For this year’s BEST, I’ve looked back on my first year as editor of Food & Drink. I’ve had some great food in C-U. Even as I quest to dine at (almost) every establishment in the area, there are places I revisit, food items I regularly crave, and sirens that seduce me, subsequently destroying my attempts at healthy eating. If we’re being honest with each other, it’s really no fun to write or read about healthy eating adventures all the time. There’s got to be some drama, some naughtiness involved. Each entry below involves some level of indulgence.
There are restaurants on the list that have made past lists, and it’s worth noting that these places exhibit a level of consistency often uncommon in the food industry. There are also a few new-ish places that have truly begun to establish themselves as mainstays in our community. It’s exciting to discover and explore new restaurants and new menus, and it’s also comforting to return to the local classics. We’ve put together a sampling of old and new, sweet and savory, food and drink.
So, here’s to the indulging and weight I’ve gained since assuming this position. (JH)
BEST water glass refill service
I have a group of friends I meet every Wednesday at Seven Saints for Whiskey Wednesday. Each week we catch up, celebrate and complain, eat some food, and have a few drinks. Alcohol in combination with salty, fried bar food generally spells dehydration and intestinal discomfort, but we are never left feeling gross or hung over on Thursday mornings. This is because Seven Saints wait staff are incredible at filling water glasses. My glass is never empty! At its lowest, my glass has been half full. If our server doesn’t fill the glasses, someone is walking around with a pitcher. This makes for a lot of peeing during dinner/drinks [insert joke about women and small bladders here], but it’s really nice to wake up the next morning feeling refreshed despite having downed waffle fries, onion rings, and sliders. (JH)
Matt "Fu" at Radio Maria
OK, so giving some one human being the title of BEST bartender is really an exercise in futility, because, well, yeah... I'll never win this one. But as some one who A) likes booze it up a bit more than the average and B) knows damn well that there only a few number of truly great cocktail menus around, well, I've made my peace with the fact that Matt "Fu" at Radio Maria is the winner of this little contest.
His drinks are always — and I mean ALWAYS — on point. Lots of folks infuse alcohols, and lots of folks get creative with the menu. He does that, and does it well. But for me, it's about a precision and a technique. I encourage you to head in on one of the days he is working, ask him for a recommendation, and watch him work. He's as impressive as any cocktail "mixologist" as you will find. Personally, I am blown away by his efforts, and always look forward to another round. (SF)
BEST new festival with food and drink
Last October’s inaugural International Beer Tasting and Food Truck Showcase was admittedly more beer and less food. Despite the limited variety of food trucks and the rainy weather, the event managed to be a rather lively event. Entry ticket prices were affordable and tickets for beer samples were 75 cents. There were an insane amount of beers to try, ranging from super hoppy IPAs to sweet and fruity saisons. Local breweries were there, too. The drinking happened in the downtown Urbana parking garage, which protected attendees from the rain, making for a more enjoyable experience. Had it been outside uncovered, it may have made the worst list. It sort of felt like a friend-of-a-friend’s house party — you might only know a few people, but the ones you don’t are nice enough to strike up conversation about the brew in your hand. (JH)
BEST hummus and pita
That Crane Alley serves up the best hummus and pita in town should come as no surprise. Since opening over ten years ago, no matter which chef has been at the helm, the bar/restaurant on Main St. in Urbana has been known for its incredible appetizers and healthy portions.
This particular item brings some serious flavor and texture to what is generally a pretty boring dish. It’s such a basic thing, hummus, that when anyone is willing to go a little out of their way to doctor it up, it’s like a revelation. And despite the fact that owner Scott Glassman wasn’t going to just give away their trade secret (since they’ve been severely ripped off in the past), I can tell you without question that this hummus goes heavy on the paprika, and might even add a touch of apple cider vinegar.
In addition, what’s the biggest issue with hummus and pita? Tell me? Yes. That’s true. Almost always, it’s bad ratio of pita to hummus. We’re generally left with a few pieces of shitty pita bread, going stale, and yet eaten based on sheer boredom. Not so at Crane Alley. The pita, which grilled, and moist from a nice dose of olive oil, is served in points, and is generally a perfect amount to scoop up an entire soup cup’s worth of this beautiful hummus. Honestly, it’s enough for a meal in and of itself. I cannot overstate this: it’s magnificent. (SF)
BEST way to gain weight
Breakfast at Apple Dumplin’
The Apple Dumplin’ is known for its fried chicken, and its namesake dessert. And rightfully so. They are both really good, and a true slice of the landscape when it comes to classic Champaign-Urbana joints.
But if you’d like to really start your day the wrong way, and by the wrong way, I mean the absolute BEST way, then let me invite you to breakfast with me at The Apple Dumplin’, where they will serve you up the best goddamned American breakfast this side of the Cracker Barrel. And I don’t mean to joke about the Cracker Barrel. It’s got a mean American breakfast as well. But the Apple Dumplin’ has those biscuits. And those rolls. And that apple butter. And above all, they’ve got ham off the bone. Yep. Not pressed or water logged or horrible like your husband’s idea of ham. Off the bone. Done the right way.
Here’s what you do. Apologize to yourself, and drive to The Apple Dumplin’ for breakfast. It’s open starting at like, 6 a.m., because farmers damnit! And then, you sit yourself down, and apologize to yourself again. Then order eggs, biscuits, ham OFF THE BONE, and whatever else you might like, but the key here is the eggs, biscuits, and the ham off the goddamned bone.
Then, you make little open faced breakfast sandwiches. I like my eggs super over easy. Runny like you wouldn’t even know they were ever fried at all, really. But get them however you want, and then, you eat them on a biscuit, and ham off the bone. YES. You will say that out loud. YES.
Trust me. (SF)
BEST local brew
Triptych’s Honey Basil Blonde
For the University YMCA’s Farm to Fork dinner fundraiser this April, Triptych Brewing worked with honey from Campbell Apiaries and basil from Green Pantry Nursery to create this unique, smooth, and utterly delicious beer. It’s fresh and light without being too sweet or syrupy. Triptych describes it as “featuring a spicy, earthy, herbal nose, this blonde ale has a full, malty flavor with toasty notes punctuated with a dry, basil finish.” It’s incredibly drinkable, and drunk it, I have. It’s hands down my favorite beer by Triptych, and I think it’s the best local brew in town. There is still some on tap at Triptych (1703 Woodfield Drive, Savoy), but you better get there quickly — it’s nearly gone. (JH)
BEST new menu item
While it’s true that you can get a milkshake at both Merry Ann’s or Sam’s Cafe in Downtown Champaign, the fact that there wasn’t anyone doing something even remotely artisanal, the way that say, oh, Courier Cafe does it in Urbana, is kind of just weird. Who doesn’t love a milkshake? Is there anyone? Honestly, if you do not like milkshakes, there is something severely wrong with you. Unless you are lactose intolerant, and then, my guess is that you would love them, but you can’t enjoy them because of the aftermath. My heart goes out to you.
Oh, vegans too? No. Let’s not discuss them. Thanks.
Anyhow, yes — milkshakes are the best. And Guido's has decided that with Summer heating things up, they are going to give you a chance to cool off with one of their own. Plus booze. Yep. Boozy Shakes are now an option at Guido's, of all places, and I couldn’t be happier. The selection is ample, and while that might be good for the kind of “crowd” that hangs around most of the time, I’m honestly just thrilled with the thought of a Vanilla Malt shake with a shot of bourbon. I am not sure there is a better combination. Anywhere. With anything. It’s perfect. (SF)
Mindy's Italian at Cheese & Crackers
If you’re looking for a filling sandwich, loaded with meat, cheese, and toppings, you must give the Italian at Cheese & Crackers a try. Salami, provolone, giardiniera, lettuce, tomato, oil, and balsamic vinegar come together for a flavor fest in your mouth. The salami is salty and meaty, the cheese sweet and creamy, the optional hot mix crunchy, briney, and spicy, the lettuce and tomato crisp and refreshing. The oil and balsamic provide enough moisture to soften up and flavor the Pekara baguette into which all of those components are stuffed. Eating this is a bit of a workout, unless you have an unusually large mouth or powerful teeth. For the sake of your health, I don’t suggest eating one everyday, but it’s definitely a once-a-month indulgence. (JH)
BEST classic comfort dish
There’s a general rule of thumb these days when new restaurants open its doors: don’t serve up anything remotely familiar to your childhood dinner table. At least, that’s how it feels to me. And even when a comfort food does appear on a menu, it’s gotta be all fancied up and generally it has like, fennel or charred citrus or some sort of bull crock-a-lock all up in that shit.
Not at The Great Impasta. No sir. Not a chance. The restaurant is so hidden from plain view these days, my guess is that most folks who have moved here in the past six or so years might not even know that it exists. And for a joint that used to be as high profile as they come, it’s a shame. Because this is the one place left in town where you can get a classic dish like Beef Stroganoff — unfettered, unmucked with — and enjoy it the way your grandparents might have. I highly recommend it.
I also highly recommend salads and sit ups for two days afterwards, as punishment, and as just a flat out good idea. (SF)
BEST place to (kind of) eat a Jewish breakfast
Oy gevalt, indeed.
The deficiency of particular kinds of restaurants in this town is damning. Like, seriously, how do we not have a true steakhouse? That’s just ridic.
We also lack the following: Greek, Ethiopian, French, Creole, Hungarian… the list goes on. OK, I was probably stretching it with Hungarian, but damn — goulash rules.
Beyond that, the other glaring one missing is a Jewish deli.
We’ve got lots of Jews in Champaign-Urbana. Lots of ‘em. Oh yeah. Big time. Lotta Jews down here! Hello? Anyone? Jewish deli? Smoked meats? Rye? Matzo balls? Not doin’ it for anyone?
Well, Leviticus be damned, there’s at least one place you can get a (very) fair bagel, with a nice schmear and a decent plate of lox, and all for under $5. Yes, that’s true. They even have capers and red onions to go along with it.
Now that’s what I like! A real Jewish breakfast option. And it’s at Aroma? Yes, oddly, Aroma. Jamal and his crew have it down pat, and despite the fact that the bagel is more than forgettable, hey — it will do. (SF)
BEST slice of pizza
Sugar Bear at Pizza M
This slice is so good and was so well received, it has been permanently added to the menu. That means you can order an entire Sugar Bear pie ALL THE TIME. And you’re going to want to eat it all the time. For real. It’s that good. It’s the perfect mixture of sweet and salty, cheese and meat. With the subtle hint of woody earthiness from smoked meat and maple syrup, this pizza hits all the taste receptors (save for bitter), and it definitely finds the right balance of salt, fat, and sugar. Go get a slice (or pie) right now. (JH)
BEST use of garlic
Lemon Garlic Greens/Roasted Garlic Pizza at The Bread Company on Goodwin
There are fewer things more refreshing than leafy greens tossed in a bright and citrusy dressing. This salad is not only the best in town, but it’s also the best application of garlic I’ve had in C-U. The salad is served with tomatoes, croutons, and some Parmesan cheese. The dressing coats each leaf, fully ensuring an appropriate dressing to veggie ratio. I’ve had this salad on numerous occasions, and it’s never been overdressed. The greens retain their crispness, and there is plenty of dressing to cut through the bitterness of the greens.
If you’re really feeling frisky, you can order the lemon garlic greens and the roasted garlic pizza and put the greens on top of the pizza. This used to be a menu item, but for some reason has since been removed. Hack your own greens-on-pizza garlic extravaganza. It’s risky, I know. Your breath might stink. Worse, you might offend others as the garlic seeps from your pores. I promise you that it is totally worth the stank. (And really, the stank isn’t all that bad.) (JH)
BEST place to spend your cash on food
Carmella’s Doughnuts/Sam’s Café
This is a tie for me, as I greatly enjoy Carmella’s doughnuts and Sam’s breakfast. Both places are cash only (although technically Carmella’s takes checks), which means that I have to plan to get cash and go to these places, as I almost never carry cash. The bonus with both of these places is that they’re pretty cheap. Carmella’s doughnuts are less than a dollar each, and you can easily have breakfast at Sam’s Café for less than $6. It’s almost ridiculous to get $20 or more from an ATM because you probably have enough pennies in your car seat cushions to cover the cost of your breakfast craving. Almost everyone I talk with loves the French toast and/or biscuits and gravy (which made last year’s BEST list) from Sam’s, and I’m a fan of the cinnamon twist and apple fritter doughnuts at Carmella’s. Since you’re getting cash, you might as well get one of each doughnut, and bring a date (or family) to try French toast, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, and eggs from Sam’s. (JH)
BEST menu change
Guido's new griddled burger
I can’t believe I am typing this, because if you would have told me that I’d include not one, but two different reasons to celebrate Guido’s and its food last year at this time, I’d have called you a bastard idiot with no serviceable skills of any kind.
Yet, here I am, about to tell you all about the “new” burgers at this Downtown Champaign bar that is known not for its food, really at all. But it should be. At least, it should be now.
The best burgers in the world are made with care. That’s why Farren’s will likely always reign supreme as the best place to get a gourmet burger in Champaign-Urbana. But they serve theirs up in a different style than what I truly love the most, and that is the classic griddle burger. Two patties, with cheese in the middle, grilled on a flat top, quickly and with just a pinch of salt and pepper. The bun is crisped on the very same flat top, and the burger is constructed with any sort of topping you might like. Thems are the best burgers in my opinion. Steak N Shake serves them this way, except Steak N Shake fucking sucks, and one time, I wrote a column about that, and well, that’s a different story. The story here is that griddle burgers are the best, and Guido’s is now serving them, and doing it really, really well.
I know man. My mind is blown, too. (SF)