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Tailgaters warm up taste buds before NIU spring game

Published: Saturday, April 23, 2011 5:19 p.m. CST • Updated: Sunday, April 24, 2011 10:32 a.m. CST

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DeKALB – Huskie football fans prepared for Saturday's Northern Illinois University spring football game by filling up on their favorite tailgating foods.

A dozen DeKalb restaurants and amateur cooks participated in the fourth annual Tailgate Showdown outside of NIU's Huskie Stadium this weekend. Restaurants and cooks handed out bite-sized sample dishes and Huskie fans voted on their favorite tailgating dishes.

The showdown is a fundraiser for NIU student athletes from all 17 sports teams, and it's also a chance for football fans to pick up season football tickets. Fans could also bid on NIU gear and football passes in a silent auction.

Amanda Benzine, director of marketing for Huskie Athletics, said the winning restaurant or cook gets to take home a "Best Huskie Cook" banner.

"I hope our fans enjoy it," she said. "It's a tradition while supporting athletics at NIU."

Israel Villanueva, who was one of the cooks for Victor E. Tacos in the amateur cook category, said all of the cooks are current students or NIU alumni. He said the food stand won the last two years in a row and he hoped they could keep their title.

"We tailgate at every football game," he said. "It's fun and it's for a good cause."

Victor E. Tacos was serving up tacos, guacamole, chips, mild and spicy salsa, and chips. Villanueva said they also revealed a secret dish called "tinga," which is similar to a chicken tostado, he said.

"You've always got to bring something extra," he said.

Gary Rangel of DeKalb is a season ticket holder, but Saturday was the first time he decided to participate in the Tailgate Showdown. He said the Huskie atmosphere was one of the reasons he decided to go, and he wanted to show his support for NIU athletics.

After trying most of the food, Rangel gave his amateur cook vote to Victor E. Tacos, and also voted for Ruby Tuesday in the professional cook category because he enjoyed their shrimp fondue.

Angie Crown, general manager of Ruby Tuesday, said this was the second year the restaurant participated in the showdown, and she said she would do it again next year.

"It's a great experience for us," she said. "It's an introduction to some people that maybe don't get down (to Ruby Tuesday) too often, and we get to showcase some of our newer menu items."

Aside from shrimp fondue, Ruby Tuesday also passed out samples of Asian dumplings with sesame peanut sauce and garlic cheese biscuits.

Cindy Opsal of Verona, Wis., showed her support for the Huskies by attending Saturday's showdown partly because her son is now a graduate assistant at NIU. She said her family is new to Huskie football and thought the Tailgate Showdown was a good way for people who aren't familiar with the DeKalb area to discover restaurants they've never been to.

She also had a chance to try some foods that she enjoyed but would never have ordered at a restaurant, like a tofu dish she had from the Golden Thai Jasmine restaurant.

"It's great to see all the families," she said. "It's fun to see something like this in the community."

Pam Marck, who was cooking Mexican food for The "Marck" of Excellence food booth in the amateur category, said this was the fourth year her family participated in the showdown. They handed out samples of mini margaritas, cheese quesadillas with lime zest sour cream, homemade salsa and black bean corn salad.

"We all graduated from NIU and we love to cook," Marck said.

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