Blues, Brews & BBQ took over Downtown Champaign last Friday and Saturday. There were adult and kid friendly activities, two stages with live music, and a WWE-style wrestling ring. Food and craft vendors lined Walnut and Washington. In one visit, you could buy homemade ‘rum’, hot sauce, soap, and tutus. Admission was free, but $5 donations were encouraged at the entry gate, and all of the other official event tents. It seemed like there were more food vendors than last year—there were some new ones, at least — and there were definitely more options for brews.
SP food writers Pamela Saunders, Chaya Sandler, and I attended on Saturday afternoon. The crowd was small, but bands were on both stages, jamming/bluesing/folk-rocking it out. I went through the entry gate and headed directly to the food and drink ticket tent, where I purchased 40 tickets ($40). Pricey, right? I suppose in the grand scheme of things I managed to get a lot of food — some of which was awesome — but it still felt gross to dish out two crisp twenties and get silly green tickets instead. The best food wasn’t traditional, American barbeque, and wasn’t from the vendors I’d anticipated: KoFusion served the best meat I sampled, and Mamma D’s threw down on some seriously good dessert.
Despite the title, I conceptualize Blues, Brews & BBQ as something akin to a county fair. There is a lack of cohesion with this festival. Aside from the Blues component (blues music, check), there isn’t much to celebrate brews or barbeque. This year there were more brews than last and Mahomet’s JT Walker’s Brewery was there with a whole bunch of stuff on tap (more on that later), which was a definite positive improvement from last year. And while for some people brews stops at Miller or Coors, for others brews is more than that. There were a few Dogfish Head brews available, but the timed release of beer is, quite frankly, also annoying. I understand that it’s a ploy to get people to attend the festival (or come back), but that was lame. There wasn’t enough going on to keep me occupied until the keg was tapped. I wanted to drink my beer while I ate my food. In terms of food, while there were some food vendors selling barbequed things, it was often half-assed and simply mediocre food smothered in store-bought sauce. Why not call the festival something vague and ambiguous like C-U Summerfest and schedule whatever bands and vendors are available? Or, why not amp up the Brews and BBQ aspect of the festival and include a cook-off, cooking demo, or some other interactive, barbeque-focused thing? Why not include some interesting and educational beer-centric activities?
As an attendee who is looking to generally check things out, I’d like to be able to hear the person I’m talking with — the music is so loud! I’d like to sit and eat my overpriced food. Also, I don’t want to improve my home with Cramer Siding and Windows. (Why are they even there?) While the festival isn’t all that exciting in terms of activities (except for the kids, maybe), the improved beer and food selection made it better than last year; it’s definitely a move in the right direction. If the folks at Fluid Events continue to develop the festival, I think it could be one of the better events of the summer. I’m looking forward to what they put together for next year.
The following reviews were written by Jessica Hammie, Chaya Sandler, and Pamela Saunders.
Billy Barooz: Billy Barooz calls itself the “#1 Sports Bar in Town” (in comic sans ms font, no less) on its website. While that title might be disputed, I was an instant fan of their pork ribs and brisket sandwich, both of which lasted mere minutes in my possession before being completely consumed. The ribs were tender and the meat fell off the bone at the slightest touch. They were perfectly charred and smoky. The brisket sandwich was a strong competitor with the pulled pork sandwich at Po’ Boys. It was tender and seasoned to perfection, and customers could sauce their own sandwich. I was skeptical about Billy Barooz, especially since it was a few stands down from some other BBQ vendors who had more hype (not naming names). But that brisket sandwich really held up under pressure.
I was disappointed to discover after a quick search on their website that these items are not a part of their regular menu. When will I ever taste these flavors again!? I guess that’s the downside of all this delicious festival food. Perhaps Billy Barooz can host a special BBQ night soon to really cement their status as the #1 sports bar in town (hint hint). I can think of at least one excited Champaign resident who would be there. (PS)
Chester’s BBQ: Looking for Chester’s BBQ took us a minute since it was located next to the giant Ice Cream cone in the north-east corner of the festival next to some EMTs. Once found, I was immediately excited to see the smoker going and that meat was actually being cooked on site. The smell of the cooking Danger Dogs was instantly more enticing than some of the other barbeque trucks that lacked that smoky barbeque aroma. I asked the staff what items had been most popular and they said both pork and Italian beef sliders were their best sellers Friday night.
I got the Italian beef slider, and was expecting the beef to be cut the same way Portillo’s Italian beef was, but the meat was more of a pulled beef sandwich. Other than being surprised by the texture, the meat was great. The bun held all of the meat juices so the sandwich was moist, but it certainly needed some sauce. There were two restaurant-made choices: hot and mild. I went for mild and it was sweet and tangy. Once properly sauced, the beef was wonderful, and my favorite thing we had at the festival. (Photo by Chaya Sandler)
My fiancé had to get the Danger Dog as soon as he heard the words Nathan’s hotdog with bacon. When he got it, he was excited to find the whole ¼ Nathan’s dog was covered in bacon and slathered with Chester’s original vinegar-based barbeque sauce. The dog had a light char, and the nice smoked flavor really elevated the Danger Dog’s taste. We will absolutely be searching out the Chester’s BBQ truck in the future. (CS)
JT Walker’s Brews: My first purchase at the event was a beer, and I opted for JT Walker’s limited release/seasonal Daniel T. Porter Imperial Porter. At 6 tickets, this was an expensive drink. The dark beer was visually oppressive on the incredibly hot day, and I hesitantly took a sip. It was super malty and hoppy, but surprisingly light for a dark beer. It wasn’t too bitter, either. At 9.5% ABV, it was a serious way to start off the afternoon, and after drinking one, I was in real need of some food. JT Walker’s describes it as a “full flavored Porter that is perfect to help get you through the winter months,” and I totally get that. As a beer to drink on a hot summer day at an outdoor festival? Maybe not. Next time I order the porter, I’ll be sure to also have some mashed potatoes and designate a driver.
We sampled the Nine Gals Saison again (6 tickets; you can read about our first try here). It’s named for the nine red headed daughters of the proprietor of a tavern in Mahomet in the mid-nineteenth century, and brewed with real ginger, so I very much appreciate the imagery there. It’s a lovely, drinkable beer, perfect for a hot day.
JT Walker’s usual lineup was also available for the duration of the festival. Timed releases of the limited/seasonal brews included the Daniel T. Porter, Chester’s BBQ brew, and the Jupiter’s IO. These were not on tap when we were there, but you can visit the brewery’s website to find out when and where they are available. (JH)
This was the perfect chance for me to revisit the Nine Gals Ginger Saison, which I tried at a recent beer dinner. It was just like I remembered: bubbly and ginger-y yet also floral and sweet. Even out of a plastic cup on a hot afternoon and priced at six “tickets” (don’t even get me started on secondary currency), I really enjoyed it. Jess ordered the Daniel T. Porter, which I found to be mercifully light for a porter. Jess later revealed to me that it was nine percent ABV, which was surprising. Next to the Nine Gals, the Daniel T was kind of the less-popular sibling. I blame that on the weather; porters don’t traditionally go with back sweat. It was great to meet Aaron Young, JT Walker’s head brewer, who was on hand greeting festival goers and talking about his beers. If you’re itching for some good beer and have a designated driver, you’ve got to head over Mahomet soon and spend some time in the J.T. Walker taproom. (PS)
King Biscuit: The King Biscuit BBQ truck hails from Bloomington, IL, and the staff seemed friendly, though not really interested in selling their products. There was a last minute sign that promoted “any meat“ samples for 2 tickets, which is a reasonable way to try their different offerings. King Biscuit offered pulled pork rib slabs, and rib tips. My fiancé and I were really looking for walking food since there was nowhere good to sit, so we skipped the ribs. I wonder how many slabs of ribs they sold, since it seemed most people were walking and eating. The best deal at King Biscuit was the sides that were available for one dollar each. They sold coleslaw and potato salad—two sides I am used to seeing while eating barbeque.
My fiancé got the pulled pork sandwich and it arrived naked on a soft grocery store bun. When asked about the sauce we were told “it’s just Sweet Baby Rays” which was a bummer for customers expecting homemade barbeque sauce at the festival. The pulled pork meat was not stringy but juicy, flavorful, and a bit smoky. The quality of the meat was not great, but it is hard to go wrong with Sweet Baby Rays sauce. At $5 there was a lot of meat in the sandwich, maybe not enough for a barbeque restaurant, but definitely a large serving for a street festival. (CS)
KoFusion: When I saw that KoFusion was on the list of food vendors, I was surprised. I was even more surprised when I tried the spicy chicken thighs (3 tickets) — they were absolutely delicious. The meat was tender and the spicy chili-based sauce was incredible. It was well balanced, complex in flavor, spicy, citrusy, and tangy. It was, hands down, the best thing I ate all day. Why isn’t this on the restaurant’s permanent menu? (JH)
When I saw KoFusion was going to be at a BBQ festival, I had no idea what items they would serve, or how expensive they might be since it is a brick-and-mortar sushi restaurant. When we arrived at their empty booth around 12 p.m. on Saturday, I was lured by low prices and awesome-sounding food. The theme of the pre-cooked food, brought from the restaurant, seemed to be Korean barbeque. Since one of my fiancé’s good friends makes amazing Korean beef short ribs, our expectations were maybe a bit too high for an outdoor festival.
We returned to the KoFusion booth at 12:30, and unfortunately there still was no food available. The staff mentioned something about needing the food inspector, and that they would be ready around 12:45, so we waited. For three tickets we were able to get three nice-sized beef short rib pieces on the bone. The meat was tender, and the sauce, which was described as a Korean barbeque sauce, was yummy but did not seem original. The two gripes I had were that the meat was not very hot, and they could have cut the meat off the bone. I think it would be great to give customers a boneless option to walk around the festival with, but maybe people like seeing the bones in their food?
Looking back at the other offerings KoFusion had I wish we had noticed the four-ticket sampler option that included the short ribs, baby back ribs, and spicy chicken thighs. When I asked the staff why KoFusion had participated in the festival they mentioned the restaurant was interested in doing more festivals in the future. I think if they get their timing right, and maybe tweak the food to be more portable, they would be a great local option around C-U festivals. (CS)
I was not assigned to write about KoFusion, but I would like to include a brief mention. Their spicy Korean BBQ chicken was amazing, and possibly the best thing I ate at Blues Brews & BBQ. (PS)
The Lemonade Stand: Why am I mentioning some standard carnival food vendor? Well, because the lemonade was awesome. It was served with the right amount of ice and a half a lemon. The lemonade was tangy and sweet, and totally refreshing. This little stand also served funnel cakes, which were made to order, hot, greasy, and covered in powdered sugar. Delicious. (JH)
Lord & Lacy: I was very much looking forward to having some Lord & Lacy barbeque this weekend. I’ve been thinking about the rib tips I had at last year’s event for a year. There wasn’t anyone else ordering when I approached, but I wasn’t too surprised by this, as the attendance was really low when we were there. Remembering that the pulled pork sandwich wasn’t very good, and having already had the rib tips, I opted for the pulled chicken sandwich (6 tickets). The chicken was covered in L&L’s mild barbeque sauce, which was very sweet, and one-dimensional. There was too much sauce, and the flavor of the chicken (if there ever was any) was lost. If it had been smoked, I couldn’t tell. I added some hot barbeque sauce to the meat so that I’d have some more complex flavors, but that wasn’t all that spicy. All in all, this was a really disappointing experience, and I regret not ordering the rib tips. (JH)
Mamma D’s Smokehouse: I’ve not had good food from Mamma D’s in the past. I had low expectations this year, but when Mountain Dew Apple Dumplings were included on the list for 3 tickets, I figured I’d try them — for research, of course. I ordered a side of mac and cheese (3 tickets) and the apple dumplings with whipped cream (3 tickets). The mac and cheese was a very generous, heaping portion of very orange casserole. It was terrible. The pasta was overcooked to oblivion, and the cheesiness came in the taste of Cheez-Whiz. There was a heavy dose of dried oregano mixed in, which made no culinary sense. It was inedible. Gross.
The Mountain Dew Apple Dumplings were another story. It too was a generous portion, with a mountain of whipped cream on top (redi-whip, or something similar). I didn’t get a good look at the apple dumpling part, as the whipped cream was in the way, but no matter: it was delicious. The whipped cream provided a creamy sweetness to the hot, crispy and chewy dumpling, and the tender apples. I was told that a can of Mountain Dew was poured over the mixture before baking to ‘enhance’ the flavor, but there was no trace of the soda, save for the sweetness soaked up by the apples. I shared this sweet treat with three others, and it lasted about 30 seconds. (JH)
Po’ Boys: Po Boy’s has been a Champaign fixture for over 60 years, and while it was originally run by Arnie Yarber, it is currently owned by the Rasner family. The Rasners added a new sauce that is thicker and has a more traditional sweet barbeque flavor profile, in addition to the original vinegar sauce recipe. Po’ Boys was first up on our itinerary. I showed up expecting a Po’ Boy sandwich, that spectacular Louisiana creation with French bread and (if you’re lucky) fried seafood. There were no po’ boys to be found at Po’ Boys, but what we did find was tasty as hell. It started to rain just after I got my hands on their pulled pork sandwich, so we huddled under an edge of their tarp and dug in. The pillowy white bread bun was pleasant, if nothing to write home about. But the pork! Oh man, that pulled pork was delicious. It was neither dry nor over-sauced; instead, it was succulent and salty-sweet with a good dose of spice and smoke. Sometimes it’s tough to be first on the itinerary, but I still remembered that sandwich at the end of the day. I’m moving into a new apartment soon, and have a feeling that a pulled pork sandwich from Po’ Boys will totally hit the spot after a long day of moving boxes. (PS)
Rajun Cajun Cookun: This carnie staple was back with an impressive array of meat and veggies. The bourbon chicken bowl was overflowing with beautifully browned chicken and veggies atop a bed of nicely cooked rice (considering the circumstances). It was flavorful and satisfying, although a bit expensive at 8 tickets. (JH)
All photos by Sam Logan.