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Five beef dishes to try in Champaign-Urbana

Champaign-Urbana restaurants represent a range of different cuisines from around the world, and as someone who grew up in a number of different counties, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy beef in a great many forms. This summer I decided to embark on a tour of Champaign’s best beef dishes to indulge my summertime cravings. This was a difficult list to compile (mostly because of all the places I left out), but I hope it provides some options to satisfy your palate regardless of how adventurous you are feeling.

In a styrofoam container, there is a tin foil layer with beef pad Thai on top. There are noodles with a lot of crushed peanuts on top. Photo by Rafay Khan.

Photo by Rafay Khan.

Beef Pad Thai | Bangkok Thai

I haven’t had many beef noodle dishes, so I took this opportunity to expand my horizons. That turned out to be a very good choice. The pad Thai at Bangkok Thai ($10) was freshly made with rice noodles, eggs, sprouts, green onions, and a whole lot of crushed peanuts. I was able to select my protein for the dish and choose my spice level on a scale from one (mild) to six (spicy hot). I had the beef pad Thai with a spice level of five because I like to live dangerously. Five turned out to be the perfect spice level for me, but unless you really love spicy food, I would recommend going with a lower number because it does pack a lot of heat.

Maybe the best part about the dish, however, was that it did not sacrifice any flavor for heat at the higher spice level. The large pieces of meat added a change in texture from the rest of the dish but tied in the flavors together well, making for a delicious, colorful serving. If you are ever in the mood for a delicious, flavorful pad Thai, Bangkok Thai has got you covered. Bangkok Thai is now open for dine in, carry out or delivery at both their Campustown and Urbana locations.

Bangkok Thai Restaurant & Pho 
410 E Green St
M-F 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Bangkok Thai Restaurant & Pho 
1104 N Cunningham Ave
W-M 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

A beef sandwich from Cheese & Crackers is on sourdough bread, sliced on a diagonal, and balanced on top of the other slice. Photo by Rafay Khan.

Photo by Rafay Khan.

Big Beef Sandwich | Cheese & Crackers

The banner outside Cheese & Crackers reads, “Best sandwiches in town,” and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. As an intimate gourmet food location, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what to order as everything looks and sounds delicious. On this visit, I tried the big beef sandwich ($8.99), consisting of a generous serving of thinly sliced roast beef, chopped onions, and fresh goat cheese topped with a house-made vinaigrette to tie all of the ingredients together.

The sandwich is typically served on a baguette, but since I asked for it to be freshly grilled, I had it on sourdough bread which was perfectly grilled. I also got a hot pickle ($1.50) on the side which added just the right amount of acidity to the meal. There was a lot of meat in this hearty sandwich, and it was packed with a lot of flavor. The goat cheese and vinaigrette added a new dimension to what I typically think of as a roast beef sandwich. I did wonder if I was missing out on the baguette, but thoroughly enjoyed the sourdough experience as well. I will probably go back to try the sandwich on a baguette one of these days. Cheese & Crackers has a couple of tables available for seating, but their sandwiches carry out well, if you want to pick one up on the go.

Cheese & Crackers
1715 W Kirby Ave
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

On a black metal outdoor patio, there is a white rectangular table with three birria tacos and a consume for dipping. Photo by Rafay Khan.

Photo by Rafay Khan.

Birria Tacos | Maize Mexican Grill

Birria is a Mexican meat stew that has taken social media by storm in the last few years. I tried it for the first time in the form of the birria tacos at Maize ($13), and wow, did they taste just as good as they look. The beef is marinated with chilis, adobo, herbs, and spices, then cooked in a broth. My birria tacos were steaming hot. The tacos come in a corn tortilla with melted cheese served with a side of onions and cilantro which I added to my tacos in generous amounts as well as consommé, a beef broth meant for dipping the tacos. The consommé really took the tacos to the next level, and the cilantro and onions gave each bite a really fresh taste.

If you have not yet tried birria, the tacos at Maize are a great starting point. And if you have tried it already, get the tacos anyway, you won’t regret it. Maize at The Station and Maize on Green Street are both now open for dine in, carry out, or delivery.

Maize at The Station
100 N. Chestnut St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Maize Mexican Grill
60 E. Green St
11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily

In a a white styrofoam container, there is a side of fried rice with a lot of beef in dark sauce with onions. Photo by Rafay Khan.

Photo by Rafay Khan.

Mongolian Beef | Peking Garden

The C-U area boasts a plethora of fantastic Chinese restaurants, not least of which is Peking Garden in the Downtown Champaign area. At time of writing, Peking Garden was still following COVID protocols and open for takeout only, but they are planning to open for reduced capacity dine in in the near future. Regardless, carrying out their food makes for a delicious night in. The Mongolian beef ($11.95) consists of thin slices of beef, stir fried in a brown soy sauce with onions and scallions, and is topped with fried rice sticks which provide a nice crunch to each bite. The meat was tender and delicious: a perfect blend of sweet and savory — and I found it very difficult to not eat the large serving in one sitting. Spoiler alert: I failed.

The Mongolian beef can also be ordered as part of a combination platter ($9.95), meaning you get slightly less food (still a large serving) but add two spring rolls to the meal. If you order between noon and 3 p.m., you can get it as part of a lunch special ($7.25) which includes the option of soup and either crab rangoon or spring rolls along with your meal. If you enjoy a mild, sweet and savory serving of beef with rice, I would highly recommend the Mongolian beef at Peking Garden. You can place your order online for carryout or delivery, or over the phone.

Peking Garden
206 N. Randolph Street
noon to 10 p.m., daily

On a white circle plate, there is a gyro wrap sliced in half. One half is balanced perpendicular on the other half. Photo by Rafay Khan.

Photo by Rafay Khan.

Gyro wrap | Shawarma Joint

As someone who loves Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, I was very excited when Shawarma Joint opened their doors, and I have not been let down during any of my visits so far. The restaurant offers a variety of protein options from falafel to the eponymous steak or chicken shawarma, all of which can be served in a pita, wrap, or over rice. On this visit, I had my eyes on the gyro meat — a mouth-watering combo of both beef and lamb. After much deliberation, I decided to go wrap-style, and I ordered a gyro wrap ($7.25) which came with the option of adding four of their 15 toppings, and one of their four sauces. After another round of deliberation, I chose to complement my gyro with sumac onions, Arabic salad, banana peppers, and pickles. I elected to top it all with garlic sauce. Admittedly, this decision took a while as I was tempted by most of the options available.

Biting into my gyro, I was not disappointed. The gyro itself was moist and flavorful, and it definitely delivered on the Middle Eastern flavors I had been craving. The vegetables were fresh, and the garlic sauce was not too greasy which made for a delicious combination with the gyro meat. The wrap was extremely filling, and I had a small side of hummus with pita ($3.99) to complement my delicious meal. Shawarma Joint is now open for in person dining, but also allows for online ordering where you can select your sides and sauces to customize your food.

Shawarma Joint
627 E Green Street
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Top image by Rafay Khan.

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