Around these parts, choosing the Best of anything when it comes to food or drink is going to be a challenge. For every horrible, wretched, poorly-prepared meal, there is a fantastic, and perfectly delicious one to fire back. It reminds us that no matter what people might say about Champaign-Urbana and its food scene (or lack thereof), we have enough to go around and then some.
The challenge is finding the right spots. So, without much further ado — please enjoy a few selections of what we think are the BEST places in town to spend a buck or two and avoid the endless pit of hell that is The Dishes.
— Seth Fein
Best meal under $10 ― Black Dog
You have a whole host of options here to make this happen. Black Dog really is the best deal in town. I think I begin to develop withdrawal symptoms when I’ve gone a week or two without something with their barbeque sauce smothered over it. You get a lot of food that not only fills you up, but it’s also done really well and they keep it inexpensive. I would say that a lot of people would go with the burnt ends sandwich as the main selection here, and it’s tough to disagree with that. I’d go with the burnt ends (if you’re lucky enough to get them before they run out for the day) with Carolina Red barbeque sauce, sweet potato fries (the BEST in town and worth the extra $.50 as a side dish) with a side of Georgia Peach barbeque for dipping, and a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Every part of that meal is going to leave you happy, full and wanting more ― and you only need $10 to make it happen. J.S.
Best place to buy organic nuts ― Strawberry Fields
The selection of organic nuts here is really unmatched. You can find pretty much anything you need, whether it’s in a bulk bin or pre-packed for grab-and-go convenience. Most of these nuts come from Tierra Farm, based in New York. If you’re a big fan of walnuts, I dare you to find any that are better than Tierra Farm’s organic raw walnuts. You can always check out Common Ground of course because they may have them as well. Just don’t expect to find the complete selection that Strawberry Fields has available. J.S.
Best owner ― Shai Mauth (Xinh Xinh and Doodles)
Xinh Xinh has been one of my favorite restaurants since I discovered it. Last fall Shai opened Doodles for the student on the go and those seeking some new, interesting ramen noodle options. The food is great at both places. I get overwhelming cravings for Xinh Xinh’s vermicelli noodle bowls and banh mi sandwiches on a regular basis. But part of what brings me back every time is the fact that Shai is just a great guy that is really passionate about what he does. That makes me feel even better about my continued patronage. His care is evident in each of his restaurants. Eating good food that is worth your money should always be your goal. Eating good food that is worth your money that has that extra, indescribable quality is even better. Shai loves what he does and that’s why you will too. He represents what BEST is all about. J.S.
Best chicken salad sandwich ― Seven Saints’ Grilled Chicken Salad sandwich
The food in general at Seven Saints probably isn’t on too many people’s favorite lists. Not because it’s bad, but it’s just not on par with some of the best restaurants in town. I enjoy going there every once in a while for a beer and the atmosphere of the place mostly. And of course those beet chips, which really are great. Crane Alley’s are, too, for that matter.
Anyway, that aside, Seven Saints’ chicken salad sandwich is better than any other I’ve had in town. It’s a sandwich that provides all the keys for a good chicken salad: savory (grilled rosemary chicken), sweet (red grapes), crunchy (candied walnuts), crispy (celery and onions ― both chopped small and not too overwhelming), creamy (the mayonnaise based sauce is delicious and not too strong) and hearty (grilled sourdough). It’s a lot of food and the picture of the half I had for leftovers doesn’t do it enough justice. Trust me though; it won’t disappoint you. J.S.
Best place to buy bones ― U of I Meat Sales Room
OK, I admit it. I am a sucker for Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I know it’s tired, and he is kind of a caricature of himself by now, but the man really knows good food. If you pay attention, you’ll know that his favorite food in the whole world is a very simple dish: roasted bone marrow. And he’s right — it’s tremendous. What’s even more tremendous is taking that ooey, gooey roasted marrow and mixing it up with some freshly churned butter and herbs, and making it into a compound. It’s truly as decadent as it gets, and should only be something you eat on occasion, but My Lord — it’s unbelievable. At $0.59 a pound for beef femur bones, you can’t beat the University’s meat sales room on Maryland Ave in Urbana. While you are there, of course, pick up a flat of 30 brown eggs for $5, or feel free to tangle with a lamb’s heart, but trust me — go with the marrow bones. 20 minutes at 375 F, and you will be in heaven. Unless you are a vegan. You won’t like it. S.F.
Best weekly dinner special ― Market Mondays at bacaro
I recently wrote a pretty glowing review of bacaro, and on the whole, the response to it was pretty universal: it’s an amazing restaurant. But it’s pricey, and that comes with some restrictions seeing as how most of us lead a fairly middle-class lifestyle. But do you know about Monday night at bacaro? If you are a regular, you likely do, but if not, this is where your ears should perk up. During the growing season, Chef Thad Morrow shops the Market at the Square on Saturday, and on Monday, he creates a 5 or 6 course tasting menu based solely on what he finds each week. We went on this past Monday and were treated to gem after gem after gem: grilled asparagus with shaved pecorino and a fried quail egg; pork taurine with pickled vegetables; homemade turkey potpie, (the bird was shot on Thad’s family farm); braised pork shoulder with roasted beets; monkeybread pudding with a bourbon glaze. This type of meal should fetch much more than the retail price of about $40 per person, but I think that’s the point: you can dine like a king here on Mondays, even if you don’t have the dough to act like one the rest of the week. S.F.
Best accompaniment to a meal ― Sauteed mushrooms at Alexander’s Steakhouse
A few years back, my chum at Champaign Taste did the greatest thing on earth: she totally scored the recipe for the sauteed mushrooms at Alexander’s Steakhouse as part of her Confessions of CU Chefs series. Since then, any time that I’ve done my heart the service of searing off a perfect NY strip at home, I’ve completed that meal by soaking button mushrooms in butter and white wine for as long as I can to try to recreate the experience. But here’s the facts: it’s not the same. At the restaurant, these perfectly soaked mushrooms come to your table sizzling in a cast iron skillet, and have taken on such a densely rich brown color that you almost forget that when they started, they were white. The reason is that they have been soaking for days, likely, and that only brings more and more flavor to nature’s little sponges. Last year, the restaurant sold 2,500 orders of the mushrooms, according to the manager on duty. This year, they’ve already rattled off 1,200. It’s May 5. So, yes — these are popular. And at $6.99 per order, you should give them a whirl. Oh yeah, they’ve got pretty damned good steaks as well. S.F.
Best place to dine as a group ― Golden Harbor
When Golden Harbor opened last year in the old Pickles / Papa George location on Neil St. in Champaign, most people had no idea that these were the same owners as the original Mandarin Wok on Green St. When they sold that off, and signed a 10-year non-compete (from what I understand), they opened up shop just down the road in Mahomet and built a reputation on being one of the only places in the entire Midwest where you could order authentic Taiwanese food along with a massive menu of Chinese delicacies. Literally, people were driving for hundreds of miles for it. So now that it’s back in Champaign, how is it? Well, in a word ― insane. And I mean that in a good way. There is so much to pore over, that it’s almost intimidating. And what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. They have a whole other menu as well that us, ahem, ‘Mericans, don’t even really get to step to without some guidance. But the best part of this place is the tables. And by tables, I mean the biggest, most bad-ass tables you’ve ever seen, complete with a HUGE lazy susan in the middle, which makes the experience perfect for sharing a whole host of different dishes with names like Three Cup Frog. Come on — who doesn’t want to eat Three Cup Frog? I do. S.F.
Best new place to booze ― Quality
I’ve only just had a beer in this new joint on Neil and Chester, but whoever designed the place knocked it out of the park. It’s just classy enough to fit right in downtown, but the bar is all unto itself. They’ve left the raw space that inhabited that corner for years since Lox, Stock, and Bagel was a mainstay in downtown, and touched it up with just the right amount of panache to make it more than welcoming. The sign above the doorway is unassuming, and the name just seems to work for me. I will state that the beer list is nothing new under the sun, what with all of the amazing places to imbibe that we already possess in The Blind Pig, Mike ‘N Molly’s, Crane Alley, and the like, but credit them for doing it up right. Plus ― that the space is even inhabited after all these years is worthy of a toast across the board. Plus, it has a sit down Ms. Pacman game, and it works. S.F.
Best dessert menu ― Destihl Brewery
I will be the first to admit that I am still overweight. Down from 210 to 190 over the course of a year, I am feeling better about myself and feel like I am on the right path towards a better bill of health come my annual physical in July. And here’s what happens: fucking Destihl has to open (at long last) and totally and instantly dominate with what can only be described as a fantastic dessert menu, filled with plenty of choices to meet the sweet tooth desires of just about anyone you can think. I’ve just tried a handful now, but that’s enough for me to know that whoever designed the menu, and whoever is executing it inside of M2, have it goin’ on. Seriously. Below, see a 1 lb. slab of chocolate cake for $8.95. A perfect dish of sour cherry Cuban bread pudding for $6.95 is just above. Ice Cream sandwiches with homemade Destihl Stout ice cream for the same price, and Christ Almighty — deconstructed S’mores with snickerdoodle pie crusts, melted dark chocolate, cinnamon whipped cream, and YES — marshmallows stone-baked in a cast iron serving dish. $5.95. I’m dead meat. Thanks Destihl. S.F.
Best annual food event ― Crawfish Boil at Crane Alley
Now in it’s 3rd year, Crane Alley’s Crawfish Boil is fast becoming one of the more tremendous Saturdays in the summer. One need not live in the Mississippi delta to bring over 200 lbs of live crawfish to the center of Illinois; they just order it up and boom — it arrives. The price is super reasonable at $20 a head, and this year’s affair will no doubt be in even higher demand than the year before. And that’s not all: the all-you-can-eat affair is served with boiled new potatoes, corn on the cob, andouille sausage, and to make sure that we all get our buzz on, Hurricanes, just like they serve them on the streets of N’awlins. Scott Glassman has taken Crane Alley from being a shot in the dark to being a local institution, and it’s events like these that keep their scene loyal as hell, while still inviting enough to the broader community to feel welcome. I look forward to this every year. S.F.
The awesome photos here are credit to Justine Bursoni. The others are Jeremiah Stanley, Seth Fein, and Tracy Nectoux.