2022 was a strong year for Food + Drink in C-U, especially compared to the past two years. We’re out, we’re eating, we’re drinking, and we’re having a good time again. This year in Food + Drink, we reviewed 69 restaurants, interviewed 12 individuals, and shared 33 lists. New restaurants opened, some restaurants moved locations, and we had quite a flavorful year here in Champaign-Urbana.
Not everything is worthy of Smile Politely’s annual end of the year BEST lists (read 2022’s BEST Arts and BEST Culture). Here are the C-U bites, sips, and news that were the BEST Food + Drink of 2022.
– Alyssa Buckley, Food + Drink Editor
BEST unique dining experience: ISHI omakase
Inside a building without a sign, there is no menu. Eight coveted seats at the sushi bar have a view of Chef Ken Ishibashi slicing, plating, and flaming fish for omakase, a Japanese word meaning “I’ll leave it up to the chef.” ISHI’s omakase is eight courses with sashimi, sushi, and whatever Chef Ishibashi wants to prepare, followed with an optional dessert course by his wife’s bakery Kaori’s Oven. As he prepares the meal, Chef Ishibashi educates diners about the fish.
I went last week, and the scallop nigiri and akami (lean tuna) nigiri courses were some of the most delicious bites I’ve ever eaten in C-U. It’s so cool to eat and chat with the chef who not only made the dishes but also broke the entire fish down for sushi. ISHI’s omakase is an intimate and amazing dining experience that is so unlike everywhere else. If you love nigiri, sashmi, or uniquely C-U restaurants, go check out ISHI’s omakase.
BEST cuisine to gain popularity this year in C-U: Congolese
Stango Cuisine is the restaurant that brought Zambian cuisine to Champaign-Urbana and is the staple African restaurant of C-U. This year, there’s even more African cuisine, and we love to see it. Mama Meta’s Canteen opened in March with tasty Congolese comfort food. Opened in August, Les Gourmets Cuisine moved into Broadway Food Hall and serves phenomenal pork ribs, chicken wings, tilapia, plantains, kwanga, and more. Best of Africa Food Store hosted Festival Independence this July with performers, live music, and African food. Last month, the store announced that Best of Africa will open a restaurant, and on Monday, I wrote about the weekend buffet at the brand new restaurant Mama’s African Kitchen. This year’s burst of Congolese cuisine makes C-U even more delicious.
BEST vibe: Return to pre-pandemic norms of wait lists and fuller restaurants
I never thought I’d be happy to hear, “Can you wait ten minutes for a table?” but I sure am. It’s nice to see our restaurants busy again. I love having dinner in a full dining room and hearing the buzz of conversations. It’s nice to feel like the worst of the pandemic is behind us. We’re finally able to enjoy pleasures like seeing what the table next to you ordered and if you want to order that or not. Or bumping into friends at a bar. It feels like the Champaign-Urbana dining scene is bustling once again.
BEST new burger: Smashy McSmashface
There are so many places to get a good burger in C-U, but the best new burger in the C-U is the Weird Meat Boyz’s Smashy McSmashface burger. The burger has two house-ground beef patties with melty American cheese, house-pickled red onions, and a healthy smear of special sauce between soft potato buns — and it is so freaking good. The burger patties are smashed to perfection, and the high quality of the house-made ingredients taste delish. I may or may not have eaten like twenty Smashy McSmashfaces this year. Right now, you can’t get this burger as the Weird Meat Boyz Kitchen out of Collective Pour is closed permanently. Rumor has it that the Smashy McSmashface will be on the menu at the Boyz’s new restaurant The Space which opens in 2023.
BEST cocktail: Ladro Enoteca’s Gin and Tonic
The best cocktail of the year goes to the gin and tonic at Ladro Enoteca, the new wine bar in Downtown Champaign. Opened in April by Chef Thad Morrow, this wine bar and bottle shop has stolen our hearts with the swanky vibe, unique snacks, and great drinks. Made with rotating bottles of both gin and tonic, this cocktail is slightly different with each monthly iteration — and each month, it has been amazing and refreshing. I called Ladro Enoteca’s G and T the drink of the summer, but after the delicious October version with Green Hat gin, Three Cents lemon tonic, sakura petal syrup, and salted pickled Japanese cherry blossom, it solidified its place as the best cocktail of the year.
BEST brunch: Neil St. Blues Sunday buffet brunch
Neil St. Blues’ Sunday brunch buffet of Southern cuisine is the best brunch in town. The buffet features hot and crispy fried chicken and the most amazing fried fish. There are breakfast dishes like bacon, chicken sausage, waffles, and biscuits. Sides include flavorful greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and more. The drinks here are great, too. It’s well stocked, super clean, and has something for everyone. I recommend the Georgia peach cocktail which pairs nicely with all the Southern comfort food.
BEST mocktails: Punch! Bar & Lounge
Punch! Bar and Lounge makes fantastic seasonal cocktails like a winter one that came with a side of butter, the spring Barcelona, and fall harvest moon, but what is really special about Punch! Bar is their amazing mocktail menu. The mocktails here are served with the same attention to detail as the cocktails. Food + Drink Writer Julia tried tried eight different mocktails at Punch! and liked them all. Julia wrote, “One bartender explained that the mocktail menu is always very popular, but it is especially popular in Dry January when many people are seeking to limit their alcohol intake after the holidays. Another told us about the many baby showers he had observed where all the guests had big, fancy drinks, and then the mother-to-be just had a Coke.” The non-alcoholic mixed drinks have cool names like Little Red Corvette, and the mocktails are beautiful beverages with nuanced flavors just as tasty as the cocktails.
BEST new food truck: Garro’s Taste of the City
This new food truck opened this summer in Urbana and serves a Chicago-inspired menu. The Black-owned business slings a great juicy Italian beef and some insanely good fried chicken wings. The truck makes everything fresh to order, and the lemon-Parm dusted fries here are yummy. If you order anything with queso, it will be straight up drowning in it, which I love. The truck parks at the Shell station at the corner of Washington and Lierman Wednesday through Saturday. Plus, the prices are all under $10 even with fries and a soda.
BEST edible: French Vanilla Surp
If there is one edible to top all the edibles I’ve written about this year, it’s this French vanilla Surp. This concentrated syrup delivers sweetness and THC to my coffee, and I love the uplifting focus the sativa gives. Not all edibles taste good, but this syrup tastes great and makes me feel even better. If you don’t want to put it in coffee, pour it over ice cream. I buy my surp at nuEra Champaign where the budtenders are so friendly, but you can purchase surps at any dispensary in town: nuEra Champaign, nuEra Urbana, and Sunnyside.
BEST reopening: Red Herring
The Red Herring reopened this summer after closing with no reopening date last December. The Red Herring has been a campus institution for more than 50 years, and we love to see it open once again serving their menu of vegan and vegetarian food and offering an inclusive gathering space.
BEST potential to be an excellent food and drink event: Boba Festival
Look, the lines were out of control at Boba Fest, but the reason was a good one: we the people wanted to go to Boba Festival. The line to buy tickets was long, and the line to turn in said tickets was even longer. The organizers even admitted on social media that they were unprepared for the jam-packed attendance. Since the interest is clearly there, the event has serious potential to be a fun annual festival, and I look forward to seeing next year’s Boba Festival.
BEST coffee shop news: Espresso on Daniel coming back
Just east of the former location, Espresso Royale returned to Daniel Street this year. It was sad to see the Espresso Royale at the corner of Sixth and Daniel have to close in 2019, but now coffee lovers can enjoy Espresso Royale again in Campustown. Check out my interview with Espresso Cafe and Cafe Kopi owner Douglas McCarver that published this summer.
BEST success story: Shawarma Joint opening a second location
Last summer, Shawarma Joint opened on Green Street in Campustown with delicious customizable gyro pitas, bowls, wraps, and salads. People loved it so much that Shawarma Joint opened a second location in Urbana by Five Points. In 2020, we said C-U was lacked Middle Eastern cuisine, and it’s cool to end 2022 with so much love for Shawarma Joint’s food.