, onion, tomato, pickle, cucumber, and sport peppers. It's all tucked inside a poppy seed bun.

Here's where to find the restaurantsfeatured this week: Augie's Front Burner, 2 W. Old Capitol Plaza; Bentoh's, 213 S. Fifth St.; Café Brio, 524 E. Monroe St.; Del's Popcorn Shop, 213 S. Sixth St.; Dee's Gyros, 312 E. Monroe St.; Maldaner's, 226 S. Sixth St.; Sebastian's Hideout, 221 S. Fifth St.; Wienerdog, 113 N. Sixth St.

Fair fare

The Illinois State Fair may not officially open its gates for a few weeks, but you can still satisfy your urge for fair food by visiting Bob Vose's Korn Dog stand.

The 75-year-old Springfieldian and Korn Dog king, whose love affair with the fair has been lifelong, opens his concession stand early each year for those who just can't wait until August to eat one of his crispy deep-fried wieners on a stick.

Vose and his extended family (including 16 grandchildren) operate Vose Fine Food on Grandstand Avenue. The stand opens at 8:30 a.m.

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