I recently took a ride out to Mahomet to see what JT Walker’s food was about. I’ve sampled most of the beers from the brewery, and most of them are pretty good. Last spring I enjoyed a nice beer dinner there, but the food wasn’t prepared by the restaurant. And although I had a sense of what kind of food was offered on the restaurant side — bar food — I wanted to check it out for myself.
I headed out for lunch on a Saturday. As Mahomet’s only real comprehensive restaurant, JT Walker’s has a tall order to fill. It needs to be accessible for all sorts: families, young people, old people, kids, bachelors, single ladies, ladies/dudes out on the town. As a self-proclaimed restaurant and sports bar, it’s accessible to most groups, save for those who are looking for an upscale dining experience. The entrance leads you right into the bar (on your left), and the décor is homey and traditional. There’s a large fireplace at the other side of the room, straight ahead from the door. Tables — no booths — are what you’ll find downstairs. The upstairs space is called “The Dog Pound,” and is a more sporty sports bar area. There’s a rooftop bar, and in the warmer months, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Because the interior is a large, uninterrupted space with high ceilings and absolutely no textiles to buffer sound, it’s pretty loud. I can imagine that the noise might verge on deafening on a very busy afternoon or evening. The televisions over the bar weren’t blaring, but I bet the sound is bumped up if the Illini are playing.
The menu at JT’s is extensive. I’d go so far as to say it’s actually too big. Wanting to start with an appetizer? There are fifteen options ($5.95-$9.95). There are nineteen burgers on the menu. Technically there are seventeen burgers, one black bean burger, and a horseshoe (all $9.95, save for the classic burger, $8.95). That’s absurd. There are eighteen options under sandwiches and wraps ($8.95-$12.95). Of the thirteen salads ($7.95-$12.95), only two are vegetarian. Surely you can make the others vegetarian by omitting the chicken, bacon, chorizo, tuna, or steak. In addition to the appetizers, salads, burgers, sandwiches and wraps, the dinner menu boasts fourteen entrées ($10.95-$21.95, with most around $13.95) and eleven different pasta options ($11.95-$14.95). Prices are consistent within categories and on par with other places in Champaign and Urbana.
I’m not sure if it’s ironic that JT’s has about 100 menu options: with limited options for eating in and around Mahomet, JT’s has crafted itself as the go-to. However, the attempt to appeal to every potential diner leads to strange, poorly considered flavor combinations. For example, why does the chipotle black bean burger have basil and provolone on it? Why not cilantro and “queso” or pepper jack cheese? These are typical flavor profiles for a reason. On the other hand, the impulse to create a menu that is interesting and remain accessible has led to some unique options for sides.
On this visit I ordered the Dog Pound Fries to start: French fries smothered in chili cheese dip, topped with shredded cheese, diced tomatoes, and scallions ($6.95). It was quite a generous offering of smothered fries. The tomatoes were of no consequence; they were flavorless. This is par for the course with tomatoes in winter, though, but many restaurants decide to serve them anyway. The fries were delicious. They were sizable, which is to say that there was a good ratio of fluffy potato inside and crispy potato outside. These were most appropriate for soaking and scooping up the thick cheesy chili sauce, which was not all that meaty. While it might not be the best appetizer for a first date, it’s definitely one to share with people you love who don’t judge you for the resulting bad breath and inevitable indigestion.
It took me a while to consider the 1.35 million burger and sandwich options. After a few minutes of serious reflection, I settled on the pretzel burger as my entrée ($9.95). This burger was dressed with chipotle aioli, provolone cheese, and fried onion strings, and sat atop a pretzel bun. All burgers and sandwiches are served with French fries, coleslaw, chips and salsa, or polenta fries. Polenta fries? That’s quite unusual, especially at a sports bar, and especially because polenta doesn’t appear on the menu anywhere else. Polenta is just cornmeal that’s been cooked into porridge or mush, just liked grits, so it’s easy to cut into pieces and fry when it’s cold. For an extra $1.50, you can substitute the standard side with sweet potato fries, breaded mushrooms, onion rings, pub pickles, or asparagus fries. For $2 you can have mac and cheese, fruit, or a soup or salad. I opted for the polenta fries.
[Editor's Note: Polenta is actually cornmeal that’s been cooked into porridge or mush, similar to grits, so it’s easy to cut into pieces and fry when it’s cold. This was a mistake and we're correcting it from what's stated above. (JH)]
My plate of brown food arrived. The burger was somewhere in between a gourmet burger and a griddle burger. Despite not having been asked by the waitress how I wanted it cooked, it was still juicy, albeit a bit greasy. The cheese was perfectly melted. The pretzel bun was substantial, and ever so slightly sweet. The onion strips were on point: crunchy, crispy, a little salty, with sweet onions right in the middle. The burger was a little easy on the chipotle aioli and I had totally forgotten that it was on it until I went to slather ketchup on it.
The polenta fries were impeccably regular: they were exactly the same size and color. There were six of them on the plate, which was more than enough. They were perfectly fried and slightly salty. Since polenta doesn’t have much taste anyway, they were in need of a dipping sauce (in this case, ketchup) to moisten them up. I found them enjoyable, but if you’re not into the texture of grits (read: slightly gritty), then you should opt for something else. These fried carb bombs could easily be dressed up as an appetizer (just serve ‘em with some dipping sauce), but I’m definitely not suggesting that the restaurant expands the menu.
When I was seated at the table, I noticed that the dessert menu was in a little placard off to the side. I read this before the menu, and knew that I’d have to end my meal with some dessert. The dessert menu is significantly smaller than the enormous savory menu, which was a relief. I opted for Renee’s peaches and cream ($4.95), which, as I type this, sounds downright pornographic. (For the record, I did not think that when I ordered or ate it.)
Moving on: the dessert arrived to the table, and I wasn’t really sure how it would be plated, but I suppose I thought it would be more of a cobbler than a cake. Still, everything looked to be on the up and up until I saw the scoop of ice cream that had clearly been fingered by the person plating it, which made the ice cream look like a skull. This imagery rang clearly to me as a memento mori, and I should have internalized the omen and pushed the cake aside. In short: it was not good. It tasted of the freezer in the worst possible way. The cake was rubbery, and the peaches tasted of the old canned variety. The cake had clearly been frozen and then quickly defrosted in the microwave, resulting in an inedible, terrible dessert. It was a disappointing way to end an otherwise fine experience. However, I’m not totally turned off from ordering desserts on my next visit; the root beer float ($4.50) and ice cream sundae ($1.95) don’t involved baked goods, so those sound promising.
With thirty-five burger and sandwich options and no fewer than thirteen options for sides, you have the potential to have 455 different permutations of burgers or sandwiches and a side. That seems insane and unsustainable in terms of quality control. However, my appetizer and burger selections were solid bar food options, and even though the dessert fell horribly short, I’ll still venture out to Mahomet for some bar food, and maybe a root beer float (in the summer, on the rooftop deck).
JT Walker’s is located at 401 E Main St, Mahomet, and is open Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. For information about the brewery, visit this website.