Smile Politely

Overlooked, under-appreciated foods in Champaign-Urbana

Every restaurant has that special dish about which people rave. It’s the dish that sells the most, the popular one. Today, I’m sharing something different. I was on the hunt for something new: a dish that was as equally delicious as a best seller, but one that is overlooked and under-appreciated.

To do this, I had to wrack my brain about the foods that I eat in C-U that I usually don’t hear people mention. I want to share with you my discoveries of five underappreciated, overlooked foods in C-U.

A double cheeseburger from Bobo's Barbeque is in a white styrofoam container. The meat and cheese are sandwiched between a plain bun. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Bobo’s Double Cheeseburger

Now you might be thinking, a burger at a barbecue place? Why not just get the barbecue? Well, in my opinion, the burger at Bobo’s is actually better than the barbecue. Not only is it insanely good, it’s also ludicrously inexpensive. A double cheeseburger at Bobo’s was only $3.59, and a side of fries was $1.80. Trust me when I tell you, you want to get the fries.

The burger itself has two thin patties pressed flat in a diner style that leaves the edges crispy and the middle salty and juicy. The burger came with ketchup, mustard, pickle, American cheese, and onion, but you can choose what you’d like out of those options. The bun was also soft and buttery and the perfect vessel to deliver the meaty goodness into my stomach. This burger (with a side of salty fries) was exactly what I wanted for lunch. Because of the low price and high quality, this burger was a great lunch option in Champaign-Urbana.

Bobo’s Barbecue 
1511 W Springfield Ave
M-F 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Bangkok Thai's beef red curry with green beans, onions, and pork sits in a white bowl with wooden chopsticks. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Bangkok Thai’s Beef Red Curry

As a current University of Illinois student and a Champaign native, I understand what Bangkok Thai means to the community. Bangkok Thai is a place where in the middle of the winter, a streamy bowl of beef red curry will make you sweat and heat up so much you forget that there is a negative 30 degree windchill. Beef red curry is not only a winter dish. I eat it in every season, no matter if it’s raining, snowing, or even if it’s 100 degrees outside. It is just that good.

The curries at Bangkok Thai come with a choice of protein. I chose the red curry with beef, but tofu or chicken are also good. The curry itself was unfathomably delicious. It’s slightly sweet due to the coconut milk in it but also spicy from the chilis. If you’re worried about spice, don’t worry: Bangkok has an excellent one to six rating scale for spiciness. This beef red curry was well balanced with flavors of spicy, sweet, and salty, over eggplant and green beans with copious amounts of beef. This dish also came with a side of rice. I mixed almost all of my rice into the broth to soak it up. Don’t skip this step; it is crucial to the experience. While Bangkok Thai also has some other very good dishes, you should not pass up this red curry.

Bangkok Thai
410 E Green St
M-Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Manolo's chicken inferno empanada is brandished with a black M in the center, laying on parchment paper from the restaurant. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Manolo’s Chicken Inferno Empanada

Manolo’s is known for their New York style pizza (which I really enjoy), but I want to talk about their empanadas. After many years of eating the various flavors of empanadas that Manolo’s has to offer, I’ve found the one that gives me four bites of pure, delicious bliss.

The chicken inferno empanada was spicy, salty, savory, and encompassed by a beautifully flaky pocket of dough. For all you spice lovers, this empanada will be a nice surprise and will leave you wanting another. Don’t get me wrong: this was not just a spicy empanada. The chicken was seasoned beautifully with an array of spices and tomato, giving it a slight sweetness that was downright addicting. If you’re like me and can’t pass up having a slice when you walk into Manolo’s, then I recommend getting a slice of either the BBQ meats or the Spotted Goat to go with your chicken inferno empanada. Both of these slices go well with the spicy, meaty empanada and will leave you satisfied after you’re done eating.

1115 W Oregon
M-TH 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Su 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Tamales from Rick's Bakery lay on tin foil. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Rick’s Bakery’s Tamales

Rick’s Bakery is a Mexican bakery that is located in downtown Urbana. Every time I go to Rick’s, I can’t leave without eating at least one of their tamales. They have three delicious kinds: chicken, vegetarian, and mole. I’ve tried all three flavors, and each one brought different flavors to the table. I cannot recommend these tamales enough. They are without question my favorite tamales I’ve had in Champaign-Urbana.

Whether you try the chicken, the mole, or the vegetarian, the filling was well-seasoned. Personally, I prefer to get the mole tamale which has a deep and somewhat chocolatey flavor that covers shredded chicken, all wrapped in soft masa. The chicken tamale was also amazing with a very slight spice and good seasoning. These tamales do not come covered in sauce, but I don’t think they need any.

Rick’s Bakery
124 W Main St
M-F 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Xinh Xinh Cafés Bun Thit Nuong in a styrofoam container. Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Photo by Anthony Erlinger.

Xinh Xinh Cafés Bun Thit Nuong

This next one is something that I have only recently discovered. Xinh Xinh Café is a Vietnamese restaurant located in the strip by the Schnucks in Urbana. They have great pho and bahn mi sandwiches, but I wanted to talk about something different. There is a whole section on the menu for vermicelli bowls. These bowls are filled with vermicelli noodles, which are thin rice noodles, as well as thinly sliced cucumber, carrots, your choice of protein, some fresh herbs, peanuts, a vegetable egg roll, and two sauces: a lime fish sauce and a spicy chili sauce. The interesting thing about this dish was that it was not a super hot meal. Personally, I love the contrast between the hot meat and the cooler noodles and vegetables.

My favorite bowl was the Bun Thit Nuong ($8.95). This was a vermicelli bowl with grilled pork as the protein. The pork had a charbroiled, deeply savory taste and was cooked to absolute perfection. Mixed into the bowl and topped with the lime fish sauce and the spicy chili sauce, the salty pork shines through alongside the freshness of the vegetables and the tang of the fish sauce. This dish is a must try and  well worth the trip to Urbana.

Xinh Xinh Café
114 N Vine St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Anthony Erlinger.

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