When I first moved to Illinois from South Carolina, I was astounded by the variety of restaurants on every street, at every corner, and the roads in between towns. Having been raised in South Carolina, all I ever knew was Southern style cooking. It wasn’t until I moved that I saw just how much I missed out by not exploring multiple types of cuisine. I learned about hibachi cooking and deep-dish pizza and “legitimate” tacos — you know, the ones without tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and lettuce. Through all my searching, although, I could not find the one type of cuisine that reminded me of South Carolina food: barbecue. There are multiple styles of barbecue. Po’Boys touts a mixture of two types of ‘cue: Chicago and North Carolina, and they do so in absolute harmony.
The history of Po’Boys and Urbana goes hand-in-hand. The first iteration was opened in 1953 by a long-time local, Arnie Yarber. Yarber had a passion for bringing his style of BBQ to Southern Illinois, and from the late 1990s to early 2000s, Po’Boys was a beloved spot for the U of I football team, friends, Urbanites, and Champaigners all around.
Due to health concerns, Yarber closed the restaurant in 2006, and when he passed away in 2007, there was fear that Po’Boys would never open again. It wasn’t until 2009 that Po’Boys opened up their doors again, under the brother and sister team of Andy and Jean Rasner (and Andy’s wife Lindsay). The Rasners were able to acquire the recipe for Yarber’s original BBQ sauce.
As you enter the restaurant, you can see the decorative paintings all around the walls. The inside of the restaurant almost feels like you’re in the owner’s home, as you can see the kitchen, hallways covered with children’s drawings, neon lights that draw you into the intimate bar, and the variety of high-tops and family style tables. The lighting from outside, plus the interspaced, small light fixtures give a bright, open aesthetic to the entire restaurant.
Po’Boys‘ menu focuses on drinks, appetizers, barbecue, sandwiches, and pizza. When we went to the restaurant, we were surprised by them serving so many different styles within one restaurant.
Po’Boys showcases a multitude of beers on tap: craft and domestic, from Pabst Blue Ribbon to Woodchuck Hard Cider to flavored Smirnoff Ices. While these classics are important, I prefer my drinks mixed. The Island Dream was creamy, tart, and smooth to go down. The Malibu plus pineapple juice brought a huge burst of tropical flavor, which paired well with the spiced Bacardi. The milk mixed with Malibu, a combination I have done many times, helps calm the tartness of pineapple and allows the drink to be pleasant. This drink, for it’s volume, only cost $6 and my dining partner and I enjoyed it until the last drop.
Po’Boys is a mixture of North Carolina and Chicago style barbecues. North Carolina sauces are generally vinegar-based and peppery, but with a good smoke flavor to it. The thin mouthfeel packs a punch as the pepper spreads quickly. It’s great with some chopped beef or in some mac and cheese. Chicago style maintains the peppery-style of barbecue, but focuses on links and sausages on top of white bread. Chicago style allows for a sweet or spicy sauce to come with your meat. Even though I love heat, I can attest, by even ordering just the mild versions of thick and mild and the Po’Boys Original, I would not be able to handle the hot versions. The pepper flavor comes off very strong, and although I needed a refill of water, the heat was mellowed by the soft white bread.
My dining companion ordered a barbecue grilled cheese, a gooey, melted grilled cheese with pulled pork, smothered in the thick and mild sauce with crisp chips ($9). I would come back to Po’Boys just for the potato chips alone! I ordered the barbecue sampler ($12), which includes pulled pork, sliced beef, a 1/2 link of Polish sausage, and rib tips, all on top of two slices of white bread, with your choice of two sauces. I had to try out the Po’Boys Original, as vinegar-based sauces can be a wonderful burst of acidity to cut through the fat, juiciness of meat like a Polish sausage link.
Without a doubt, I would order the grilled cheese again and again, as the combinations of melty, gooey cheese with succulent, smoky pork was just too good. The sampler was a great way to see what meats are available to you, but not my top choice as a full meal. I’m glad there is a restaurant that offers something that reminds me of home with good barbecue, tasty drinks, and a friendly staff. I’ll be back for that grilled cheese and to get more of the smoky pulled pork.
Po’Boys is located at 202 East University Avenue, Urbana, and is open Saturday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
All photos by AJ Taylor.