I walked into Cowboy Monkey with my head held high. Not because I’m 6’4”, although that helped. It was because this was my first trip to an off-campus bar since I turned 21. Off-campus bars are nice, but on-campus bars are cheap.
Cowboy Monkey is between the two; nicer and more expensive than I’m used to, but still cheap enough to fit into my measly college budget. Initially, I was just going to test out their drinks, but the day I go to a place that serves Mexican food without trying it is the day The Fonze stops being cool- so never. I decided to go big in the drinks and food department; partially to get the full experience, but mostly to impress my date. The first thing I noticed was the gazebo outside. The lights draped over it gave the patio a romantic feel on this mild night, but there were only a few people out there to enjoy it. Most were on the dance floor inside, given that it was Salsa & Tango night.
Speaking of, the variance of dance skills was surprising. I thought the only people dancing would’ve been the pros, but that wasn’t the case. At one point everyone seemed like trained professionals, but a few minutes later I saw a number of obvious amateurs dancing the night away. Personally, I did not partake. Instead I opted to let my mother’s living room salsa lessons go to waste (sorry mom) in favor of nacho heaven. It looked like a fun time though.
Did someone mention nachos? Why yes, I did. We chose the half-order of Cowboy Nachos ($6 with chicken) as a starter, and what a choice it was. The term ‘half order’ usually implants the image of a filling dish brutally sliced in half by a deranged chef wielding a jagged cleaver while twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally. Disturbing I know, but this sizeable serving had us wondering what in God’s name a full order looked like. There wasn’t time to wonder long, not with this tempting dish before us. Nachos require a delicate balance: there needs to be plenty of melted cheese, salsa, and guacamole, but at the same time the chips can’t get too soggy. The Cowboy Nachos found this balance and more when the delicious cilantro lime chicken was added to the mix. Each bite had the necessary crunch combined with savory flavors that left me aching for more.
While inhaling the nachos I had a Key Lime Martini ($9) made with vanilla vodka, melon liqueur, lime and pineapple juices, a splash of cream, and of course the aesthetically necessary slice of lime. I say ‘aesthetically necessary’ because there’s no way this already tangy drink needed any more lime flavoring. The drink paired well with the nachos, but was slightly underwhelming in the strength department, especially after I tried my girlfriend’s Peach Bellini-Tini ($9). In spite of its name, the drink packed a punch like Ali. That is to say, it stung.
Luckily, the tacos I chose as my entrée came in a swift and orderly fashion; the sting was replaced by a savory smell that made my mouth water. The Jalisco Pork Tacos were only $8, and well worth the price. The tacos stayed pretty consistent in terms of flavors, matching the spicy chipotle pork with chipotle sour cream, roasted red peppers, and jalapeno salsa. I love spicy food, and so each bite was a small heaven — the tender shredded pork mixed oh so well with the spicy ingredients, all wrapped together in the warm and welcoming embrace of the soft corn tortilla. But don’t be intimidated if you’re not a big spicy fan. It was the addictive type of spice, not the overwhelming kind, but even so there are many non-spicy options on the menu. My date chose one such item, the Tres Quesos Quesadillas, at $5.75. But for having tres quesos, they weren’t nearly cheesy enough. Quesadillas should have cheese overflowing on the side, but the chicken that was in them dominated the dish more than the cheese did.
I paired my meal with the El Diablo Margarita ($9), a step up from the Key Lime in strength, and in flavor; I’m a fan of mixing tequila with blue caracao. And let’s be honest, going to a Mexican place without having a margarita is like going to Chicago without having deep dish pizza: it just isn’t right.
We ended our meal with the Sopapilla for $5, which is just like fried ice cream if you’ve ever had it. The combination of cinnamon topped crispy tortillas with vanilla ice cream made for a great dessert. If you couldn’t tell by my love of nachos, the contrasting combination of soft and crunchy ingredients is to me, culinary genius, and that goes double for desserts. The Sopapilla had that combo in each sweet vanilla-cinnamon (vaninnamon? cinnilla?) bite, that is until the ice cream ran out — a third scoop wouldn’t hurt. It was especially good when I tried it with my date’s second cocktail, the creamy and smooth Milk Chocolate Martini ($9).
Although we enjoyed the Wednesday Salsa Night, there are different events every other night. Margarita Monday, Open Mike Tuesday, Trivia Night Sunday, and the live music Thursday through Saturday all offer different yet exciting alternatives if Wednesday isn’t in the cards for you. Keep in mind that Cowboy Monkey serves Tex-Mex food so be prepared for those flavors, even with the salads. But remember, it doubles as both bar and restaurant so if Tex-Mex isn’t your cup of tea, go for the well-priced drink specials listed on their site. The romantic patio is open every night this season from 4 p.m. to close.
Cowboy Monkey is located at 6 Taylor Street, Champaign.
All photos by Michael Beauchamp.