Even though we’re quite lucky to have a relatively robust selection of drinking and dining options in town, I, like presumably many others, often fall into a rut when it comes to selecting locations and dishes or drinks. So with this new monthly column, I hope to highlight seasonal specials, as well as some things we may overlook on menus around town. I encourage you to share your favorite local dish in the comments.
March is often a strange month, caught between winter and spring, often soggy but sometimes sunny. This winter was very mild, but I still felt (and continue to feel) compelled to consume comfort foods. As the temperature warms and the clocks move forward, shifting the daylight to later in the day, I know I’ll be craving items that are full of fresh produce and bright flavors, but that fresh produce hasn’t yet grown. Until then, this month’s list revolves around the theme of warming up, staying warm, and putting off the bathing suit body diet another few weeks.
Smoked Meatloaf | Black Dog
The much loved barbeque joint serves up many favorites, and if you’ve been more than once you likely already have yours. The Saturday smoked meatloaf special (sandwich, $8.95; platter $15.95) is one of those items I eat quarterly; it’s generally difficult (read, long wait) to get into Black Dog on a Saturday and quite frankly, I don’t need to be eating bacon-wrapped smoked meatloaf on the regular. But since it is still technically winter, I strongly suggest ordering the smoked meatloaf (sandwich if you’re just normal-hungry; platter if you’re starving or sharing). It’s wrapped in bacon, adding an extra smokiness and plenty of moisture to the loaf. The bacon gets all limp, though, so peel that right off and put it to the side. There are some bell peppers and a little bit of a spicy kick in the seasoning, which helps cut through the heaviness of the meal. I always get the twice-baked potato casserole and the hot Georgia peach sauce, and that trio does right by me each time.
Black Dog (201 N Broadway Ave, Urbana | 320 N Chestnut St, Champaign) serves smoked meatloaf on Saturdays only.
Twice Baked Potato | Old Time Meat & Deli
Speaking of twice baked potatoes, you should most definitely try the ones made by Old Time Meat & Deli. They are delicious, and the size of your face. Some are with bacon, some are without. Some are even without potato skin, that is, you can buy the filling in a container and eat the best mashed potatoes ever. As the weather warms a bit, you may want to consider picking up something for your lonely grill, too. Serve your grilled meats with those potatoes? That’s a Saturday night dinner right there.
Old Time Meat & Deli (2018 S Neil Street, Champaign), is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The twice baked potatoes are available everyday (assuming they don’t sell out).
Goat Milk Hot Chocolate | Prairie Fruits Farm
One of the first signs that spring is springing is the birth of baby goats at Prairie Fruits Farm. The births mean that Spring Open House, AKA Baby Goat Breakfast, is upon us. Not only are you able to squeal in delight over hundreds of silly and adorable baby goats, but you get to eat a delicious breakfast, too. The menu changes each week, and the food is always good, but at least one thing is consistently available: hot chocolate ($3.50). The goat milk hot chocolate is rich and creamy and friggin’ delicious. It’s very indulgent. And because it’s served piping hot, you can take it with you as you visit with the kids. Wait — as I’m writing this I had a brilliant idea: what if you mix it with coffee? Half coffee and half hot chocolate? Million dollar idea! (Except that according to the infallible UrbanDictionary.com it already has a name — Cadillac — and was invented in prison. Interesting.) Starting Saturday, March 19th, you can get some delicious hot chocolate from Prairie Fruits Farm.
Prairie Fruits Farm Spring Open House series is each Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, beginning March 19th and ending on April 30th. The goat milk hot chocolate is available each Saturday. Breakfast is first-come, first-served, no reservations.
Green beans with fresh garlic | Golden Harbor
I’m not usually one to go for the veggies first, but at Golden Harbor, I’m all about the green beans with fresh garlic (item number 975). They are the best way to eat vegetables, in my opinion. Sautéed with loads of garlic, these beans go down easy — unless you don’t like garlic, of course. If that’s the case, just skip ahead. There is plenty of flavor on this plate, and I’ve found the garlic green beans pair nicely with everything on the menu. They're a nice way to ease into fresh produce season. (And the dish is vegetarian.)
Jerk Chicken | Caribbean Grill Food Truck
When it’s cold outside, I think of the Caribbean. When it’s not cold outside, I think of the Caribbean. The best way to ease my mind is by putting some Caribbean flavors in my mouth, and Caribbean Grill’s Food Truck is the most efficient and cost effective way to do that. The jerk chicken is great (meal $7.99; side $3.29). It’s full of flavor, earthy and spicy, but not unbearably so. The chicken’s always moist and tender. Served with some rice and peas and some plantains, it’s a taste of the Caribbean without spending oodles of money to go there. The food truck’s location changes daily, so you’ll have to follow CG on Facebook for the most up to date information, but generally there’s an opportunity to find it near or on campus and near Downtown Champaign. If the weather cooperates, you can even eat outside, but if it doesn’t, the food travels home well.
Caribbean Grill (food truck, location changes), is generally around Tuesday through Saturday, during lunch hours (11 a.m. until sold out, or 2 p.m.). You need to follow CG or check the website for location, hours, and specials.
If March came in like lion, and is going out like a lamb, then maybe April’s Five Things should include some lamb. Check back next month for more suggestions.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.