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Locals savor food, music at 'Taste'

The sun shone down over the Taste of Durham Festival in Research Triangle Park Saturday afternoon, providing some welcome relief from the rain and clouds that have frequented Durham in the past few weeks.

Local and nationally reknowned bands-headlined by Latin American rock band Locos Por Juana-entertained the milling crowd with everything from rock, reggae and hip-hop to bluegrass, soul and jazz, while international dance groups performed Irish jigs and taught the crowd to bellydance and swing in time to Salsa tempos.

At least 17 restaurants offered a variety of international flavors and local specialities. A beer garden and wine-tasting tent offered drinks starting at a dollar a taste.

The event, in its fifth year, suffered some difficulties due to the economy, said Kimberly Ruskan, founder of The Community Chest, Inc., the nonprofit philanthropic organization that organizes the festival each year. She added, however, that despite some restaurants pulling out at the last minute and a smaller attendance than last year, she considered the event a success.

One of her goals for the festival each year is to provide a wide array of activities for people of all ages, interests and incomes, while also exposing them to many cultures they may not typically encounter, Ruskan said.

"We try to inject the international theme into everything with food, wine and music," she said. "[The Taste] is not a new idea but it is new to the Triangle."

Baba Ghannouj Mediterranean Bistro, Carmen's Cuban Cafe and Lounge, Taverna Nikos, Vita Pizzeria, Pomodoro Italian Kitchen and Tamarind India Bistro were just some of the food vendors present. Larger chains such as Noodles and Company, The Melting Pot, Cold Stone Creamery and Moe's Southwest Grill were also part of the festival.

Although some festival-goers came especially for the music and dancing, the food appeared to be the central attraction. Many said they generally liked the food they tried, though a few said they wished for even more international options other than chain restaurants.

"The cajun shrimp from The Melting Pot was delicious," said Patty Taylor, a resident of Durham who came to the festival with friends from out of town and said she would definitely return to the Taste in the future.

Kevin Rutledge, operating partner of Moe's Southwest Grill, said he was pleased to be at the festival and had heard good things about past years, even though this was his first year in attendance.

"[Ruskan] sold me on the idea," Rutledge said. "I figured it would be good exposure even though [our] name is well known."

The event, held in a parking lot near Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in Research Triangle Park, was originally held in Brightleaf Square, but Ruskan said that it is logistically impossible to return there.

Parking, the lay of the land and local food licensing proved to be the major issues of holding the event in downtown Durham, said Ruskan, equating planning the festival to a "huge, complex algebraic equation."

"If logistics are better or the same, we'll move back downtown," said Ruskan, adding that she is always open to suggestions on how to run the event.

In addition to the food and music, the Taste provided entertainment for the whole family. Snow My Yard, a family-owned company, was one of the busiest attractions of the morning, sporting a small man-made sledding hill.

Brian Turner, co-owner of Snow My Yard, said they finished building the luge a few months ago, adding that under the hot sun, it had about 3 tons of ice and had to be maintained every one and a half hours. The family said they have had a lot of success with the business, including covering the stairs and basement of a fraternity house with ice for a party at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alhough they were at the Taste last year, the Turners said the sledding hill, rather than just a small field of snow, was an even bigger hit.

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