Illini Hillel has been in the food headlines recently as it helps restaurants in C-U offer Kosher options. A better-kept secret is that the Cohen Center houses Champaign’s first Kosher restaurant called Café Sababa, a small lunch haunt that doesn’t disappoint.
A couple friends and I dedicated our lunch break to head over and try Sababa. Fun story: one of these friends gave the restaurant its name when she won the naming-rights contest. She had entered “Sababa” on a whim, because it means “cool” or “great” in Hebrew.
And “cool” indeed: Champaign needs 100% Kosher restaurants, and Sababa comes highly recommended, regardless of whether or not Kosher food is something you’re explicitly seeking.
Sababa is tucked away in the corner of the Cohen Center. With a small menu of sandwiches, a few breakfast items and pizza, Sababa claims fame for ooey-gooey cheesey goodness and delicious seasoned crinkle fries. We ordered a grilled goat cheese sandwich ($6), a vegetarian patty melt ($7), the margherita grilled cheese ($6) on special that day, and I upgraded my goat cheese sandwich to come with winner fries ($1 for the side, or $5 as its own item).
What jumped out right off the bat was how many toppings you could order to customize your sandwich or pizza. (Some sandwiches require spending $1 extra to get access to these unlimited toppings, such as the special margherita grilled cheese my friend ordered.) For the goat cheese sandwich, we opted for grilled mushrooms and onions, along with some green and red peppers. Other options include black olives, pepperoncini, capers, cucumber, lettuce, garlic, tomato, and extra cheeses.
The food was indeed outstanding, and since we’ve gone I can’t stop obsessing over these pictures of the grilled cheeses. They were both masterpieces: the bread was crispy, chewy and heavily buttered (you can choose sourdough, wheat or rye), they loaded all sandwiches with plenty of cheese, and they achieved a nice balance between being able to taste the toppings while not being overwhelmed by them.
We agreed the goat cheese took first prize: piles of melted goat cheese and veggies in crispy warm bread is just heaven on earth. Although the margherita grilled cheese was technically very good too, it had a little too much pesto for our taste, adding a touch too much salt to the sandwich. (Some folks like that, though, and rest assured it was great pesto.) Either way, it oozed tons of mozzarella cheese and had plenty of tomatoes to add some acidity.
While goat cheese is hard to compete against, the patty melt was a hands-down delicious veggie sandwich, perfectly teetering between a veggie burger and grilled cheese. We ordered it with tomato, pickles, and sauteed mushrooms and onions. On grilled sourdough bread with a side of garlic mayo, it satisfied any burger or grilled cheese craving without the meat.
Last but certainly not least, we devoured the fries. With soft insides and extra crispy outsides, Sababa hit my definition of fry nirvana — and that’s before adding a heavy dose of seasoned salt (while delicious, if you’re not sure you’ll like a strong peppery taste, I’d ask them to go light on it). Our upgraded winner fries featured a hefty drizzle of sriracha and lime aioli, two dramatically different flavors that nicely complemented each other. Order the sriracha on the side if you’re worried about spiciness.
Time-crunched luncher be warned: while we ended up being incredibly pleased with our meal, it took a full 45 to 50 minutes from ordering to eating and leaving. Since they grill the toppings you want and make your fries fresh, you’re getting fresher food at the cost of some time.
All in all, we were very impressed. Kosher cheese has a bit of a (perhaps unfair) reputation for being bland, but Café Sababa challenges that notion with excellent dishes starring their respective cheeses. Our only complaint was the time constraint, but it is a small operation that seems to prioritize quality over speed. I encourage all lunchers, not only those seeking Kosher food, to try it out.
Café Sababa is located at the Cohen Center for Jewish Life at 503 East John Street in Champaign, and is open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., except Jewish Holidays, National Holidays, and the week before Passover.
All photos by Emily Cross.