Trust me: you can’t generally get authentic Lebanese food in any American city, let alone any Midwestern college town. So it warrants a visit or two to downtown Champaign, where on Thursday and Friday evenings it is offered up fresh at Sam’s Café. Though the menu is more limited than, say, Zorbas, the food is more flavorful and “traditional” (to a, uh, cultural tradition outside the United States) … and they even have Baklava.
Those uninitiated to Lebanese food will recognize these as Middle Eastern main dishes that include falafel (crispy and well-flavored), Kafta (beef) and Shish Taouk (chicken), and come with toasted pita bread and your choice of sides for $7–$8. With the exception of the (boring) crinkly French fries, the sides are as carefully prepared as the main courses, and include stuffed grape leaves, fresh hummus and tabouleh (which is oily and deliciously fresh). I usually choose the vegetarian plate, which can feed you and a handful of your friends on hummus, pita bread, tabouleh, grape leaves and 7–8 balls of falafel, topped with just a drizzle of tasty tzatziki, pickles slices and chopped tomatoes, all for under $8. Just try and eat all of it — or any other entrée — in one sitting.
Though you are welcome to dine-in at Sam’s, it isn’t unusual to find the place nearly empty but for a few take-out customers, many of whom are clearly regulars, judging by the successful order predicting by the friendly two- or three-person wait staff. Though shakes and other beverages are available, the atmosphere is alcohol-free, which explains why, on a Thursday or Friday night, you might see Lebanese take-out boxes being shared by groups at the Blind Pig (just across the street) or other popular bars lacking kitchens, like Mike and Molly’s. The atmosphere isn’t uncomfortable — just bright and a bit lonely, unless you want to sit at the counter for an impromptu observation of Lebanese cooking.
As a visit to Lebanon, New York, or even Green Street will show, there is more than one way to prepare items like falafel, Kafta and even hummus and tabouleh, and not everyone finds the norms of Sam’s Lebanese option desirable. Legitimately some may find some of the entrees bland, as most dishes are not very strongly flavored or spiced. Perhaps this is the burden of being the only Lebanese joint in town; like the Mexican-restaurant owners of Champaign-Urbana, those at Sam’s are wise to recognize that it is better not to alarm those unaccustomed to spices and unusual flavors than impress the more worldly members of the community with an array of bells and whistles and five-pepper alarm scales.
It isn’t fine dining, nor is it Zorbas, though as I mentioned, unexceptional French fries are available. Instead it is a reliable, cost-effective and unique take-out prepared by cooks hailing from 6,000 miles east of Champaign, Illinois. At $7–$8 per meal, I can think of far worse carry-out or dine-in cuisine in downtown Champaign.
Photo by Paul Young