Another year, another series of restaurant openings and closures, of fresh and weird and exciting things happening in the realm of eating and drinking. This is the BEST, a celebration of the things that have brought us joy over the last year and half since BEST 2017. This list is full of newbies and a few treasured oldies. There are some bites that have become institutions in their own right, and it brings me joy to include them year after year. There are plenty of other new things that I’ve tried and enjoyed, so much so that I’ve had actual notes about including them in this list for months.
We hope you take this list as an opportunity to congratulate yourself on good taste, and to also explore some things you haven’t yet tried.
— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink Editor
BEST restaurant that hasn’t opened yet: NAYA
Well, it’s December, and by any measure, the long wait for NAYA continues. When it was announced 11 months ago, we were told that it was opening in 2018. Delays are always part of that process, and while we’ve been waiting, Chef Thad Morrow has been teasing us through specials at Miga (and now Sakanaya) throughout the year, and there’s no other way to say it: They have been sensational.
Take a look at some of the specials we saw here, here, here, and here.
And then look at this bowl of pasta. Goddamnit, that was so good.
Anyhow, we have enough data and information to be able to put this on our BEST list for 2018. It can’t come soon enough. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
BEST salad: Ultra Bowl, The WheelHouse
The WheelHouse has really impressed me with the yumminess of the food, and ways in which complicated flavors are presented in an unpretentious manner. The ultra bowl was by far the best salad I have eaten this year, with its dynamic textures and flavors. It’s a perfectly balanced bit of veggies, protein, and carbohydrates. Even if you’re not in the mood for a salad, please do yourself a favor and eat this one. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST new partnership: Parkland College and Hendrick House Betsy’s Bistro
We were super thrilled to learn that Betsy’s Bistro took over the food service at Parkland College this past year, as their philosophy about where we eat and how we eat it aligns with our own, for the most part.
They’ve incorporated a bunch of wonderful new items into their daily offerings, including a sushi bar, and even their own ice cream called ‘Cobra Twist’ made by Sidney Dairy Barn.
We’ll be getting into a more comprehensive review of it soon enough, as it’s good enough to treat as a restaurant to just go have lunch at, and not just a convenient stop for those working or going to school at Parkland College. But these sorts of partnerships are what make C-U unique and worthy of celebration. (SF) Photo by Patrick Singer
BEST affordable noodle soup: Noodle Soups at Dumpling Noodle BBQ
Dumpling Noodle BBQ is what took over for Yori Q after Kamakura closed down in 2015. It’s an unassuming space, and an interesting menu of skewers and appetizers and soups.
For me, the pork noodle soup, priced at $7.99, is perhaps the most satisfying meal I am eating these days, simple based on the portion, the flavor, and the price point. The seafood noodle soup (pictured) is also a gem, although the mussels and octopus will set you back a couple more bucks.
Sakanaya still has the best bowl of soup in town, in my opinion. Their ramen is basically perfect. Xinh Xinh, Thara Thai, and Bangkok 911 all put out great big bowls of pho that I eat on the regular as well.
But these noodle soups, in a deeply rich pork or seafood broth, with green vegetables and accompanying proteins are so satisfying, especially in this cold weather, and especially because of the price point. Go eat it. You will agree. (SF) Photo from Yelp
BEST new place for coffee and a snack: Avionics + Page Roasting Company
It’s hard to believe that Avionics only opened up just about a year ago, in October of 2017. It feels likes it’s been here in Champaign forever, in part because Flying Machine Coffee (RIP) established the brand. Avionics has a similar beverage menu, and the addition a breakfast and lunch menu. The smaller space is cozy, especially this time of year when the large picture windows fog up. Page Roasting Company is housed within, and you can purchase bags of the coffee there. The coffee is wonderful. With a small display of baked goods, plus the breakfast and lunch menu, you can find a quick snack or a full-on meal. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST place to eat until you want to die: Golden Harbor
No, but seriously. You know. If you don’t? Well, time for New Year’s Resolutions, my friend. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST way to waste a day: Silvercreek Sunday brunch
At the risk of sounding like a pretentious snob, I do not like buffets, save for a handful of positive experiences I hold dearly. Silvercreek’s breakfast buffet is one of these dear experiences. It’s not cheap ($24/person), but you get access to so many foods, including a meat carving station with prime rib. Prime rib! Breakfast basics are also there: eggs, pancakes, waffles, sausage, bacon, biscuits. Plus there is an abundance of dessert options (cakes of all kinds!) and some salads, too.
Look, if you do this breakfast buffet properly, you likely won’t want any dinner, and you will certainly be incapable of functioning at 100% for the rest of the day. You will likely take an afternoon nap. Think of it as “Self Care Sunday” and really commit to the theme. Take your time at the buffet. Savor the bites. Wear stretchy pants. Lean into it. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST food “trend” to hit C-U: Local ice cream
It almost seems idiotic to have this category, because there is nothing trendy about local ice cream. And yet. It’s only in the last year or so that we’ve had a little bit of a boom, or maybe just a loud noise, in regard to local frozen treats. Red Bicycle Ice Cream opened in the summer of 2017; The Dash ice cream cart debuted in the summer of 2018. Both are solid options. Red Bicycle, while only open seasonally, has a storefront space with consistent hours. Sure, flavors rotate, but you’ll be able to get a scoop or two without much planning. The Dash is only a food cart right now, and has only made appearances at the outdoor farmers’ markets, Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
I hope that the successes of these two vendors inspire others to make their own ice cream—there’s not reason we can’t have more locally owned, locally made ice cream in town. And I strongly believe that C-U could support a year-round ice cream shop(pe). Just look at all of our doughnut options in the area. (JH) Photos by Jessica Hammie
BEST place for desayuno: Huaraches Moroleon
Until Maize starts serving desayuno, the prize goes to Huaraches Moroleon, who serves up some super delicious traditional Mexican food to get your day started, or to fix what happened the evening before. Newcomer La Mixteca has a good game, as well, and is definitely worth your time.
To be clear, the trio of stews and soups that Armando at Maize put forth this past New Year’s Day was next level. But it’s not available on the regular.
Most important to note here is that you can find both pozole and menudo here on the weekends. Each is a stew, made specifically to aid you in recovery from a long night of drinking, or to fill you up until dinner time.
Most gringos don’t care for menudo. It’s a simple soup of red pepper infused chicken broth, with tripe (which is beef stomach) and hominy, and finally, flavored with lime, and oregano. Served with fresh masa tortillas, it will warm you and fill you and make your heart sing with delight, while taking away the nausea and regret.
That it is served here in Champaign-Urbana is a testament to our cultural diversity. Mexicans make desayuno with care. I am grateful for it. (SF) Photo from Facebook
BEST weekend-only meal: Latin it up at Delicia’s Kitchen at Strawberry Fields
Latin It Up at Strawberry Fields might be my favorite addition to C-U’s food scene this year. For such a cosmopolitan community, we are lacking in many cuisines, and Latin It Up certainly fills the need for South American food. I’ve really enjoyed all the items I’ve tried. Specials change each week, offering an easy way to try something new and order some staples that are always available. (JH) Photo by Madeline Trimble
BEST place for a picnic with cold drinks: Hessel Park
Hessel Park is my favorite park to hang out in on the west side of Wright St. It has a lot to offer, from a walking path, to tennis courts, to a large playground for kids, and a newly minted splash pad for all of us.
It also has ample seating and nearby open pit grills available to you throughout the year. That means it is a perfect place to gather friends and cook over a charcoal fire, and drink a bit with friends.
Technically, it’s not allowed to drink alcohol in public parks in Champaign, or Urbana. That makes sense. But listen, as long as you are on your best behavior and don’t make a scene, act like an adult, you should be fine. Pour it into plastic cups, don’t bring a full bar and act like you own the joint, put litter where it belongs. No promises, but hey, the world is filled with risk.
Anyhow, it’s one of my favorite things to do, and I am missing it sorely now, in the dead of winter. Hessel Park is a wonderful place to be alive in Champaign. (SF) Photo from Champaign Park District website
BEST use of garlic, still: Lemon Garlic Greens + Roasted Garlic Pizza at Bread Co
I know I just went on and on about how much I love The WheelHouse’s Ultra Bowl, and I do, but Bread Co.’s lemon garlic greens is the salad I will always love and cherish. It’s definitely the best use of garlic, still, and when you use Bread Co.’s roasted garlic pizza as a vehicle for the greens, it’s absolutely delicious. The salad is tangy and fresh, but you don’t have rank garlic breath afterward. I’d buy bottles of that dressing if I could, because it’s just so perfect. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST fish fry: catfish at JJ’s Fish and Chicken
Have you ever tried to fillet a catfish? It’s not easy, despite what this video has to say.
I mean, that is a real man right there. I am not one. But I do love fried catfish, as much as almost anything in this life, so if you are like me, and it’s fried catfish you crave, then look no further than JJs Fish and Chicken on Bradley and Market in Champaign. Bottom line, you can feed a lot of people with their 24 piece catfish fillet order, and at $2 a fillet, it’s super affordable.
The sides are pretty much meh for the most part though, so to make this the right kind of meal, do your own thing, get mac n cheese from somewhere else, or just throw some vegetables into a steamer at home, that sort of thing.
But the fish is great. Lightly deep fried in a cornmeal crust, and flaky as it comes, this is American soul food at its finest. Call ahead for a large mess of them though. They make each to order. (SF) Photo by Justine Bursoni
BEST Dumplings: Mid Summer Lounge
Who knew that it would be so hard to find a great dumpling? Look, I’m not particularly picky when it comes to doughy pockets or pies — I like dumplings in all shapes, sizes, and cuisines. But Mid Summer Lounge’s dumplings are far superior to any I’ve had, anywhere. They are big and full, the dough is chewy yet tender, and the filling is simple and flavorful. They are perfect. You don’t even need to order anything else at the restaurant; one order of dumplings per person, then split them, is the way to go. (JH) Photo by Patrick Singer
BEST over the top sugar high: Paris Super Crepes
It’s easy to scoff at things that are clearly Instagram traps. But I am guilty of bookmarking edible things I see on Instagram and seeking them out IRL. In truth, most of the time it is a disappointing experience. But Paris Super Crepes makes these crazy, Insta-worthy concoctions that are actually tasty. I mean, you’re going to be zipping around for 20 minutes on a sugar high, only to crash, crash, crash into the ground like an exhausted toddler. But it’s so worth it. (JH) Photo by Zoe Valentine
BEST late night (or early night) hang: Bentley’s
Bentley’s has grown on me so much over the last couple of years. The drinks are great, for one. But the bar also has a chill, unpretentious vibe, so you don’t feel like you’re walking into a room full of fucking assholes, or like you’re walking into a place where you are unwelcome. There’s a dart board, but not too many to attract those dudes (you know who I’m talking about). It’s not full of miserable/obnoxious graduate students. The patio is nice and clean and cute. And, most importantly, the drinks are affordable and taste good. Drink specials change seasonally, so you can have a little frou-frou if you want, but it’s not obligatory. (JH) Photo by Sam Logan
BEST Cuban Sandwich: make it at home
There is no BEST Cuban sandwich in town, because there is no true, and pure, Cubano sandwich (either Miami style or Havana style, though Miami is far superior in my view) in Champaign-Urbana. Don’t come at me with your arguments. Yes, Black Dog’s “Cuban” is super yummy. No, Sun Singer’s Cuban isn’t. Aroma makes a huge one, and it’s very tasty, too, but it’s not done on traditional Cuban bread and hasn’t been pressed on a plancha. Radio Maria’s ingredient ratio all wrong, at least they were in the past. Still a good sandwich, but not really a Cuban. Cuban-esque? I tried a lot of them over the past year, and none of them are what I am truly looking for.
So, here’s a recipe. If you are feeling crazy, make true Cuban bread, which is flecked with actual lard, and that makes it an unctuous and very fulfilling bite every time. You’ll need bricks wrapped in foil and heated up for an hour to really make it the right way if you want to, or you heat up heavy frying pans to make it work, as well.
The main keys are thinly length wise sliced pickles, and yellow ass mustard. Stop with your aioli or mustard sauce or whatever it is that you think is going to make it more unique, or taste better. In this case, the answer is that nothing will make it taste better. It is perfect as it was created by people who are better at this than you or I.
Alas, Champaign-Urbana doesn’t have everything we could ever dream about. We come close, but we don’t have a true Cubano sandwich to order anywhere. Like Greek food, or a magnificent Italian steakhouse, we’re just too small a population to really get everything we want here. (SF) Photo from TasteMade
BEST drink trend to hit C-U: Shrubs
Earlier this year I was here for the shrub. The shrub is a drink that is comprised of a drinking vinegar sweetened with some sort of fruit juice, with some herbs or other flavors added. Think blackberries and black pepper, or rhubarb and basil, or cranberry and sage. They have health benefits (allegedly), but more important to me is that they are not caffeinated and they are not tea-based, and they are something refreshing AF and interesting to drink. Because they are so refreshing, they are usually a spring and summer drink, so don’t expect to find them in our local cafés right now. But do look for them at Hopscotch and Avionics once the warmth returns. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie
BEST Americanized Chinese dish: Combination egg foo young at Rainbow Garden
I can’t get enough of the combination egg foo young at Rainbow Garden, and I’ll tell you why. The patties, which are formed with bean sprouts, cabbage, scallions, chopped ham, shrimp, beef, chicken, and yes, beaten egg, are immersed in a deep fryer, and are crispy on the outside and warm on the inside. But the thing is the sauce, and how it plays with the rice and the elements of the patty.
To my knowledge, goyim don’t order egg foo young at Chinese restaurants. At least, not regularly. In fact, the owner of Rainbow Garden told me that back in 2001 when I was first eating there once weekly after my delivery route when I worked at News-Gazette. He came up to me and said “You are Jewish!” and I laughed and said “Yes I am, but… how do you know that?” and he said “Only two kinds of people order egg foo young: black and Jewish.” And then he deadpanned me and said: “You are not black.”
So I said, “Don’t Chinese folks eat egg foo young, though?” and he smirked and said “Never. Literally, never.”
Obviously, I am not sure that all of this is true, what with the sweeping stereotypes and all, but it always makes me chuckle when I think of it.
Nevertheless, tis’ the season for Chinese food, and I suggest you give this a whirl. It is so intensely satisfying for me, and I will understand if eating an omelette drowned in garlicky soy and oyster sauce isn’t your thing, but for me, it’s basically my go-to comfort food. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
BEST place to get bottles of wine: Art Mart
The new Art Mart is a shining example of a good business decision, more than a few times over. One of the best moves they made was tapping Todd Fusco, who used to run the Corkscrew and Buvon’s Wine Bar, to come on board to start the wine program in the new digs.
You can get wine anywhere, and most of the time, if you aren’t a snob about it, there’s not a lot of ways to go wrong. But Todd is a total professional, and really loves to learn about his clientele, and find the right bottles at the right price.
Best of all, he never ever pushes you into the next price point. No upselling, not ever. You tell him what you can spend, what you like, and he brings you back a selection from which to choose. Simple.
I don’t do it often enough, but my favorite thing to do when I can afford it is to just give him $100 and ask him to get me as much good wine as I can for the bill, and I usually end up with 6-7 bottles, all different kinds, and always very tasty and to my liking.
That’s service, right there. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein
Seth Fein and Jessica Hammie contributed to this article.