Sometimes food is boring, but not at The Space restaurant. In Downtown Champaign, The Space serves a menu of smashburgers, sandwiches, and apps with outlandish twists in addition to crazy specials — usually as a tribute to a local band or a wild idea by the owners. One time, they added Maize’s chorizo to burger patties and topped it with pineapple crema and queso chihuahua. For PYGMALION 2023, they paired marshmallow cream with onions and sweet chili sauce on a cheeseburger, and one random weekend, they did a brisket smashburger with peanut butter, housemade bacon, and their strawberry-rhubarb-bourbon hot sauce. They’ve made a smashburger with pimento cheese and sweet relish. And in honor of a punk band‘s show, they’ve even swapped burger buns for deep-fried Eggo waffles plus maple syrup and strips of bacon. They are a little bit weird.
Even though I’m a fan of The Space, many people I know haven’t ever been to the new restaurant. Since it opened last April, I’ve gone several times (as it is delicious) — and I went when they were Weird Meat Boyz Kitchen at Collective Pour, so I know a few extra details about this establishment, like that they grind the meat for burger patties in the restaurant. The owners themselves cut the potatoes for the fries daily, and every sauce they use is made from-scratch, including ketchup and mustard. Run by two saucemaker owners named Ian Nutting and Doug Hodge along with Chef Lazer, former chef at Silvercreek, the restaurant is a fun foodie spot.
I wrote about a burger from The Space in a July list last year, but there hasn’t been a review of their food since this 2021 review of the Weird Meat Boyz’s spicy dinner from a food truck in Mahomet, so it’s time. For this review, I ordered things I’d never tried at The Space before and the one menu item I always get — because I can’t go there and not eat my favorite thing. It would be tragic. I would be sad, and maybe, dear reader, you’d be sad to not know about my go-to burger at this burger bar.
The ambiance and ordering process at the Space is casual. When we went last week, we ordered dinner at the register beside the vintage pulpit, paid, and found a table. Anywhere in the restaurant, diners can hear and smell sizzling food on the flat-top — the very same flat-top that made rail splitters when the space was Merry Ann’s diner. Those wanting a really great view can snag one of the 13 barstools for a front row seat to burger smashing.
We started with honey bourbon chicken wings ($13), which a server brought to the table before our entrees. I really love wings, but this was my first time having wings here. Coated in a honey-bourbon sauce, these wings were so delicious. I liked the balance of sticky, sweet honey and warm bourbon flavor with the fried chicken. The bourbon’s caramel notes matched the caramelized crunch of deep-fried chicken skin. The chunky wings had lots of meat on the bone, and the wonderfully crispy skin added a satisfying crunch to the saucy chicken. Because it was a deep bowl, honey-bourbon glaze pooled in the center for convenient dipping and made the wings on the bottom ultra saturated with sauce. If wings with honey bourbon sauce aren’t your thing, there are other sauce options: sticky gochujang or wings tossed in duck fat and romano cheese.
Before we finished the wings, our dinner arrived to the table.
My husband ordered the burger named after Champaign’s chandlery. The Fire Doll McSmashface ($17) was a smashburger with two slices of fiery habanero-pepperjack cheese, topped with a bacon-wrapped grilled jalapeño stuffed with cream cheese.
Soft potato buns held double wagyu beef smashpatties and melty, spicy cheese above a layer of gooey cream cheese and tangy house-pickled jalapeños. Spicy heat burned the whole bite, from the bottom layer of cold sliced jalapeños to hot pepperjack cheese to the grilled pepper popper on top, but the carb-y goodness of buns and salty fries extinguished the heat. The burger patties were smashed thin and had a deliciously rich beefy flavor. Lacy in texture, the smashed beef’s edges were charred almost to burnt — crisped up real good on the diner flat-top. And that jalapeño popper topper was a treat! The fresh pepper had wrinkly grillmarks yet still had a raw crunch. The cream cheese inside oozed, and the popper’s bacon shawl was everything: thick and salty, some parts crumbly-crunchy, some chewy.
Each burger includes a side, but the restaurant’s hand-cut fries are an upcharge. For an upcharge on the upcharge, they’ll take fries and toss them in duck fat. That’s what my husband ordered ($4 extra), and thankfully, it was a big portion. The duck fat fries were next level salty with great umami flavor. Fresh from the fryer, those potato sticks absorbed the meaty complexity of the duck fat and tasted so delicious. We don’t order fancy duck fat fries every time we’re at The Space, but it’s a cool option. And no one else in Champaign-Urbana has it.
For dinner, I ordered something besides a burger: the chicken sandwich ($14), served on very sexy looking Texas toast.
The two Texas toasts were beautifully golden with a soft, buttery interior. I loved the breading on the chicken and that it covered the entire cutlet, packing each bite with seasoning. The Space’s ranch was drippy and awesome; the delicious herby creaminess was especially good with the sandwich’s smoky bacon slices. As a whole, though, the toast was too thick for how thin the breaded chicken was. The ratio of bread to meat was off. For toast that tall, I want thicker chicken, or with chicken pounded that thin, skinnier toast would be better. Sometimes this sando has karaage chicken, which has a super crunchy, thicker batter, and I prefer that over this version. Without any veggies or cool additions (besides Swiss and ranch), it wasn’t my favorite.
The sesame slaw was one of the free sides, and it was a yummy, purple twist on a vinegar-based slaw. The slaw had chopped purple cabbage, red onions, crunchy carrots, and sesame seeds in a bright, nutty dressing. The subtle sour flavor wasn’t too tangy, and I enjoyed the sesame nuttiness on cold veggies.
Lastly, I ordered the thing I love most on the menu here: the Oklahoma burger ($14). It’s simple: just meat, cheese, onions, and a little special sauce on toasted potato buns, but it’s fuggin’ delicious. Wagyu patties extended out of the buns way too far — a ridiculous amount — but that thin, crispy texture was it. The burger’s charred beefy flavor dominated, complemented by a classic pairing of American cheese, which melted into cracks and grooves of the smashed patty, meeting up with griddled onions and sauce underneath. And the bun! The potato bun was crazy soft, squishing and maintaining finger imprints as I ate, soaking up burger drippings like a sponge. This cheesy, meaty, onion-y smashburger was insanely delicious. It’s still my favorite thing to order even after trying other things. The Space’s Oklahoma burger and me, forever and ever, amen.
Even though burgers are The Space’s thing, their fries are excellent, too. The other sides are fine, but I can’t (and I won’t) quit these fries. Served super hot, the hand-cut skinny fries ($2) tasted salty, crispy, and amazing. No other side can compare. While my husband craves the restaurant’s luxury fries, I like the idea better than the (marginally) better taste, so I go for the regular fries. They’re awesome even without duck fat.
Overall, The Space restaurant is utterly casual. Diners order at the counter instead of their table. There’s a carafe of water plus napkins on the table — and by napkins, I mean brown paper on spools. Food gets served quickly on quirky, childish plates. The names of the burgers are weird, and they have the infamous Chicago liqueur Malört on tap. Patrons could probably show up in pajamas here and receive the same service as those dining in dresses and button-ups. The dining room has ten tables with chairs Tom hates plus stools at the bar. In the warmer months, the restaurant’s patio seating gives nice views of Main Street Champaign — and is dog-friendly.
Is The Space cheap? No. There are other spots in town for cheap eats, and this ain’t it. There’s an automatic 18% service charge on every tab. Some people don’t like that, but as customers, we tappy-tap-tap on tablet screens for tip at counters all over town, so this doesn’t phase me. I was going to tap the 20% button anyway because people who make delicious food (and bring it out) deserve that. If a restaurant’s requisite gratuity will be a bother, here’s a heads-up.
The Space sources peppers for hot sauce from Humbleweed Farm in Champaign, goat cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm, gluten-free buns from RegCakes, and non-alcoholic brews from Cloud Mountain Kombucha. The owners are super involved in daily operations, usually smashing burgers on the griddle and serving food to diners themselves. Because almost everything is made in house, The Space is great about accommodating dietary restrictions including dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free, and free of uncommon allergies (like my kid’s corn allergy— he can eat pretty much anything on the menu here).
Each week, the eccentric owners have a new, freaky idea for a burger or deep-fried hot dog. Personally, I am down to try whatever culinary shenanigans they’re up to, but for those who hate the idea of weird and crazy shit on a burger, they offer a plain burger, too. And it comes with the same delicious smashed wagyu beef patties and damn good potato bun.
The Space restaurant
1 E Main St
M-W 4 to 9 p.m.
Th-Sa 4 to 10 p.m.