Ope, October snuck right up on us, didn’t it? It feels like last month flew by, but I am glad to live in a world where there are Octobers. Leaves turn pretty colors, it’s time to pick pumpkins, and there’s that panicked moment on the first chilly October morning trying to locate coats and gloves after many months of not.
This new month calls for new foods, and so three of the five October recommendations in this list are dishes from new restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. And though Halloween is but one night in October, ghouls, monsters, and haunts seem to creep into the whole month, so I’ve got you covered with a gothic cocktail and a spooky sandwich this month, too.
Mantu ︱ Afghan Cuisine Restaurant
I don’t know about you, but I love dumplings. Afghan Cuisine was open for a month inside Strawberry Fields, and now the new Afghan Cuisine Restaurant is open in Champaign. I ordered the #5 mantu ($18.99) on Saturday, and it was so delicious. These dumplings have a super smooth wrapper and an Afghan-spiced beef filling, but what makes these nine dumplings special was the double drizzle of sauces: garlicky yogurt and split-pea tomato. The play on temperature with the hot dumpling and cool yogurt was great, and even more delicious was how the yogurt’s tanginess foiled the rich meaty filling. Topped with fresh chopped herbs, each dumpling was soft but sturdy enough to scoop up the sauces and any crumbles of beef filling that fell out. I loved how flavorful the beef and onion filling was — so peppery that it was a bit spicy but so good.
Since Afghan Cuisine just opened on Friday, the restaurant is still figuring some things out; the ambiance is a little off without music in the dining room, and when entering, there’s no signage saying whether to wait for a host or to seat yourself — but the food is awesome. If you can’t stay to dine in, takeout is available by phone at 217-552-3995.
Afghan Cuisine Restaurant
723 S Neil St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Frankensandwich ︱ Cheese & Crackers
This sandwich ain’t pretty, I know, but look, it was inspired by a monster, so its grotesque hammy appearance tracks. The name alone earns itself a spot in this October list; it’s the Frankensandwich ($12.99) by Cheese & Crackers. When I ordered it last week, I learned that it’s an off-menu item now, but it used to be on the menu. The gothic sandwich had sliced ham, mozzarella, white onion, garlic mascarpone, and vinaigrette on a TriBeCa Bakery baguette. Because Cheese & Crackers sells cheese and deli meats (the sliced pastrami is incredible for sandwiches at home) by the pound, they don’t pre-slice; all sandwiches are literally made to order.
Practically overflowing out of the sandwich, the ham had delicious salty, smoky, and sweet flavors. Under the ham, thick discs of mild mozzarella were soft with a little bounce. That crusty baguette needed something to soften it for easier chewing, and both the garlic-mascarpone spread and vinaigrette did that. If you’re not into ham, the Blue Ox is my all-time absolute favorite. For more about Cheese & Crackers, read about that time in 2021 when I went wild and reviewed seven of the shop’s sandwiches. Call the shop at 217-615-8531 to pre-order, so your sammie is ready when you get there.
Cheese & Crackers
1715 W Kirby Ave
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Lomo Saltado ︱ Encanto Restaurant & Bar
Encanto Restaurant & Bar is the newest restaurant in Downtown Urbana. Encanto’s menu is largely Mexican cuisine, but there’s a small section of Peruvian dishes. I ordered the restaurant’s Peruvian lomo saltado ($15). The dish had sautéed beef with fries, white rice, a fried egg, and fried plantain. It’s a dish that’s a fusion of Chinese-Peruvian flavors, and we can eat it in freaking Urbana, Illinois.
The fried egg’s gooey yolk became a sauce with the drippings pooling under the beef that the rice and bottom fries absorbed. Then the fried plantain added sweetness; it was addicting to eat a contrasting nibble of sweet plantain after every savory bite. The crispy fries were piping hot and unsalted, so they tasted best dipped in jammy egg or the soy sauce drippings. Though the strips of beef were a grayish color, the garlic and soy flavors were yummy. I loved the odyssey of flavor from salty soy sauce to sweet plantain, hot fries and eggy rice to garlicky steak.
Encanto Restaurant and Bar
115 W Main St
M-W 11 a.m. to midnight
Th-Sa 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Tajine Chicken with Vegetable Rice ︱ North African Cuisine
Since opening this August, North African Cuisine serves Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian lunch and dinner inside Strawberry Fields. From the one-woman kitchen of Hanane Harbi, this tajine chicken and vegetable rice ($13.99) was absolutely delicious. Not to be confused with Tajin, the tajine in the dish’s name refers to the cooking pot and style used. Two pieces of bone-in, skin-on dark meat chicken had potatoes with chopped olives, olive oil, garlic, pepper, parsley, and rosemary. The olives acted as salty buttons bursting briny flavor over herby chicken and mild rice. Just holding the chicken by the bone, it was so tender that the meat would fall off into the rice.
The veggie rice had lima beans, green beans, carrots, wrinkly peas, and corn. The side salad had chopped tomato, red onion, green bell pepper, and cucumber with a vinaigrette on the side. I could tell it was chopped that day by how fresh the veggies were, and the simple oil-and-vinegar dressing was perfect. North African Cuisine displays their food in a glass case, so it’s easy to see what’s available. There’s always couscous with lamb or vegan couscous with stewed vegetables, but they serve daily specials as well. Since the dishes are already prepared, it’s a fast lunch for dine in or for carryout, but it can only be ordered in person at the counter.
North African Cuisine
inside Strawberry Fields
306 W Springfield Ave
M-Sa 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. + 5 to 7 p.m.
Jekyll and Hyde ︱ Punch! Bar & Lounge
For the final vittle of this October list, try the Jekyll and Hyde cocktail ($15) that I ordered last Thursday night. This clever cocktail order came as a duo of identical glasses with similarly hued pours of the same base: the elegant Taylor Fladgate 10 year port and applejack brandy, but they had strikingly different flavors, a nod to the main character from the eponymous gothic horror novel. With a sugar halo, the Jekyll serum included an English gin — fitting for the English novel inspiration — balanced by Amaro Montenegro, a blend of 40+ botanicals; the herbal bitters added more complexity to the already multiplex libation. I liked the way the port and gin tasted together, a combo I hadn’t tried before. Though the drinks looked similar, Hyde was the bad guy, starting spicy with a Tajin rim. Contrarily, the drink had Laphroig scotch (instead of gin) and habanero syrup (instead of Amaro Montenegro). There was an antagonistic, hellish vibe with the smoky scotch and hot pepper syrup, and it was badass.
As someone who loves English lit, I thought this cocktail was a fun take because the whole premise of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is that the main character has to mix a potion to transform, and so, he sipped serums back and forth from Jekyll to Hyde. I just love the creativity of Punch! Bar’s cocktails (and mocktails). For a scary good drink this October, go for Jekyll and Hyde, but if you happen to be spooked by A.I., give yourself a fright with the A.rtificial I.ntoxication cocktail, which was created by A.I. — the horror! — for Punch! Bar’s fall menu.
Punch! Bar & Lounge
217 N Neil Street
Su-Th 4 to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 4 p.m. to midnight