Smile Politely

Cheese is life: Five satisfying apps in C-U

A white rectangular plate layered with greens, fried raviolis, and shredded parmesan cheese. There are two small cups of red marinara sauce on opposite corners of the plate.
Fried Three Cheese Ravioli at Farren’s Pub & Eatery

I love cheese. I love it sliced, shredded, melted, breaded, crumbled, shaved, or cubed. I love its many varieties and flavors: mild, sharp, smoky, buttery, piquant (I found that last one by Googling ways to describe cheese). With this affection for the food, I’m sharing five of my favorite cheesy appetizers around town. For the purposes of this article, I chose to focus on warm cheese appetizers. Please know that this list is not comprehensive. There is so much cheesy goodness out there, I simply cannot cover it all. I would love to learn about your favorites in the comments. 

A white oval serving dish with queso and bits of bacon and jalapeno.
Bacon Jalapeño Queso at La Bahia Grill; Photo by Julie McClure

Bacon Jalapeño Queso︱La Bahía Grill

This item was the inspiration for pulling this list together in the first place. Queso is a standard order for me when I’m at any of our fine C-U Mexican restaurants, but I love that this one has a little something extra. The base for this appetizer ($7) was the typical creamy white mild queso, but they’ve taken it up a notch. Bacon makes everything just a little bit better, right? This queso has pieces of salty bacon that are large enough to really get that bacon-y taste but small enough to be scooped up easily by a chip. The finely diced jalapeño has been sautéed or roasted so that the flavor has softened, giving the queso an overall warmth rather than that bite of raw peppers. The chips at La Bahía are thicker and have just the right amount of salt. Most of the time I prefer a thinner tortilla chip, but I feel like thin chips would not allow for successful bacon scooping.

I also highly recommend saving some of your bacon jalapeño queso to add to whatever entree you’ve selected. La Bahía’s specialty is their seafood, and a drizzle of the queso was an excellent compliment to my fajitas del mar.

La Bahía Grill
132 W Church Street
M-Th 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
F-Sa 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A gray stone plate filled with fried cheese curds, sliced jalapeno, and green onion. There is a small bowl of orange-colored sauce.
Tempura Fried Cheese Curds at Ko Fusion; Photo by Julie McClure

Tempura Fried Cheese Curds︱Ko Fusion

I think it’s probably against all laws of nature to have a list of warm cheesy appetizers and not include cheese curds. It is the Midwest, after all. There are oh so many cheese curds to be had in C-U, and a sushi joint may not be what comes to mind when you are craving them. But let me tell you, these ($13) were a delight. 

The key to any fried food is the breading, and the choice to use tempura batter on these curds is what makes them special. The most basic version of tempura batter is ice water, flour, and eggs, and it makes for a thin, light, crispy texture. These bites of warm gooey cheese with the delicate breading just melt in the mouth. They were certainly flavorful enough to stand alone, but these came with a creamy chili sauce that added a nice spicy kick to each bite. And, as a bonus, the dish came with some tempura jalapeño slices and green onions because vegetables are also important. For ideas on what should accompany your crispy curds, check out Alyssa’s review from a few years back.

Ko Fusion
30 E Main Street
Su-Th 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (last seating)
F-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (last seating)

A white rectangular plate layered with greens, fried raviolis, and shredded parmesan cheese. There are two small cups of red marinara sauce on opposite corners of the plate.
Fried Three Cheese Ravioli at Farren’s Pub & Eatery; Photo by Julie McClure

Fried Three Cheese Ravioli︱Farren’s Pub & Eatery

Let’s stay rooted in Midwestern food with some toasted ravioli, a St. Louis delicacy. Not quite as prevalent around here as in that city, but we can find it at Farren’s. Farren’s has a solid appetizer menu, as I’ve noted in the past. You’ll notice even then I pointed to this particular app as one of my favorites. Farren’s version of toasted ravioli ($10) came with nine ravioli atop a bed of greens and topped with shredded parmesan cheese, plus two cups of marinara sauce for dipping. 

The breading was crispy and flavorful, and the ravioli was filled with deliciously melty cheese. I feel like biting into a toasted ravioli can be risky — I get a little nervous about burning my tongue — but these were just the right temperature. The menu doesn’t specify which three cheeses are melded together for this dish, but to be honest, it didn’t matter. The dipping sauce was a basic marinara and did its job. My one complaint was that it was cold, but this might be just a personal preference as I do think it’s acceptable to serve it either way. I appreciated the lightly dressed mixed greens that formed the base of this dish. It was like getting a little bonus salad with an appetizer!

Farren’s Pub & Eatery
117 N Walnut
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A square white plate with cubes of paneer and chunks of green pepper and onion, covered in a reddish chili sauce.
Paneer Chili at The Himalayan Chimney; Photo by Julie McClure

Paneer Chili︱The Himalayan Chimney

Paneer stands out among the other items on this list and proves that there exists a tasty warm cheese dish that is not melty and/or gooey. Paneer is, however, soft and creamy and does an excellent job as a vehicle for the rich sauces it is often paired with in Indian cuisine. 

At The Himalayan Chimney, the paneer chili ($9.99) is becoming one of my go-to starters. The cubed bites of paneer were smothered in a glaze-like chili sauce that had a touch of sweetness and just the right amount of spice. It’s the sort of sauce that compels one to want to lick the plate, but we don’t because we are a civilized human beings. Nestled on the plate with chunks of green pepper and white onion, and topped with green onion, it’s the perfect amount for two people to share and still have plenty of room for all the items to come. And when I say items I’m talking about naan. Delicious entrees, yes, but also naan. 

The Himalayan Chimney
134 W Church St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 5 to 10 p.m.
Su 12 to 3 p.m. + 5 to 9 p.m.

A cast iron griddle plate with diced potatoes, green cornichons, and sliced baguette, blanketed in melted cheese.
Raclette Vite at The Bread Company; Photo by Julie McClure

Raclette Vite︱The Bread Company

Reader, you may have realized by this point that all of the previous dishes are found in Champaign, specifically Downtown Champaign. But I am not going to completely neglect Urbana! Raclette vite ($9.50), found on the dinner menu at The Bread Company, is a must include item on a list of warm cheesy appetizers in town. Though, it should be noted that I have absolutely had this item as my main course before. It should also be noted that I could have easily written about goat cheese here, but my fellow writer Serenity beat me to it

Raclette refers to both the cheese and the dish that is made with the cheese, and it literally means “to scrape.” This cheese was heated then scraped off the block. Bread Co layered over the top of roasted potatoes and cornichons that were resting on a hot griddle plate, then the plate was lined with slices of baguette. The cheese had a sort of nutty flavor, and it blanketed the heavenly roasted potatoes that were perfectly cooked. Seriously, I know this is about the cheese, but definitely make it a point to order their roasted potatoes with a meal, no matter what. The cornichons offered a tangy, crunchy bite to accompany the warm comfort food plate, and of course that cheese scooped onto the fresh bread was absolute goodness. 

The Bread Company
706 S Goodwin
dinner/raclette hours:
Tu-Th 5 to 8 p.m.
F 5 to 9 p.m.
Sa 4 to 9 p.m.

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