Smile Politely

Five things to eat or drink in C-U this month: February 2024

An order of fried catfish, cornbread, and sides of spaghetti and collared greens at Neil St Blues restaurant in Downtown Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

Happy February, Happy Black History Month, and Happy Leap Year Month-That-We-Leap! This month, my list of things to eat in Champaign-Urbana covers five things that will make you leap for joy — oof, it’s good that leap years only happen every four years, so there won’t another leap pun from me until 2028.

This February, try some great eats by C-U Black-owned businesses. From Congolese steak skewers to a fried catfish dinner to a sweet slice of bourbon butter-pecan pie, here are five delicious things to eat this month.

A spice container with Alexander's Primetime Seasonings & Rubs in the flavor garlic & herbs.
Alyssa Buckley

Garlic Herbs ︱ Alexander’s Primetime Seasonings & Rubs

At a burgundy table-clothed table at the farmers’ market, there’s an array of jars filled with Alexander’s Primetime Seasonings & Rubs. Though there are many varieties, I am utterly obsessed with the garlic and herbs blend. I bought the medium size in July at Urbana’s summer market, and the jar was empty by February because I used it on pretty much everything: chicken, veggies, salad, soup, pizza, eggs, whatever — it’s that good. So at the winter farmers’ market, I bought the bigger 12-ounce size ($15), quadruple the size of other spices in my spice drawer.

Alexander’s Primetime shakers have big holes, so two or three shakes of the garlic and herbs will add a heck of a lot of garlic powder, onion powder, dried cilantro, thyme, basil, and oregano. This seasoning mix was a versatile blend that would otherwise require five or six spice jars, but just this one kicks up dishes without cluttering the counter. Alexander’s Primetime sells other options including barbecue rub, chicken spice, and more. Just ask the owner at the market what seasonings would be right for your spice drawer. Cash, card, and Link/SNAP are accepted at the vendor’s Saturday stand inside the Lincoln Square Mall.

Alexander’s Rubs & Seasonings
Winter Farmers’ Market
201 Lincoln Square
Sa 8 a.m. to noon

An order of fried catfish, cornbread, and sides of spaghetti and collared greens at Neil St Blues in Downtown Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

Fried Catfish Fillet Dinner ︱ Neil St. Blues

Neil St. Blues’ fried catfish is heaven. One afternoon, I ordered the regular fried catfish dinner ($17), which had one catfish fillet (a large dinner comes with two) with a choice of deep-fried, grilled, or blackened (I chose fried), served with two sides plus cornbread. The fried fish fillet was absolutely amazing. The gritty exterior was salty and crispy, which tasted delicious atop the mild flaky fish. A side of spaghetti was a must because I truly love Neil St. Blues’ spaghetti. Total comfort food, the spaghetti noodles were soft and chopped small, no pasta-twirling whatsoever, and the meat sauce was great.

I love to get the collard greens here because they cook my favorite greens. Packed with flavor and occasional tasty bites of turkey, the collard greens were slow-cooked and well seasoned. The wilted greens had stems, too, so there was a subtle textural contrast. I don’t often brag on greens, and there’s nowhere else I’d be like, please give me hot, wet leaves, but I could go for two servings of these collard greens — and I do at the Sunday buffet. The family-run Downtown Champaign restaurant has a large dining room that can accommodate solo diners, dates, and large parties. There’s always good jams playing, and the bar offers cocktails, beer, and a small selection of wine. Check out the full menu here.

Neil St. Blues
301 N Neil St
T-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

An order of steak kebab with plantains at Sepelas restaurant in Urbana.
Alyssa Buckley

Steak Kabobs with Plantains ︱ Sepelas

Sepelas African Restaurant has a menu of Congolese cuisine, and it opened last November in the same Urbana plaza as Ashar African Market (whose owners also own Sepelas). I like the grilled chicken and grilled pork, but last week, my order of steak kabobs and plantains ($16.62) was fantastic. Served with a side salad, pili pili, and a bowl with three dollops of mayo, two steak kabobs also had a few charred vegetables on the sticks. Seared on the outside but slightly pink on the interior, the steak tasted awesome: chewy yet tender and even more delicious with forkfuls of softened peppers and onions in oil. That pepper-onion topping was garlicky, salty, and wonderful with the steak. Sepelas’ plantains were excellent; because they were cut so thinly, each slice had a lot of area to be crispy. I loved the satisfying crinkle to each bite of warm sweet plantain.

I didn’t need the mayo, but I did add a little pili pili. The chef warned me to be very careful with the African hot sauce, so I only put a few drops of pili pili, but even that was extremely spicy and hit really hard, making me sweat and my throat burn immediately. Desperate for savory bites of grilled steak or sweet plantain to quell the super spicy heat, I couldn’t quit the pili pili’s addictive bright spiciness. I chased that delicious cycle of spicy, then mild veggies and steak and a nibble of sweet plantain on repeat. Go for dine-in as Sepelas has large tables and comfy booths, plenty of free parking in the plaza, and a welcoming ambiance.

Sepelas African Restaurant
510 N Cunningham Ave
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 3 to 10 p.m.

A slice of bourbon caramel cheesecake from Sooie Bros restaurant in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

Bourbon Butter Pecan Cheesecake ︱ Sooie Bros

Bourbon butter pecan cheesecake: I love all four of those things, so it’s really not a surprise that I loved this order of bourbon butter-pecan cheesecake ($4.89) from Sooie Bros. The Champaign barbecue joint at the corner of Neil and Kirby serves ribs, brisket, pork, and more, but they also make a damn good slice of cheesecake. Carl wrote about this cheesecake a year ago and called it decadence unleashed. I’m writing about it again because he’s right; it’s amazing — I could barely share with my husband. Super fresh and silky smooth, the cheesecake was spiked with a wonderful hint of bourbon and maybe some cinnamon. Garnished with crumbles of crushed pecans added a nice nutty crunch to sweet, soft cake. Drippy caramel clung to the cheesecake, and the dense crust absorbed pooling caramel, making for buttery, caramel-y cookie bites.

If you like butter pecan ice cream, this delivers that wickedly delicious nutty, buttery sweet flavor in cheesecake form. Follow Sooie Bros on Facebook for more about the food and menu.

Sooie Bros Bar-B-Que Joint
103 W Kirby Ave
T-Th 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su noon to 6 p.m.

Wood N Hog restaurant has pulled chicken with fries and sauce.
Alyssa Buckley

Pulled Chicken Sandwich with Fries ︱ Wood N’ Hog

I have written probably too much about Wood N’ Hog‘s pulled pork sandwich (here, here, here, here, here, and here), but I really, truly love that porky sandwich. Last week, I ordered the pulled chicken sandwich ($8.99 with fries included) and enjoyed that saucy chicken sando nearly as much. Everything tastes yummy when slathered in Wood N’ Hog’s signature barbecue sauce, but I was shocked at how deliciously hunky that chicken was. The pulled chicken wasn’t stringy and separated; Wood N’ Hog’s pulled chicken had chunks of intact, smoky barbecue that fell apart in my mouth and was only more tasty with a slather of sauce. The sandwich was overflowing with tender chicken, and the hot fries were sauced up real good, too.

I’m obsessed with the spicy-tangy flavor of the mixed sauce (half hot, half mild), but those who don’t like spicy should go for the mild sauce, and those who seek spicy, I dare you to try the hot. Wood N’ Hog has two locations: one in Urbana (the one I go to) and one in Champaign, sharing space with Stango Cuisine restaurant. The little restaurant also offers arguably the most romantic side in town: My Girlfriend’s Not Hungry which includes two wings and a small basket of fries. See the full menu here.

Wood N’ Hog
101 W University Ave
M-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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