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

The cover image for things to eat or drink in Champaign-Urbana for January 2024.
Alyssa Buckley

January is a complicated month, isn’t it? Some people make grand resolutions, some completely avoid them, and others (like me) are just trying to remember what day it is after all the holiday hullabaloo. The new year is here, and no matter the January you’re having — dry, wet, or whatever, it might as well be delicious. This month’s picks kick off the new year with something in Downtown Urbana, something in Downtown Champaign, something from a new food truck, and two somethings from hidden gems. And everything in this January list is $15 or less in case holiday expenses have, perhaps, put a damper on spending (also me).

This month, try a hearty Mexican soup, tea time in Champaign, hot beignets, Afghan spring rolls, and a mouth-watering brunch smashburger.

spring rolls on a white plate beside a green chutney at Afghan Cuisine restaurant in Champaign, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

Spring Rolls ︱ Afghan Cuisine

I usually order the mantu (the beef dumplings) here, but for the new year, I went with a new choice: Afghan Cuisine’s mazza spring rolls ($6.99). Filled with chicken, potato, green onion, and fresh herbs, these rolls had a paper-thin wrapper. With each bite, the fried exterior crunched, especially on the crispy parts folded and layered on the ends. But the outside was the only crunchy part. Inside, seasoned potato was soft like mashed potatoes; the chicken was minced, and chopped green onion and fresh cilantro flecked throughout. The contrasting combination of crunchy surrounding soft filling was intensely satisfying, and the flavors of the roll tasted yummy with a dip in the cold green chutney.

I was crazy for that chutney. Really spicy — almost painfully so at first, that garlicky, tangy chutney was so delicious. I kept dipping the roll because that spicy hot flavor in a cold sauce was addicting, and the savory potato and herby chicken could handle the heat. Afghan Cuisine restaurant opened their Champaign location last fall in the old El Toro II space by Titan Games. All of the food here is halal, and the staff are great about recommending dishes especially for those with allergies. Find plenty of seating in the dining room; the restaurant can easily accommodate a large party.

Afghan Cuisine Restaurant
723 S Neil St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Three beignets in a white styrofoam container outside Stango Bites food truck in Champaign, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

Beignets ︱ Stango Bites food truck

The new Stango Bites food truck parks during lunch hours six days a week in Downtown Champaign serving menu favorites by C-U’s Zambian restaurant Stango Cuisine. I ordered the beignets ($6), and let me tell you: eating hot fried dough covered in sugar on a freezing cold day was literally figuratively heaven. Stango’s beignets were so good! Served fresh from the truck’s fryer, three pillowy doughnuts were dusted in powdered sugar. The deep-fried exterior was crunchy, and the super soft center had a nice bready flavor with an oily richness like a funnel cake. The sweet sugar on top elevated the dough to dessert.

If Stango Bites truck is parked somewhere nearby, it’s a good idea to stop and buy beignets. If you want savory, too, go for Stango’s beef handpie or the vegetable (which has carrots, onions, corn, and pepper like a veggie pot pie but with spicy seasonings), both enveloped in soft, bready handmade pastry. The truck currently only serves lunch hours, but Stango Cuisine restaurant is open for dinner starting at 3 p.m., inside Wood N’ Hog’s Champaign location beside Martinelli’s Market.

Stango Bites food truck
100 W University Ave
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 2. p.m.

Tortilla soup in a bowl on a plate with tin-foil wrapped flour tortillas. A yellow plate holds cold condiments: red onion, tomato, cilantro, cabbage, and shredded white cheese for things to eat or drink in Champaign-Urbana.
Alyssa Buckley

Tortilla Soup ︱ Tres Nopales

On a chilly evening in Downtown Urbana, I ordered this chicken tortilla soup ($10.99), which came with a side of diced red onion, tomato, cilantro, shredded cabbage, and grated cheese plus tortillas. I love soup, and Tres Nopales’ tortilla soup was incredible from the very first slurp. Not spicy at all, the soup had flavorful hunks of pulled chicken, peppers, onions, and corn in a peppery tomato broth. Saturated with tomato flavor, the chicken tasted insanely good, and the rustic pieces were so tender and stringy that every spoonful had delicious threads of chicken in it.

The soup’s soft onion and slivers of green peppers were great, and the corn added little pops of sweetness, but the side plate of condiments was what made this soup exceptional. I added cabbage and cilantro stems. The cold greens crunched only at first, before wilting in the very hot soup. Likewise, sprinkled cheese melted in the hot broth, so spoonfuls dragged through blots of ooey, gooey queso served a satisfying cheese pull. This was a truly outstanding soup, and for more about the Mexican restaurant, check out Carl’s review of Tres Nopales.

Tres Nopales
114 S Race Street
Su-Th 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
F+Sa 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A tea cup and saucer of brain booster tea by Walnut Street Tea Company in Champaign, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

Brain Booster Tea Walnut Street Tea Company

When it’s tea time, I want to be at Walnut Street Tea Company having hot tea from a kettle on a tufted couch by the window. Of the hot tea options available, I picked brain booster ($4), an herbal tea blend of rosehips, bilberry leaves, rosemary, green mate, tulsi leaves, and orange pieces. I didn’t know what all the things were, but it sounded good, and thankfully, it tasted good. Served blisteringly hot, the dark herbal tea had a smooth, mild flavor at the start with a savory rosemary finish. Rosemary isn’t something I’ve had in my tea before, but the unexpected aroma and taste of rosemary was wonderful, not overpowering the whole thing making it taste like Thanksgiving stuffing like rosemary can sometimes. The warm herbaceous flavor went well with the malty and bitter components of the blend, and possibly, the tea may have even boosted my brain.

With a dainty cup and saucer, I quite enjoyed my tea party for one — though my kettle could’ve poured tea for two had I asked for two teacups. The Champaign tea company’s shop at The Crossing is lovely. There’s a tea sniffing wall, every tea accoutrement imaginable for sale, gluten-free treats by RegCakes, easy (free) parking out front, and a drive-through. If you’re not sure what to order, ask the staff for a recommendation or check out my 2022 review of six different WSTC tea blends.

Walnut Street Tea Company
2510 Village Green Place
M-F 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A brunch burger from Watson's Shack & Rail.
Alyssa Buckley

Brunch Double Smash Burger ︱ Watson’s Shack & Rail

This double smash burger ($15) is the most expensive thing on this month’s list, but the burger does come with fries included. Watson’s brunch burger has two beef patties smashed super thin with melted American cheese, a smear of mayo, ketchup, and mustard, plus raw red onions and thick pickles on a warm Central Illinois Bakehouse brioche bun, and it’s delicious. The patties were smashed so thin that the lacy edges of the meat extended far beyond the bun, and crispy flakes of delicious salty, greasy beef fell off like bacon crumbles. The sour pickles gave some tang, and the mound of fresh red onion added a biting crunch; both toppings cutting the rich, fatty meat and cheese flavors. Though I am a very hungry individual, this burg was so huge I couldn’t finish it, even though I really wanted to.

Watson’s double smash burger is mouth-watering, but know that it is only available on the brunch menu at the Downtown Champaign chicken shack. This order comes with a choice of side; I always choose the seasoned fries (with a side of ranch because the ranch here is top tier) but both the mac and mashed potatoes are solid as well.

Watson’s Shack & Rail
211 N Neil Street
M+T 4 to 9 p.m.
W-Th 4 to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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