Downtown Champaign was bustling with people on Friday evening, as there were three major events taking place: BBBBQ, Friday Night Live, along with the Bloomington Gold Corvette show. Down the street, the opening of Three Ways to Get Here at Indi Go Gallery was happening, too. Despite the rain, there was naught an available parking spot in sight.
Saturday proved to be similarly crowded. The weather was uncooperative, but the crowds didn’t seem to mind. Umbrellas were eye hazards to festival attendees, but most people seemed indifferent to such threats and proceeded to retrieve plenty of beer and meat.
This weekend, the city of Champaign was a living, breathing entity, and I was excited to have been a part of it.
I enjoyed walking through, past the crowded restaurants and bars, and through the festival gates. The smell of food permeated the air; Walnut Street was crowded with hungry patrons. Lines for the BBQ vendors were lengthy at times, and as there wasn’t any seating nearby, people stood off to the sides chowing down on their respective BBQ plates. The tall buildings looming overhead created an intimate setting and established the different areas of the festival. The location within the city, the crowds of people, and the sounds and smells of summer contributed to the essence of a good street fair. There was a liveliness in the air that was sorely lacking last weekend, so I was quite pleased and excited to attend this festival.
There were a few places that provided a hearty and flavorful plate of food. The best plate came from Rajun Cajun Cookun, a Louisiana based Cajun catering company. Yes, Cajun. Not BBQ. Yes, Louisiana. Not Illinois.
Lord and Lacy’s rib tips were also really good, as you’ll read below. There was plenty of food to go around and I’m certain most people got their fill.
Not all of the food was melt-in-your-mouth enough to bypass chewing. These sorts of events are structured in a way that makes providing truly delicious food very difficult. There are often too few staff, so the lines are long, and the weather usually determines set up, spatial arrangements, and equipment usage. I totally understand and appreciate the work that goes into manning such events.
However, these vendors pay to participate and have an opportunity to promote their business to a huge number of potential patrons. You’d hope that they would try just a little bit harder to serve up a dish of awesome. With so many places serving the exact same thing — pulled pork, chicken, BBQ nachos — I’d love for each vendor to have a signature dish. What dish from this specific vendor is outstanding? As a festival attendee and average eater (i.e., not someone tasting every vendor’s pulled pork), what is the one thing that you do better than everyone else? I want to eat that, and I want you to tell me that I want to eat that. Here’s an opportunity to wow me and make me want to visit your restaurant, come back for a second plate, or tell all of my friends (and dear readers) how incredible the fill-in-the-blank signature dish was.
Similarly, I feel that there was a missed opportunity to really exploit the brews component of this festival. There was a beer tent, but the list of available beer was underwhelming. It would be awesome if there were as many craft breweries as BBQ vendors. Hell, pair up the food with the brews and put that in your tent. In some ways, the brews component was a crude excuse to sell mediocre beer to the festival-goers, who seemed much more interested in discovering and enjoying the music than in discovering and enjoying the food and drinks. BBBBQ is, in essence, a giant concert, and people will drink beer if you provide it. It’s part of the scene, the ambiance, the mood. But if you’re telling me that not only is this festival about Blues music, but also brews and BBQ, well, you should deliver on that promise. I’m attending because I want to learn more about at least one of those things. It was nice, though, to be able to walk around the festival with a beer in hand. (This weekend it meant you had to sacrifice your umbrella.)
The food pricing was indeed in the 1–7 ticket range, with a few exceptions on the high side here and there. This event was not about sampling many different places, as the price of most sandwiches was 5 to 7 tickets. The food was sold a la carte, so when you ordered a pulled pork sandwich, you got just that. No sides. No drinks. Not that cheap to feed your family, after all. Beer was 4–5 tickets, which is the typical price for a beer around downtown. I’m guessing that most folks picked a place, ordered their meal and were done with food for the rest of the evening. That’s fair enough, and a sandwich with sides and a drink cost somewhere between 12 and 15 tickets, give or take.
Overall, the food was all right. It wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t inedible, either. I’d eat at some of these places again. I’m hoping that next year’s BBBBQ festival brings out even more local eateries and breweries that embrace the event and provide some kick ass food. (JH)
Jess is right, on the whole. The BBQ left a lot to be desired. I didn’t eat from Hickory River, mainly because I’d had a Wang Bang earlier, but also because I know what’s what there. It’s the best brisket in town.
I set out to eat at some new places and for the most part, was entirely underwhelmed, again. And it’s not as though I don’t speak from experience, even as an amateur.
BBQ? How can you not smoke your meat? How can you show up, knowing goddamned well that you didn’t go through the process of doing it the right way? Well, you should be ashamed.
And that’s why I fell in love with Lord and Lacy again, and with Beverly, the namesakes’ proprietor. They did their tips right, and as you will read below (sorry to mention it again), there was good smoke coming from that stand. The rest, not so much.
All that being said, huge props to Fluid Events for growing and executing a true gem for this community. Their role isn’t to jury the BBQ as though it were their job. No, vendors sign up and get to strut their stuff. I just wish more folks did BBQ the right way. We’ve muddied the waters, and, like Lunchables, sometimes can’t tell between a great sandwich, and a piece of shit on a cracker. (SF)
The following reviews have been written by Kaya DeFehr, Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, and Bob Yoon.
Bacaro: On Friday night, Bacaro offered its entry into the Blues, Brews, and BBQ’s festivities: a barbecued Pleasant Meadows goat leg sandwich with summer squash cole slaw and truffle mustard potato chips. The goat was perfectly cooked and its smokiness did not overpower the delicate goat flavor of the meat. What brought this over the top was the slaw, which added a nice crunch and sweetness to every bite. The more I ate the chips, the better the sandwich got. This sandwich was the clear standout for me for the entire festivities. (BY)
Chester’s BBQ: This was my first BBQ stop on Saturday evening. I’ve heard a positive thing or two about this place, and was eager to try some food.
I went for the Danger Dog — an all-beef hot dog wrapped in bacon, then smothered in barbeque sauce — as it sounded like a delightful way to begin the night. The plump dog arrived, and I dug in. Actually, first I cut the hot dog in half so I could share, and then I dug in. Sadly, only one half of the dog had bacon. Despite the uneven bacon distribution, overall, the Danger Dog was pretty good. The hot barbeque sauce was good, although a little sweet. Perhaps more importantly, the consistency on the sauce seemed appropriate — not too thick, not too runny.
I also tried the pulled pork sandwich with hot barbeque sauce. The pork smelled smoky, as all good pulled pork should, but lacked smokiness in flavor. The meat was a bit dry and was in definite need of the sauce in order to make the sandwich edible. (JH)
Quite possibly the worst thing I have ever eaten in my life.
Bagged, round tortilla chips, topped with bagged pork BBQ, and then smothered with nuclear, neon cheddar cheese, and finished with something that tasted kind of like Sweet Baby Ray’s, but worse.
Just learn how to make a mornay sauce, at a minimum?
I know it sounds fancy-schmancy, but, please. It takes less time to make it right than it does to call Sysco and order your yellow-shit-stain of a cheeze jizz.
Check it: from Food Network, which is so basic, well, I can’t sit up straight:
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups warmed milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
2 ounces grated cheese, such as Gruyere
Steamed vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower or baby carrots, for accompaniment
In a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux is pale yellow and frothy, about 1 minute. Do not allow the roux to brown. Slowly whisk in the milk and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens and comes to a boil, about 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Allow to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. This is now called a bechamel sauce, and may be used as is to top any number of dishes.
Stir in the cheese and whisk until melted. If the sauce seems too thick, thin with a little milk.
I won’t even suggest that you learn how to actually smoke BBQ since, well, you showed up with no game. (SF)
Ice Cream Cone Stand:
Listen, you have to respect a massive ice cream cone, glistening and phallic, behind the backdrop of a Blues fest.
I like that shit. And by shit, I mean soy-based what-have-you, dipped in chocolate for $4.
It’s one of the biggest rip-offs in fair cuisine. The cost of this thing can’t amount to much more than a quarter, yet here was the line, longer and more dedicated than most any BBQ stand.
Because it’s your childhood goddamnit. And you want to feel something, anything, to rid yourself of the white blues. You do what you can. And you eat it.
And it’s good. Damn good. (SF)
King Biscuit BBQ: The shredded beef from King Biscuit was actually pretty good. There was flavor; it was more or less well balanced; and I ate just about my entire portion. The barbeque sauce, however, was a train wreck. It was the consistency of molasses and was as sweet as syrup. Thankfully, they served the meat sans sauce, so I was able to enjoy the beef for what it was. (JH)
Lord & Lacy Catering: Firstly, props to Lord and Lacy for bringing a smoker to a BBQ festival. I didn’t see any other places with smokers. The food, though, was a split decision. The rib tips were really, really tasty. They were smoky without being over-smoked, charred without being burnt. They were very well flavored. Their homemade hot BBQ sauce was also flavorful and fairly well balanced. My only real complaint about that particular dish is that the hot BBQ needed more heat. However, I do appreciate that the sauce wasn’t overly sweet. The pulled pork sandwich, however, is another story. The pork was watery and flavorless. This sandwich desperately needed the BBQ sauce so that there was something to taste. Rumor has it that they plan to open a brick and mortar place in Champaign in the fall. I’m looking forward to that, and you can bet we’ll have the details as soon as they become available. (JH)
Louie’s Dixie Kitchen: Please stop telling me you’re serving alligator and then not. You’re toying with my emotions, and there’s no wrath like that of a woman scorned. (JH)
Po’ Boys: Quite honestly, just stop now. Please.
Those of us that remember Po’ Boys, well, that’s the jist of it.
I can’t really appreciate the reasons why anyone would try to reappropriate the name Po’ Boys here in Champaign, honestly. I’ve tried. I’ve eaten it, both in house and at the BBBBQ fest now.
It’s not very good. Because there’s no heart. There’s not a lick of love. It’s just without any substance. And that Polish above, while not disgusting or anythng, simply doesn’t taste the way it used to taste on Columbia and Market. It tastes… new or something. So I just can’t get into it. (SF)
Rajun Cajun Cookun: Albeit not BBQ, Rajun Cajun Cookun was a worthy option. They served a variety of Cajun meats on a bed of spiced rice, including shrimp, chicken, Andouille sausage, and crawfish. There were also mild or spicy gravy options. I went with the Jambalaya that included chicken, sausage, rice, and the spicy option. Much to my surprise it was really quite good. It was adequately salted and they managed to keep the chicken tender, but the sausage was a little dry. The rice had a good spice to it with small bits of red and green bell peppers. The spicy gravy was great to keep the bites of sausage a little moister and add a nice kick to the bowl that, without the spicy gravy, would have been lacking. Overall, It was the best thing I tried at the festival. The guys who run the Rajun Cajun Cookun booth are from northern Louisiana and travel from fair to fair, so if you’re looking to try this locally, well, good luck. (KD)
Shanghai 1938: As I indicated in Friday’s preview, I was super excited about the pulled-pork jalapeno Rangoon. These were the first items I tried, and man, was it a bad way to start the evening. The ratio of pork–jalapeno–cream cheese was way off, in that there was entirely way too much cream cheese and not enough pork. Each Rangoon had only one slice of pickled jalapeno, which clearly came out of a jar. The pork was dry and flavorless, and ultimately, the cream cheese overpowered everything. From here on out, I’ll only order Chinese food from them. (JH)
Smoky House BBQ: One thing that stood out from this stop was the presence of the pink smoke ring from the ribs I had. This should have been a requisite attribute of all the BBQ we ate tonight, but alas, we only saw this in 2–3 of the places here.
The ribs looked sufficiently charred, but didn’t have the complex flavor of what was justifiably expected from what it looked liked. These ribs had a proper amount of moisture and the accompanying sauce did not get in the way of the flavor of the meat. In some ways, I was happy to end our night on a relatively high note, but wondered just how much of my expectations were lowered throughout this night of underwhelming BBQ. (BY)
Photos courtesy of Dion Broughton, Jessica Hammie, and Bob Yoon.
The Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival takes place every year in downtown Champaign. For more information about the event, please visit this website.