Smile Politely

BEST Food + Drink 2021

It’s time to look back at the past year and celebrate the BEST of C-U. You may have read this year’s BEST in Arts and BEST in Culture, and now it’s time for the BEST in Food + Drink. What a foodie year we’ve had. I began the year celebrating takeout, and I am ending this year with tasty things to enjoy at the restaurants themselves. We really have come a long way since January. We have all options open: awesome takeout, curbside pickup, indoor dining, and heated patios. 

There’s a lot to love about our Champaign-Urbana food scene, and here’s what we think is the BEST of Food + Drink this year.

— Alyssa Buckley, Food + Drink Editor

BEST food scene addition: Two Middle Eastern Restaurants, Naf Naf and Shawarma Joint

On a white table, there is a spread of Middle Eastern takeout. Two bowls of rice, one rice bowl with a white sauce, naan wrapped in tin foil, a paper basket of fries, a platter of tabbouleh, hummus, and a pita with a white sauce on a white plate. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

In February 2020, we wrote about five cuisines we need in C-U, and Middle Eastern was on the list. The editors wrote, “We imagine a restaurant casual enough to stop in on a weeknight for a nice meal…It’s a place where you can order a bunch of dishes and share them among friends and family.”

Wish granted: now, we have two new Middle Eastern restaurants. Naf Naf on North Prospect serves fast casual Halal food, and on Green Street, Shawarma Joint lets you make your own pita, wrap, or rice bowl to order with gyro meat hand-cut from vertical rotisserie. Check out Carl’s review of Naf Naf and my review of Shawarma Joint. Both are solid new additions to C-U’s food scene. (AB)

BEST new restaurant: A Taste of Both Worlds

At the counter of Taste of Both Worlds, there is a woman in a white winter coat ordering food. The sign above reads

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This new restaurant is fire: spicy meat, delicious bánh mì, Cambodian stuffed wings, Filipino spaghetti, whole fish tilapia, and (my favorite) the crispy and sweet turon dessert. The Filipino-Cambodian restaurant is opening a second location in Monticello so even more people in the area will be able to experience A Taste of Both Worlds. (AB)

BEST new business: Weird Meat Boyz

In a dimly lit barn, the duo of Weird Meat Boyz are giving thumbs up and holding the Judge's Choice Award for the Artisan Cup and Fork 2021 event. They are masked. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

A lot of new businesses opened this year, but the best one has to be Weird Meat Boyz. Joining the C-U food scene in May of this year, the hot sauce duo slowly released new sauces all year long. We tried five sauces this summer and wrote about what we thought. Spoiler: we really liked the unique sauces. The Boyz continue to create new sauces, collaborating with Humbleweed Farms for a Korean pepper sauce. They hosted a pop-up truck in Mahomet with solid food. Moreover, the Weird Meat Boyz won the Artisan Cup & Fork Judge’s Award for their handmade agnolotti pasta filled with a smoked pork farce in a habanero, blackberry, and plum agrodolce. Plus, you can even pick up bottles of their hot sauce at Harvest Market. If this is the opening year for Weird Meat Boyz, we can’t wait to see what 2022 holds. (AB)

BEST expansion: Baldarotta’s Gelateria

On a black table, there are two cups of gelato, both with little drips down the side of the paper cup at Baldarotta's Gelateria. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This year, Baldarotta’s expanded their menu to include a variety of Italian desserts and cocktails to pair with their Sicilian sandos. The Gelateria is located at other counter inside the Lincoln Square Mall food court, and it is a fun spot to go. I love the chocolate gelato (and the toppings!), and I also love that you can sample a variety of flavors with a gelato flight. (AB)

BEST food event: Artisan Cup & Fork

Inside a barn with string lights affixed to the rafters, there are masked guests walking to get a plate of food and other at the table removing their mask to eat. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Honestly, the Artisan Cup & Fork is the best food event of 2021 because it was practically the only one. In 2022, I am crossing my fingers for more food events. The Artisan Cup & Fork is an annual event, and this year, the organizers nailed it. They offered event guests two choices: curbside pickup and a limited in-person dinner. The in-person dinner was limited to 50 guests, masks required, and proof of vax or a negative test would put your name in for a drawing.

The food was exceptional, and each dish was made by talented C-U chefsChef Mubunga Chanda, Chef Curtis McGee, Chef Leah Bodine, Chefs Ian Nutting and Doug Hodge, and baker Heidi Leuszler made fantastic food. The event was awesome, and it certainly deserves accolades for being such a fun (and safe) in-person event. (AB)

BEST way to satisfy your sweet tooth: Eating Britt’s House of Sweets treats

On a white plate, there is a brick of rice krispie treat with visible mini marshmallows. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

There was no other stand at the Tuesday Market this summer that made me salivate more than Britt’s House of Sweets. Her peach cobbler, apple pie, and her rice krispie treat bricks were amazing. I’m talking A-MAZ-ING. Her rice krispie treats are taller than I’ve ever seen. They’re sweet but with a great salted flavor, handmade and portioned big enough to share — but way too good to share. All market season long, I was eating (and writing here, here, and here about) the delicious things Britt baked up. (AB)

BEST progress in the pandemic: Return of brunch

On an outdoor patio, there is a white plate with lobster egg benedict and thin fries as a side. There are three mini white cups of sauce. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Praise be: brunch has returned. The pandemic forced local restaurants to operate with extra precautions and reduced staff which meant limited menus and limited hours that didn’t include weekend’s boozy meal. Now, brunch is back at many restaurants. Hooray for day drinking with carbs I didn’t cook. I love to eat pancakes with a mimosa, and I really enjoy a cocktail with breakfast burger. Let’s rejoice for our return to a world with brunch. Peep our list of great spots in town to get brunch. (AB)

BEST pandemic trend to continue: Take and bake pizzas

On a checkered butcher block kitchen island, there is a takeout pizza in a tin pan. The pizza is uncooked with shredded white cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and green peppers on top. Photo by Stephanie Wheatley.

Photo by Stephanie Wheatley.

I had never eaten takeout more in my life than during the pandemic. The idea that my dollars were supporting local businesses when they needed it most and the fact that I didn’t have to cook fueled many a curbside pickup. One trend that we’re glad is here to stay is take and bake pizzas. You can enjoy restaurant quality food without any of the prep work, whenever is convenient for you. I’m talking about you, 10 a.m. pizza eaters, or those 3 a.m. pizza cravings when everything is closed. Check out Stephanie’s list of C-U take-and-bake pizzas. Pizza is always a good thing to have on hand, and if you ask the editors, we claimed Manolo’s has probably the best frozen pizza in the entire world. (AB)

BEST way to support local growers: Join a CSA

A close up image of a bounty of CSA produce fills the image. On the left, there are asparagus stalks, and in a metal strainer on the right, there are Illinois-grown strawberries. Photo by Jessica Hammie.

Photo by Jessica Hammie.

I know that we’ve written about this before, but it remains true. In these weird times of pandemics and inflation and wage shortages and supply chain issues, the best way to keep your money in the community and support your neighbors is by buying from them. C-U has options for produce, meat, and even flowers. Now especially is the time to sign up for your CSA; growers need cash in the winter when production is very slow. (JH)

BEST new drinking and activity spot: Axe Bar

On a wooden counter, there is a dark soda-based cocktail in a highball glass. In the background are two wooden bullseye targets with a red center. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This is the coolest new thing to do on an evening in Downtown Champaign. If you’re full from eating at one of our awesome local restaurants, stop by the Axe Bar where you can throw axes with friends. I’ve even thrown a batarang there! From the servers to the bartenders to the axe coaches, the staff are so nice and helpful. There is a two drink maximum if you’re throwing, but after you’ve thrown, there are lots of couches and tables to sit and hang out. At the bar, they serve good drinks, and I recommend The Hatchet. The Axe-rita is also tasty but it is so strong; if you have more than one, you might regret it the next day. (AB)

BEST smash up: Baldarotta’s and Smith Burger Co.

A burger with a ball of burrata and pesto flecks atop sliced Mortadella and a smashburger on a brioche bun held by white hands above a takeout container lined with a green and white checkered parchment paper. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

There’s been a lot of collaborations this year with businesses linking up for special foods and drinks, but none were as delicious as the Lady Della burger made by the Baldarotta’s + Smith Burger smash up. The burger had the same classic smashburger deliciousness we love from Smith Burger Co, and the most amazing burrata that exploded all over the pesto covered burger in true flavor explosion style by Baldarotta’s. Please, please make it again. (AB)

BEST coffee shop expansion: Cafe Kopi

Inside BIF on the U of I campus, there is a small coffee counter with Cafe Kopi sign above it. There are patrons waiting for drinks, ordering, and waiting to order. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

This year, Downtown Champaign’s Cafe Kopi added a campus location in BIF. Campus building access is required for the new coffeeshop, but for those already on campus, it makes a great spot to grab a cup of joe and one of the tasty lunch options: sandwiches, salads, pita, and more. (AB)

BEST place for a coffee or a cocktail in Downtown Champaign: Aroma and Cowboy Monkey

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

During the day, enjoy warm lattes or iced coffee drinks with cake or pastries. At night, sip on the pomegranate splash and get Tex-Mex food. What more could you want from one building? The range of this restaurant comes from the clever sharing of space by Aroma and Cowboy Monkey. Catch brunch at the restaurant on the weekends for both coffee cocktails and Tex-Mex breakfast. (AB)

BEST cheap meal: Wood N’ Hog’s $5.99 pulled pork sandwich with fries

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Have you ever seen a more beautiful $6? I haven’t. Most sandwiches in town cost more than $6, and they don’t come with fries! If I drive by Urbana’s Wood N’ Hog on a Friday and I smell that smoky BBQ aroma, I have to stop. Served all day on Fridays at both locations, this pulled pork sandwich meal slaps. The mixed sauce is so good and the meat so tender. I also am obsessed with the saucy fries; they’re like cheese fries but instead of cheese, it’s spicy, sticky sauce over piping hot fries. Wood N’ Hog’s pulled pork sandwich and fries is the best cheap meal. (AB)

BEST grocery upgrade: El Progreso 

Shelves of pantry items and colorful sodas line the shelves at El Progreso's new store in Urbana. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

From a strip mall corner-store to a shiny, stand-alone building with ample parking in front, El Progresso had a glow up this year. The new store is beautiful and full of great things to buy from pantry goods to piñatas to drinks, and it’s definitely worth a shopping trip. (AB)

BEST new cannabis shop: NuEra Champaign

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

The legalization of recreational cannabis for Illinois in 2020 was momentous, and the best new place to pick up legal cannabis is the new NuEra location in Campustown which opened in 2021. Located across the street from Maize and beside KAM’s, the dispensary is adult-use only, meaning anyone over 21 can come in and buy legal cannabis products. What I like most about the store is the hospitality. The staff here are incredibly kind, welcoming, and friendly. If you don’t know what to order (or even how to order), they will help you out. Since we can all use a little more calm, this is definitely one of the best new additions to C-U this year. (AB)

BEST restaurant that hasn’t opened yet: Sakanaya in Downtown Champaign 

At evening in Downtown Champaign, the exterior of Sakanaya Downtown has a vertical sign with the restaurant's name and a small fish above. Photo from Miga's Facebook page.

Photo from Miga’s facebook page.

When Miga closed permanently at the beginning of 2021, I was very sad, but news quickly emerged that the location would become Sakanaya Downtown. Sakanaya is consistently serving excellent sushi, ramen, and more at the little Green Street location. We can’t wait to see the menu. Will crunch fries make the cut? Will the sushi rolls be the same as the Green Street location? What cocktails will be on the menu? And when can we make our reservation? (AB)

BEST restaurant owner: Carolyn Farren

On a sunny day, the exterior of Farren's is a brick building in Downtown Champaign with a pretty lit sign reading

Photo by Anna Longworth.

The best restaurant owner in 2021 is one who led our community in COVID precautions and community building this year. Farren’s brought people together when the restaurant helped host Toast to Taylor, an event in Downtown Champaign celebrating restaurants, makers, and performers. This winter, the restaurant also has been — and is currently still — running a coat and cold weather gear drive. Could Farren’s be any more wholesome? Cheers to Farren’s Carolyn Farren. (AB)

Alyssa Buckley and Jessica Hammie contributed to this article.

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