In the course of a year, the average person consumes just about a ton food — an actual, literal ton. That’s a lot. There are obviously plenty of good and bad bites had, but the best (and worst, for that matter) are burned into memory. So often I find myself returning to the same restaurants, to the same menu items, as if these things are going away (they’re usually not). I continue to try to expand my comfort zone and subvert my routine to incorporate some different items. In doing so, it’s possible to discover something that is even better than the thing I usually go for — a real shocker, I know.
I love to eat both cheap take out and pricier, plated meals. There’s a time and place for both, and for the most part, C-U restaurants and food and drink festivals manage to strike a balance of cost, quality, and quantity. I don’t think a month goes by without some change to our dining scene; there is always something new opening, or, unfortunately, something closing. (Here’s a shameless plug for following food news on Smile Politely.)
Before you read the list allow me to establish my framework. I’ve only included items that I actually ate in 2017. There were some events that I didn’t cover (Artisan Cup & Fork, for instance), and some newer restaurants that I haven’t visited yet. To be clear: this list is completely subjective. I made an effort to divorce the food itself from the dining experience — service and atmosphere can easily taint your experience of the consumption of the food on your plate. As I began to recall and identify some of the best things I ate, I was surprised by the fact that at several were items I would normally overlook. So, if I’ve learned anything from 2017, it’s to keep an open mind about eating. (And you should try things twice, unless they are totally disgusting.)
Publisher Seth Fein has also contributed to this list, and his framework for his selections are more or less the same as mine. Our selections are followed by our initials.
If you find yourself compelled to contribute to the list, please do so in the comments, or think about contributing to the magazine as a writer in 2018.
— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink Editor
Churros | Maize at the Pygmalion Food Festival
The second year for the Pygmalion Festival’s Food component was a successful one: participating restaurants, for the most part, brought really good food. Maize, always reliably delicious, added a sweet treat to its Pygmalion menu. Churros are the perfect type of food for such an event, as they are sharable and easy to eat while standing and moving. You don’t need utensils or a tabletop. They were fried to order, and well worth the couple minutes of cook/wait time. They were crispy and chewy and sweet and cinnamon-y and I am really quite sad that they aren’t on the regular Maize menu. (I will say that I could have done without the drizzle of condensed milk, and would have preferred some chocolate.) I suppose I’ll have to wait another year, and hope they make a return appearance at the Pygmalion Festival. (JH)
Mushroom Omelette | V. Picasso
Since V. Picasso reimagined itself and reopened, it has always been a great place to drink and dine. The arrival of new chef Leaf DeFehr has only bolstered that notion, and over the past couple months, I can’t stop thinking about the Mushroom Omelette on its brunch menu, having eaten it a few times now.
Served with fresh chevre, arugula, and crispy shallots, and with a side of luscious oven roasted potatoes, tossed in oil, salt, and pepper, there may not be a better breakfast item anywhere in town. At a price point of just $10, and for the size portion, and the quality of the food, it is my recommendation that you eat this soon, and often. (SF)
Galletto Garibaldi | Nando Milano during Restaurant Week
As I stated in my review of Nando Milano during Restaurant Week, I generally don’t go out of my way to order a roasted chicken. I roast chicken at home all the time, and it’s pretty darn good. I usually order something I’m not able/willing/thoughtful enough to make at home, and it’s almost never chicken.
The half chicken was perfectly cooked and the lemon sauce was perfectly balanced. This particular chicken dish isn’t on the regular menu, though I would imagine it’s made an appearance on the specials list at some point this year. I have no idea if this dish will be on Nando’s 2018 Restaurant Week menu, but if it is, do yourself a favor and order it — or two — and enjoy. I know I’ll be looking for it next month. (JH)
Spicy Shrimp Tempura “Ramen” | Sakanaya
I believe Sakanaya to be my favorite restaurant in town, at least, I think it is. Which is to say, I am not totally sure, but that I keep coming back to that idea over and over, it makes me believe that it is true. One of the reasons is the Spicy Shoyo Tempura “Ramen.”
The reason for the quotes over the word ramen is simply because that is how I prefer it. Technically, this is an udon noodle dish, and while there is nothing wrong with udon, it is not to my preference. Partially because I am white as all get up, and have trouble managing the thick rice noodle with my chopsticks. The other reason is that I just adore ramen noodles, and they play so well with this shoyo broth. Shoyo just means that it’s soy sauce based broth, and this stuff is spicy, and rich, and clean. I frequently ask for a container of it to go ($3) so I can drink it before bed or in the morning when it is winter time.
It comes with two tempura battered jumbo shrimp, perfectly fried, and as yummy as it gets.
Pro tip: ask for the shrimp on the side. That way, it doesn’t lose its texture in the broth, and stays crunchy throughout the meal.
This is a bowl of soup worthy of big city reverence. And we get to eat it here, in Champaign-Urbana. (SF)
Note: photo provided by Sakanaya at author's request, and features udon noodles, and the shrimp served as advertised.
Flatbread | Ann Swanson at the Third Annual Forest to Mansion dinner
This year was the first time I attended the annual Forest to Mansion dinner at Allerton Park. The third annual event featured five dishes by five area chefs; each dish featured an ingredient foraged from the Allerton forest. My favorite dish of the event was chef and event organizer Ann Swanson’s flatbread. The light and crispy flatbread was the base for pistachio and Allerton stinging nettle pesto, pickled Allerton ramps, Prairie Fruits Farms goat cheese, and a truffled fennel, radish, and blood orange salad. That list is long, but all of the components worked together really, really well. It was sort of like the best seasonal salad served on the best damn crouton you’ve ever had. If every flatbread out there was half as good as this one, flatbreads would be, like, super cool. (JH)
Frog's Legs | bacaro + Philo Tavern
Would it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that my favorite food in the entire world is actually frog legs? Well, it’s true, and that all stems from growing up with parents who were raised on the southside of Chicago. For special treats, for big celebrations, we always went to Phil Smidts, an old supper club-esque joint in Whiting, IN, just over the Illinois border, that was open for almost 100 years.
There, you could get all you can eat frogs legs (never mind the lake perch), dredged in flour and pan fried in butter. The place closed in 2007, and there’s nothing even remotely like it out there anymore. All things must pass, I suppose.
But with that said, my love for frog legs remains, and this past year, I’ve eaten them twice locally, in two entirely different contexts, and while neither will ever live up to my childhood cravings of Phil Smidts, both of them were delicious and well worth my time.
The first: Philo Tavern, just southeast of Urbana, and tucked into their little business district. It’s a very unassuming place, and on the weekends, they do a decent “prime” rib, and serve frog legs, lightly deep fried, and served up piping hot. They cost $7.95 for eight total legs, and were seasoned well. A rare treat indeed, around these parts.
The other: bacaro, where Chef Drew Starkey does a play on a southern classic with frog legs and waffles (pictured at top). Obviously, these are served with more panache, so to speak, and with a deeply rewarding spice profile: paprika with perhaps turmeric? Or a dry, powdered ginger? Cardamom? — and with sweet potato waffles that give each bite an irreverent and satisfying base.
Three cheers to both restaurants for being so bold in their approach to comfort food. If you haven’t had them before, I’d start with Philo Tavern and then move over to bacaro. That will give you a nice on ramp for how to fall in love with this underappreciated food. Or don't. They are frog legs, and frankly, I wouldn't expect anyone to be all like "Yes! Let's do it!" (SF)
Jerk Chicken Burrito | Caribbean Grill
In May, Caribbean Grill opened its storefront space. The fast-casual restaurant kept its original menu, but added some daily specials and a few more menu items. As a means to celebrate the new restaurant opening, CG offered $1 jerk chicken burritos to the first how-ever-many people who showed up. It wasn’t the first time the burrito or the $1 deal was offered, but that doesn’t really matter — it was the first time I was able to get my hands on one of those burritos (and to do so for only $1 was pretty sweet).
Let me just say that I think about that burrito regularly. CG has riffed on the Taco Tuesday phenomenon and has jerk chicken burritos as the Tuesday special. The combination of ingredients (spicy and earthy and flavorful chicken, some veggies, cheese, rice, plus extra jerk sauce for me) is perfect, and the textures work in harmony. It’s a massive amount of food, and if you have self-control you could probably cut that bad boy in half and eat half for lunch and half for dinner. I don’t have that iron will, so I generally eat the entire thing, feel incredibly full and uncomfortable for several hours, and then start thinking about how I can do it all again next week. (JH)
Double Cheeseburger | Dewey's Drive-In
In 2018, we’re going to get into this further, but one of the foods that define our region is the griddled burger. Steak n Shake serves them, and if you know how to order — see below, and wrapped to go — you can get a decent one there. But there are literally over a dozen mom and pop stops within a 40 mile drive to get the real deal. I’ve been making my rounds, and while I am not done yet, right now Dewey’s Drive-In, located in Farmer City, is my pick for the best griddled burger around.
I mean, look at this thing:
It is perfect. It is perfect because the only thing on there is melted American cheese, raw onions, pickles, and mustard. And that’s all that should be on there. It’s perfect this way. Unctuous, simple, and heart-stopping in all of the most romantic ways.
I await next summer, when I can get my hands on this again. It is so worth the drive, every time. (SF)
Local produce | CSA
We have a lot of options in C-U for acquiring fresh produce, and plenty of options for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This summer was the first time I committed to a CSA, and it was really fantastic. In collecting a bunch of predetermined stuff each week, I wanted to challenge my established routine in terms of eating and cooking produce — no more picking up the same three items at the famers’ markets again and again. I knew that I’d be getting a bunch of stuff that I might not like, or would normally be hesitant to eat, and I’m so glad for it. I was forced to eat healthier and consume more veggies — after all, I paid for this stuff and tossing it in the trash was a massive waste.
Beets are one of my least favorite vegetables: they taste like dirt. But with a ton of beets coming my way over the course of twenty-plus weeks, I had to test a bunch of different preparations to see if there was a way to make them taste less earthy. Turns out, there are! Pickled beets are great, beet chips are even better, and if you roast them and make a ginger-based dressing for them, they only taste like dirt a little bit. All of this is to say that the produce from my CSA was organic, high quality, and absolutely delicious. I ate more greens, learned to tolerate and even enjoy beets, and managed to support my local community.
Original Campustown Pizza | Timpone's
If I had a sawbuck for every time that someone told me that they’d “forgotten all about Timpone’s, is it still open?” I’d be about $200 richer. And I hate to say this, but I sort of join them in that chorus.
Yes, Timpone’s still exists, and yes, Executive Chef Ray Timpone and his trusty companion, Chef de Cuisine Jim Takantjas still put out one of the best meals anywhere, every time. It is time honored, and always on point. You come here for a fine meal of fine food, served by really well trained servers and bartenders.
That said, it is its “Original Campustown Pizza” that gets me through the doors when I think of it. It is a super thin, very simple pie, cut into long strips of pizza, just the same way Timpone’s brother did it at The Jolly Roger in Downtown Urbana.
This pizza is sensational, as far as I am concerned.
There are lots of choices on the menu, all of them created and tested true by the chefs, all of them worthy of your time. But for me, it’s just straight up cheese and Italian sausage, every time. It’s not to be shared. This is a small pie, and honestly, I could eat two of them. But at a $15 price point for dinner, one is all I get, and I always leave craving more of it.
I am not sure that it is my absolute favorite in town. Manolo’s, Papa Del’s, Old Orchard, Milo’s Upside Down… the list goes on.
But for the moment, I am thinking this was one of the best things I had to eat all year. And you should eat it too. (SF)
BBQ Sauce | Lil’ Porgy’s
A small part of this entry is out of spite for a frequent commenter on Smile Politely. The other, larger, and more honest part comes from an unadulterated love and obsession with the BBQ sauce at Lil’ Porgy’s.
I do not believe there is anything more comforting to me, perhaps, anywhere when it comes to eating.
Listen: Black Dog is my favorite BBQ in town. No doubt. Wood 'N Hog is right up there with them. But Lil’ Porgy’s remains next to both of those, because for me, it's the sauce. It's just that good.
Again, you have to know how to order: stick with their daily specials — the food is fresher, and then, you can allow them to just literally bathe your meat and steak fries in their perfect KC-Style BBQ sauce. I believe that you will be happy for it. Plus, they cook on an open pit, and I think that is worthy of reverance. Look at Juan right there, just gettin' down to work:
Listen, as the photo above showcases, they sell the sauce to go. $2 for a pint. $.50 for 4 ounces. $2 for a pint of this stuff? That is insane. You can't get a pint of frickin' Maull's for that kind of coin. I always keep a jar of this stuff in my fridge. I tend to stick to the “Mix” because the Hot is pretty fucking hot, and the Xtra-Hot is really really untenable. Only for those who wish pain upon themselves.
Oh who am I kidding, I eat it all. But mainly the Mix Sauce. It has balance.
So, since we are talking about some of the best things we ate this year, I am including it, despite the fact that it's as much of a standby in this community as anything. It is a reminder to everyone who has lived here for decades as I have, and for those of you who haven’t yet given it a shot.
Another pro tip: get rib tips or wings from Black Dog, dry rub and smoked, no sauce — which are the best I've ever eaten anywhere — and then use Lil' Porgy's sauce to dip them in there after you’ve heated it up. I do this. And I am happy when I do. (SF)
Photos by Jessica Hammie and Seth Fein, except where noted.