Happy December, Champaign-Urbana. ‘Tis the season for twinkly lights and seasonal bops on the radio. There’s shopping to be done, plans to attend, and moments of chaos no doubt ahead, but through the holiday hubbub, we must eat. This month’s list has bites and sips that might bring a little joy and warmth to this chilly December. Let’s sip a fancy hot cider, eat specialty doughnuts, and nibble a pretty pie. Go for sizzling rice in Urbana and spicy fajitas at a new restaurant in Champaign.
Hot Stepper︱Gallery Art Bar
Gallery is a dazzling new spot for drinks of all kinds: cocktails, mocktails, kombucha, espresso, beer, wine, and tea. One freezing evening, I warmed up with a mug of the hot stepper ($8), made with Curtis Orchard cider, and I loved it. I’ve had the Champaign orchard’s cider before (and you might have, too), but this version elevated it. The housemade spiced syrup had warm winter flavors of brown sugar, cinnamon, and sage that tasted delicious with cranberry bitters and the sweet apple cider. Each bespoke beverage at Gallery can be made with or without alcohol. I enjoyed the hot stepper as is: a fancy hot cider, but it could be a cocktail if desired. The menu suggests adding rye.
Gallery Art Bar showcases a different local artist each month. The artwork and the bar’s colorful lights makes Gallery a fun spot in Downtown Urbana. Gallery is open four nights a week and regularly hosts dance parties, poetry readings, and more. Follow the bar on Instagram to stay in the know.
Gallery Art Bar
119 W Main St
W+Th 5 p.m. to midnight
F 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Sa noon to 1 a.m.
Spicy Mango Fajitas︱Hacienda Agave
Opened this month in the old Alexander’s Steakhouse location, Hacienda Agave is a new Mexican restaurant in Champaign. I need to tell you about this order of spicy mango fajitas ($16.99) with steak, onions, jalapeños, and mango with tortillas and toppings (lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, rice, and beans). This was an awesome dish with plenty of mango and jalapeños. Any bite with mango was absolutely delicious; big hunks of juicy mango gave the steak great flavor. It tasted akin to al pastor (pork and pineapple), fruity and savory at the same time. Since the peppers were deseeded, there wasn’t much spiciness. Sliced in long planks, the jalapeños served a strong peppery flavor more pronounced than the usual fajita bell peppers. The steak was chopped bite-sized for easy taco assembly, and the side toppings were fresh.
Hacienda Agave serves water in cool mason jar mugs, and the free salsa has a nice spicy kick. If out near Market Place Mall this month, let an order of these steak fajitas fuel holiday shopping.
Hacienda Agave Mexican Grill
202 W Anthony Dr
11 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily
Special Doughnut︱Industrial Donut
This festive looking treat is Industrial Donut’s special chocolate peppermint crunch doughnut ($1.89). Filled with chocolate fluff and topped with a peppermint Hershey’s kiss, the doughnut had chocolate peppermint icing and a sprinkle of peppermint candy. It totally tasted like the holidays. The fudgy frosting was great, and the crumble of peppermint added some crunch and a sharp, minty zing. I love how doughnuts at Industrial Donut are warm, usually with a crinkly edge to the cake. This peppermint one is this week’s doughnut, so it’s available now, and next week, it’ll be a sugar cookie doughnut. The corner shop’s whole thing is a build-your-own doughnut concept, so haters of peppermint and sugar cookies can simply pick another frosting and topping combination.
Industrial has the holiday doughnut game covered with a Ho-Ho-Ho box (dozen holiday-themed doughnuts), Grinch box (green sprinkled doughnuts that have a tiny red heart), snowflake box (doughnuts with vanilla frosting and snowflake sprinkles), ornament box (doughnuts that look like tree ornaments), Santa belly box (doughnuts resembling Mr. Claus’ belted belly), and even an Elf themed box (doughnuts featuring photos and quotes from the movie Elf). Put pre-orders in here, and follow the doughnut shop on Facebook for more holiday specials.
501 Commerce Dr
M-Sa 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Stone Bowl Bibimpbap︱Masjita Grill
If there’s only one thing you try from this list, make it this: Masijta Grill’s stone bowl bibimbap ($14). The rice bowl of colorful vegetables, beef, and egg was extremely hot, so scalding that rice sizzled against the hot stone. As I started eating — poking my egg until the yolk ran and picking up purple cabbage with chopsticks — my server instructed me to “Mix! Bibimbap is to mix!” So I mixed it up until everything was coated in a yolk dressing and (at my server’s demand) a squeeze of bibimbap sauce, too. Most of the rice was steamed and soft, but every single grain of rice crisped on the stone tasted incredible. That crunchy texture and slightly charred flavor of the rice was so freaking good. And all the elements harmonized. The sweet and salty flavor of the beef bulgogi was amazing, and because it was sliced thinly, it was easy to eat some with every bite. Cabbage and carrots started crisp, but in the hot bowl, the raw veggies absorbed flavor and heat, wilting softly.
My bibimbap came with a trio of banchan: super spicy kimchi cabbage, sour and slightly sweet bean sprouts, and sweet, tangy radish with jalapeño. I loved the kimchi’s cold crunch and red hot spiciness, a terrific foil to the bibimbap’s hot temp and mild flavors. Go to Masijta Grill, don’t even get a menu, and order this hot stone bowl bibimbap.
202 N Race St
Su-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Apple Hand Pie ︱Suzu’s Bakery
This time of year, pie feels right. I am still thinking about Suzu’s apple hand pie ($4.25), shaped like an apple. From-scratch crust was folded over cooked apple slices in a housemade syrup. The apple filling tasted sweet but not overly so, and that pastry was absolutely delicious. Topped with sugar crystals and baked only to slightly golden — almost undercooked, the hand pie was delicate and so very good. The crust was soft like a cookie, and the middle was the best part: buttery pastry with lots of gooey glazed apples.
I love visiting Suzu’s Bakery because it’s a delight. The beautiful displays make everything look appetizing, and they don’t miss on the details. Suzu’s served my hand pie on a real plate, on a tray with a napkin and fork (which I did not use, whoops). Look at that apple pie’s little leaf and how the pastry resembles an actual apple, complete with a rounded middle, full of fruit. It’s not just this; everything I’ve had here — the miso brownie, the chocolate chip cookie, the lemon cake shaped like a lemon — has been dainty and delicious. Walk in and pick something at the Downtown Champaign bakery, or place a pre-order online.
114 N Walnut Ave
W+Th 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
F+ Sa 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.