Happy New Year! Lots of people make new year’s resolutions around this time, but I’m not making any resolutions: new year, same me. Very hungry and quite thirsty, I am still on the ever-felicitous quest for the best bites and sips in Champaign-Urbana. In 2023, I want to eat at new restaurants, try new dishes, drink amazing cocktails, find lunch deals, and I want you to, too, starting with this list of five things to eat or drink this January.
Kick off 2023 in a delicious way with something totally new like a concha from Panadería San Miguel Bakery. Go for spicy mee korb at the new Thai place on Neil Street. Return to a C-U favorite like Bentley’s Pub in Downtown Champaign for a warm winter cocktail. Fill up on Shawarma Joint’s gigantic lunch special at the Urbana location. And since it seems people especially like salads in January, why not try this tasty honey chicken salad to go?
Hot Buttered Rum | Bentley’s Pub
If you’re doing dry January, huzzah for you, but if you’re not giving up alcohol this month, you might want to warm up with Bentley’s hot buttered rum ($7). The drink tasted just like the name: hot, buttery, and rummy — in that order. Served super hot in a tall glass, the buttery, rich winter cocktail had a finish of rum and brown sugar. Clove, cinnamon, and ginger spices at the bottom and the sweet foamy top were wonderful. Also, I loved that the bartender flamed a citrus peel for this drink just like they do for the bar’s juicy Old Fashioned. This warm seasonal cocktail is ideal on any cold night out in Downtown Champaign.
419 N Neil St
3 p.m. to 2 a.m., daily
Honey Chicken Taco Salad | Cactus Grill
Listen, I’m not going to be eating — let alone writing about — a salad unless it’s a damn good salad, and Cactus Grill‘s taco salad ($10.21) is a damn good salad. I thought a taco salad might be served on a bed of lettuce, but instead staff filled a large crispy taco shell with cilantro rice, pinto beans, diced onions, chopped tomato, mild salsa, spicy salsa, chipotle sauce, sour cream, two scoops of honey chicken, shredded cheese, and lettuce.
Honestly, it’s the honey chicken for me. Cactus Grill’s sweet and savory honey grilled chicken was so tasty. The pinto beans had a perfect texture, and all the toppings were fresh. I liked the zingy chipotle sauce and that the sour cream was evenly drizzled over the salad. The taco shell broke easily into pieces for easy scooping like nachos, though a fork was most definitely required. As there is no indoor seating at Cactus Grill, plan to take this big salad to go.
1405 S Neil St
M-F 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Gyro Bowl Lunch Special | Shawarma Joint
I love lunch, and I’m not quitting my lunch hunt in 2023. Shawarma Joint’s gyro lunch special ($12.99) is so much food for $13. Served with a soda (with free refills), a side of pita bread, and a basket of fries, this lunch bowl had seasoned beef and lamb gyro meat atop Mediterranean rice with garlic sauce and a choice of five toppings. I picked tabouli, hummus, sumac onions, lettuce, and pickles for mine, but there were many topping options behind the glass. Shawarma Joint’s gyro meat has so much flavor and tasted especially good with the thick garlic sauce. The fries were great: fried to order and dusted with seasoning.
This lunch special would be great to split with someone; I couldn’t even finish half of this lunch, but the leftovers did heat up well. Shawarma Joint’s Urbana location is a good spot for a quick lunch as the assembly line moves fast.
102 E University Ave
M-Sa 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Mee Korb with Pork | Lanxang
At the small plaza restaurant that used to house Good Fella Korean Bistro, Lanxang serves Thai-Lao cuisine. This dish of mee korb ($12.75) can be made with any protein (chicken, tofu, pork, beef, shrimp, duck, veggies, or combination); I chose barbecue pork. Served in a beautiful bowl, a nest of deep-fried egg noodles had a light gravy with chopped pork, carrots, and broccoli. The egg noodles softened under the glossy brown sauce, and I liked the textural contrast of the dry and crispy noodles out of the sauce. The thin gravy had slightly sweet and savory salty flavors, and everything it sauced tasted yummy. The vegetables were soaked in the sauce, and the barbecued pork was so delicious — I only wished there was more of it.
The restaurant’s medium spice level had an excellent heat, and the server was quick to refill my water which was appreciated. The takeout is good here, too.
905 S Neil
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Concha | Panadería San Miguel Bakery
This baked good came from Panadería San Miguel, a new bakery in Urbana opened by the owner of La Mixteca restaurant and El Oasis ice cream shop. The brand new bakery boasts more than one hundred different kinds of Mexican pastries, rotating daily, baked in-house by a baker with more than 20 years experience baking in Mexico. I’ve tried more than 10 different kinds of Mexican cookies and breads from San Miguel Bakery, and this is one of my favorites because of how uniquely delicious the taste is. The concha ($1.99) had a super fluffy and light bread covered with a shell of hardened pink sugar in a swirled design. The yeasty middle had practically no sweetness, and the thin sugar topping added a light sweetness to the pastry. I just loved the surprise of biting into what I thought would be a cookie and finding it to be a delicious airy bread encased with pink crystalized sugar.
All the pastries at Panadería San Miguel are only $1.99. If you like sweets, spend the $2 to try my other favorite baked good here: the polovorones (Mexican sugar cookies).
Panadería San Miguel Bakery
510 N Cunningham
8 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily