Smile Politely

Smile Politely March Tournament 2024 Final Four predictions and matchups to watch

Jambalaya from Neil St. Blues on the left and The Space restaurant's best burger Smashy McSmashface with fries
Jambalaya at Neil St Blues, Smashy McSmashface at The Space; Photos by Alyssa Buckley

If I’ve learned anything from the national, annual March Madness sportsball tournament, it’s that people love a good competition. Me, too. What’s not to love about a battle of The Best? Every year, Smile Politely‘s hyper-local tournament crowns a winner by reader vote. For 2024’s SP March Tournament, it will be a battle of the best food or drink in all of Champaign-Urbana.

The tournament committee (my editors) chose 32 at-large foods and drinks based on track record, strength of flavor, and popularity amongst all the SP Editors. Those 32 bites and sips were ranked, seeded, and divided into four park-themed quadrants: Meadowbrook, Hessel, West Side, and Crystal Lake.

As you can see, it’s a chaotic food fight that pits croissants versus salsa verde, a Japanese bakery’s miso brownie against a brewery’s flagship beer, Golden Harbor’s crispy tofu versus Neil St. Blues’ jambalaya, and more. There’s an an automatic bid for Black Dog’s burnt ends since the barbecue was the reigning champ of SP‘s last food and drink tournament in 2019.

As Food & Drink Editor, I am obviously very invested in this food and drink tournament. The line up includes 32 fantastic foods, but in my opinion (and probably yours, too), some of the 32 are more fantastic than others. There are a few foods that I really love and will be absolutely, totally furious to see lose a match. Throughout the tournament, I will provide twice-weekly commentary, reflecting on the matchups and making predictions for the Championship. Please be sure to vote for the best foods — even if you’re voting for the foods that aren’t the same ones I’m rooting for (but I will be mad at you).

2024 Tournament Matchups to Watch

There are three matchups in the 2024 Tournament that I think are impossible choices. These head-to-head battles are going to be intense, and the final score will be tight. These are the three matchups I’ll be watching with bated breath.

Glazed & Confused Burger by Smith Burger Co versus Mantu by Afghan Cuisine

The Glazed and Confused burger at Smith Burger Co inside Collective Pour in Champaign, Illinois
Glazed and Confused at Smith Burger Co; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

The Glazed & Confused Burger by Smith Burger Co

Smith Burger Co‘s epochal burger called the Glazed and Confused first launched on 4/20 in 2022, and it continues to be a popular special. The Glazed and Confused is Smith Burger Co‘s smash burger with double beef patties, thick strips of bacon, pepperjack cheese, and sweet chili aioli on a griddled Ye Olde doughnut. The sweet and savory flavor combination sounds insane because it totally is, but it’s crazy good and one of my favorite burgers.

At Afghan Cuisine Restaurant, there are nine dumplings in a grid on a white plate.
Alyssa Buckley

Mantu by Afghan Cuisine

Up against Smith Burger’s doughnut-burger is Afghan Cuisine’s signature dish: mantu. I’ve loved Afghan Cuisine’s mantu since they first opened (for a month) inside Strawberry Fields because the dish is perfection. The steamed dumplings have a filling of ground beef, onions, and Afghan spices, double drizzled with a yummy garlic yogurt sauce and cooked lentils — and that sauciness overtop the flavorful beef dumplings tastes awesome.

Maize’s taco al pastor taco versus Seven Saints cheese curds

The pastor taco with cilantro and onions at Maize Mexican Grill.
Pastor taco at Maize Mexican Grill; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

This battle of Downtown Champaign eats will be a tough one to watch. I love both, and it really comes down to whether I’m thirsty for mango-habanero margaritas or Flight of Icarus cocktails. Served on housemade corn tortillas and topped with fresh cilantro and chopped onions, Maize’s taco al pastor is a saucy, porky tortilla of deliciousness. The slow-cooked pork has all the best flavors: a little smoky, a delicious spiciness, and some sweetness to balance.

A white plate of Seven Saint's cheese curds with a small bowl of marinara sauce on the side. Photo by Carl Busch.
Cheese curds at Seven Saints; Photo by Carl Busch

Equally yum, the cheese curds at Seven Saints are so good that I don’t know that there are many times when I’ve been to Seven Saints and not ordered them. Seven Saints’ cheese curds are arguably one of the best appetizers in all of Downtown Champaign. The fried cheese curds are hand-battered in-house, fried to golden excellence, and served with marinara. Usually, the whole table is fighting over the last cheese curd because they’re so tasty.

Black Dog’s Burnt Ends versus Cloud Mountain Kombucha’s Autumn Mary

Black Dog barbecue burnt ends
Burnt ends at Black Dog; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

In the first round of the tournament, Black Dog’s burnt ends will defend their first place title from our last food tournament up against Cloud Mountain’s kombucha. It’ll be a fierce battle because Black Dog’s burnt ends are legendary, but this particular flavor of Cloud Mountain ‘booch literally won national awards. Regularly sold out, Black Dog’s barbecued burnt ends are deliciously tender brisket slices with melty ribbons of fat and a great smoky char that goes well with any of Black Dog’s sauces.

The award-winning Autumn Mary at Cloud Mountain Kombucha in Urbana, Illinois.
Autumn Mary at Cloud Mountain Kombucha; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Though burnt ends are my favorite thing on the menu at Black Dog, the Autumn Mary is my favorite kombucha flavor by Urbana’s Cloud Mountain. This sour-savory kombucha brew won gold in the national Kombucha Cup in 2022. The Autumn Mary brew is outstanding with delicious celery and peppercorn flavors, like a bloody Mary but instead of notes of tomato, it’s autumn olive berries. I love that it’s made with with Sola Gratia Farm‘s celery root and native autumn olive berries. The flavor is downright addicting.

Predictions for Final Four

Tournament analysts might usually pick four teams for Final Four predictions, but I’m an amateur, so I’m predicting six picks. Mostly because I couldn’t narrow it down, and furthermore, because I’d like to increase the odds that I’m correct. We don’t know which food will be named the winner of 2024 tournament’s fight for the best food (vote here), but these are the six eats I’m rooting for to make the Final Four.

Tres leches cake by Rick's Bakery for five things to eat or drink in Champaign-Urbana for June 2023. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Tres Leches at Rick’s Bakery

Sorry, not sorry: Rick’s Bakery’s tres leches cake is the best cake in the whole world. I love it as a full cake, but I am all too frequently showing up for a single slice of Rick’s tres leches. The vanilla cake is wonderfully sweet and absolutely saturated with delicious milks. The strawberries add a beautiful touch of fruitiness, and the creamy crumb is total perfection. More evidence of this cake’s amazingness here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thali lunch at Kohinoor
Thali lunch at Kohinoor; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Thali Lunch at Kohinoor Indian Restaurant

Is this the best lunch in town? It’s certainly up there. Kohinoor’s weekeday thali lunch special is a personal-sized buffet of Kohinoor’s most popular dishes served on a very cool metal tray. What among these bowls isn’t delicious? The mild lamb curry has the most amazing tender hunks of lamb, and the spicy chicken curry has an enjoyable heat. That tandoori chicken tikka is super flavorful but not spicy and tastes especially divine with drops of the housemade sweet red tamarind sauce. Plus, the family-run Indian restaurant‘s lunch platter also includes a veggie samosa, lots of naan, dal makhani, rice, and rice pudding dessert.

Stango beignets
Beignets at Stango Cuisine; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Stango Cuisine Beignets

It’s simple: just fried dough with sugar on it, but Stango Cuisine nails it every time (here, herehereherehere, and here). The yummy doughy dessert is fried to order, so the beignets come out hot and crispy with an oily richness like a funnel cake and dusted in a veritable snowstorm of powdered sugar. With a crunchy deep-fried exterior and super-soft center, Stango’s pillowy doughnuts are so yummy and available both at their Downtown Champaign restaurant or from the new Stango Bites food truck.

The pastor taco with cilantro and onions at Maize Mexican Grill.
Pastor taco at Maize Mexican Grill; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Al Pastor at Maize Mexican Grill

This taco totally deserves a spot in the Final Four. What I love about Maize’s tacos is how even the tortillas are made from scratch. The Mexican restaurant uses Illinois corn and grinds it on volcanic stone to make masa, which is then portioned for tortillas. Those freshly made corn tortillas plus the delicious slow-cooked, saucy hunks of spiced pork makes for an impressive bite.

The smashburger called Smashy McSmashface at The Space restaurant in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

Smashy McSmashface Burger by The Space

The top seed this year is The Space’s Smashy McSmashface burger. I’ve been a fan of this burger since the very beginning when the Weird Meat Boyz first served this smashburger out of a truck in Mahomet. I ate it for many a dinner from Weird Meat Boyz Kitchen, and in 2022, we named it the BEST new burger in C-U. Since the opening of their quirky Downtown Champaign restaurant The Space, I’ve continued to eat an embarrassing amount of Smashy McSmashfaces.

The beef patty is what makes this burger remarkable. Made with wagyu beef ground in-house by the owners the Weird Meat Boyz themselves, the beef patties are smashed to thin, lacey perfection on the diner griddle. Between uber-soft potato buns and melted American cheese, the burger has house-pickled red onions and jalapenos adding a tasty sour crunch. It’s all the flavors, textures, and sheer obnoxious size of the patties (and the fun name) that make Smashy McSmashface a memorable, incomparable burger that had better make it to the Final Four or I’m flipping tables.

Gus' toast at Sam's Cafe
Alyssa Buckley

French Toast at Sam’s Cafe

I’ve only written one love letter to a food in this town, and it’s to the breakfast love of my life: the utterly delicious French toast at Sam’s Cafe. The casual diner has French toast that beats every single other French toast in town. Sam’s Cafe’s soft cinnamon-y slices have a patch of powdered sugar on top and wayward batter crispies all along the outside. It’s an absolutely delicious plate of toast. Read why it’s so loved here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Vote in Smile Politely‘s 2024 March Tournament here.

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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