Few things in life are more personal than the food and drink that we each love to love and love to hate. Food love stems from the way you remember things, from your own childhood experiences through now. And the people we’re with when we experience it form the way we feel about the food we eat. Only two of us compiled this list, and we even quibbled a bit before we finished, but we hope you find something in our subjective compilation of C-U’s best food and drink that maybe you didn’t know about when you started reading.
Best water: Cafe Kopi
There is little doubt in America when it comes to this particular nicety. Walk into almost any cafe, restaurant, oil change shop, hospital — whatever — and you are likely able to wet your whistle with some sort of glass or bottle of water. After all, we live in the USA, and this is something we should simply be grateful for on a daily basis. After all, the commies had a different plan until...
But of all the spots to get a glass of water in these fair cities, there is one spot that is simply a cut above the rest. And that spot is Cafe Kopi.
Oh sure — water with lemon is a staple. Even a lime perhaps, if you happen to find yourself in a taqueria. But not at Kopi. Seven years into the cafe’s existence, one of the baristas suggested that they start doctoring up the water to give it some added panache, so to speak. She had worked in a coffee shop in Ireland and this was the way they did it, and so it was born and remains until today: patrons of Cafe Kopi are invited to pour themselves a juice glass full of ice cold water that has been marinating with either fresh cucumbers or oranges. The flavors are bright, but not overwhelming; it’s more than a hint, and less than a mixer — it’s just the most refreshing and delicious glass of free water you will find anywhere around here. (SF)
Best specialty nights: Buvons
Buvons hosts more specialty nights than any other place around — maybe that’s because they don’t have a full kitchen, so they can flex their creativity a little more than a place with a set menu, but their specialty nights and special events really hit all parts of the spectrum for people with all interests.
Sure, other places host beer dinners or wine pairing dinners, but in addition to those things and the occasional whiskey tasting, Buvons hosts themed cocktail and music nights on Fridays or Saturdays, with interesting cocktails crafted by Erin Fein, and music by any number of popular local artists. In another frequent occurrence, Buvons invites The Champaign-Urbana Smørrebrød Project to sell intriguing Danish open-faced sandwiches to raise money for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.
This week (Thursday, 4–10 p.m.), with an event called, “Shuck it to me!” they’ll turn Buvons into a raw oyster bar and pair the food with three special wine pours. For the squeamish or those disinclined to down oysters, they’ll offer an alternative of smoked shrimp from Black Dog. These events are more than your typical wine tastings — they’re special events, and each one feels as though it was crafted with local lovers of food, drink, and music in mind. Buvons is thinking of you, C-U. (SK)
Best new burger: Dublin O'Neils
This could be the BEST burger in town, but I will admit it: I am not prepared to call a winner. Farren’s Green Chile burger is just so damned good that it would be hard for me to tell our readers, “NO! There is a better burger in C-U!” Add that to Crane Alley’s perfect pepper burger (when the cook is feeling like he or she cares), along with Timpone’s old school craft burger with house made ketchup, and you’ve got yourself a real horse race.
These days, I’d stack the Pub Burger at Dublin O’Neils up with any in town. And so, I declare it, the BEST new place to get a burger in C-U. I realize it’s kind of a cop out, and I will take my lumps for it, but I had to find a way to give credit where credit is due.
Chef Josh Huddleston has gone above and beyond with this one. A juicy 10 oz. patty is perfectly seasoned and cooked to temp, and sits on a soft potato roll bun. It is adorned with curried ketchup, bacon, fried onions, and Irish cheddar. It is seriously awesome. Ask for it to be cooked to medium rare. Honestly, why cook the juices out of this thing?
Let them run down your chin. Own it. (SF)
Best artery-clogging appetizer: Destihl
Every time I meet a friend at Destihl who hasn’t tried the beer-battered bacon, I order a plate for the table. When the order goes to the kitchen, I know they batter a few slices of their already crunchy jalapeno-infused bacon with a hefeweizen beer batter made from their own craft beer, and then deep fry the bacon. It sounds good enough to stop there — you could probably put it on a stick and serve it at a fancy fair, if there is such a thing. But then they plate it and drizzle a maple-chipotle glaze over the top, so when it comes to your table, you get crunchy, fried, hot, sweet, and spicy goodness, all wrapped into one pre-dinner package.
Usually about five slices of bacon arrive on the plate, but depending on the size, you may get one less or one more. You might think that’s not enough for a table, but with so much intense fried-food flavor packed into each bite, one or two pieces usually satisfies most people I know. I admit my committedness to bacon sometimes goes a little overboard, like my promise to make every dish in the bacon dessert cookbook my dad sent me. But some bacon dishes, everyone likes, and this seems to be one. (SK)
Best Bloody Mary: The Iron Post
This one might win for biggest head scratcher. With all the formidable places to get brunch in vibrant downtown Champaign, you’d think someone would have concocted a Bloody Mary that could trump what little old Iron Post does in sleepy downtown Urbana. But no one has — and it isn’t even close.
Owner Paul Wirth has been mixing up his secret blend of Bloody Mary mix since before this place even existed, and he holds the ingredients close. I once asked his son for the recipe when I was all drunkass and he told me that he was taking it to the grave. Paul would neither confirm or deny that the last time I asked him, but if you know him, you wouldn’t question it for a moment.
I can say for sure — there’s beef broth in there, that’s obvious, so vegetarians be warned. After that, you’ve got to assume worcestershire finds its way into the party too, along with horseradish and whatever.
Beyond that, it’s a mystery. I make a pretty mean Bloody myself, but honestly, I just can’t step to this one. It’s so good, you’ll want to drink another. And you should. Again and again. Take a cab and eat something. It’s not food. (SF)
Best cocktail list: Carmon’s
(Photo by Charley Kline)
No other bar in town quite captures a complete cocktail list, beginning to end, with well-crafted cocktails like Carmon’s does. The space behind the bar is limited, but that doesn’t limit the creativity of Jenna Frye, who crafted the balanced, speakeasy-style cocktail list. She frequently uses fresh, seasonal, and often local ingredients that the kitchen provides as drink mixers for cocktail specials or for the special liter of punch, downtown’s best drink bargain for $15.
One popular drink on the menu is the Downtown Old Fashioned, a twist on the traditional old fashioned, and other recent special cocktails were the rhubarb mule and the wild violet gin squeeze. Don’t miss the cocktails they’re crafting here, especially with these bright flavors to refresh you during the warmer months. Sit on the patio or at the bar and let the drinks transport you back in time. I’ll see you there all summer. (SK)
Best weekly drink special: Seven Saints
Is there anyone out there, in this town or beyond, that doesn’t think that this isn’t the greatest drink special night in the history of the world? Well, sure — and if it were 1990 and I was celebrating an Illini football victory with Jeff George leading the charge, perhaps I could drink penny beers, or nickel pitchers at C.O. Daniels for just $3 at the door.
But those days are gone, and in 2012, with no Happy Hour of which to speak, this is the best we have. And by the best, I mean the BEST. Half off whiskey. A different kind each week. Might be bourbon. Might be Scotch. Might be American or Canadian. Might be Irish. Does it really matter? At 50% off, and with a whiskey list that is as good as you will find in the middle of Illinois, this is a great reason to celebrate the middle of the week.
So grab a slider or three, and sidle up to the bar; endless choices await, and at only 50% of the retail price. Only on Wednesdays. Only at Seven Saints. (SF)
Best daytime dive: Bunny's Tavern
Between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, every seat in Bunny’s Tavern fills with the most eclectic group of customers in town, from the guys fixing the power lines to the judges fixing cases at the courthouse (uh, I mean settling cases). The lone regulars fill in spaces at the bar or the slot machines. For a place that originally opened in 1936, it still knows how to pack in the customers for lunch.
Sometimes you get a normal lunch experience at Bunny’s, and sometimes you overhear the 60-something woman at the next table talking on her rhinestone-studded cell phone say, "We'll have to divert the shipment of Beanie Babies," followed by, "Well, I'm not gonna go to jail with you,” and then you spend the rest of the day wondering what she meant, like my best friend did. But that’s the fun of going.
I love Bunny’s for every reason I can think of. I love the staff — speedy and positive, but not annoyingly so. I even like the women’s restroom, which I found far nicer and cleaner than the one at my old employer a block away. Not a high bar, but still, one Bunny’s vaulted over.
But clearly, food is the reason you’d go to Bunny’s for lunch, and I really like the food for the value. Bunny’s is probably the only place in town you can still get a decent half-pound burger with chips for $4.75, and, in spite of not being a wrap person, I happen to also love the grilled wrap with turkey, ham, bacon, and melted cheese ($4.75). They serve plate specials every day, but on Thursday, the chicken & noodles special ($5.75) comes on top of mashed potatoes and with green beans. That’s right — noodles on mashed potatoes. If you thought you didn’t want to work before lunch, fill up with that carb load, and then try to do paperwork all afternoon.
No, I don’t want people to invade my favorite Urbana lunch spot or make it so busy that I can’t get in the door, but Bunny’s definitely deserves a little recognition. If you overhear my lunch conversations there, I promise to be talking about something much stranger than Beanie Babies. (SK)
(Photo by Carol McGillivray)
Best chicken dish: Escobar's
I gotta say, this whole Executive Chef bullshit is for the birds. What does that even mean? Executive Chef? As in, the chef no longer cooks and just handles orders and scheduling? The chef executes what? In my mind, the chef should only be executing one thing: my food.
Now, granted, there are exceptions to the rule. Scott Conant, for example, has built an empire in NYC and beyond with a brand like Scarpetta and can afford to hire the talent to “execute” his vision. Locally, Thad Morrow at bacaro put in his time, and built up his kitchen to where he was able to effectively pass off duties to the venerable Michael Miller and Josh Boyd (of Carmon’s). This makes sense. I understand it; this is the goal of being a restaurateur.
But if that’s not the case, if it’s a situation where the kitchen needs the guidance of its chef, put on the fucking jacket, grab your knives, and dive in. Your customers will thank you for it. And that is exactly what Obdulio Escobar, co-owner of Escobar’s on Columbia, is all about. He runs his kitchen. His staff is under his watchful eye. And as a result, the food that they put out is exceptional. Three cheers to him for owning his role and making good on it.
But enough on that and more on this: chicken.
It’s a staple. It’s an easy go-to dish. It can be used as the protein of choice and is one of the least exciting and yet strangely enticing of all the options on a menu. I rarely order a chicken dish when I am out at a restaurant, simply because I can do it so well and so easily at home. Who among us can’t heat an oven to 350 degrees, slather a whole bird in olive oil, salt and pepper, and then stuff a half lemon and some thyme up in that piece? Perfection, as long as you take it out at the right time.
So, to do something this good — with chicken — deserves commendation. The roasted chicken with mole sauce, black bean rice, and plantain chips at Escobar’s is the one to beat. The chicken is tender, and falls off the bone; it’s been roasted for long enough that it’s juicy and not dry at all. But it's the mole sauce here that really makes it shine. This is a classic, dark mole, that you’d assume is made with a heaping portion of poblano peppers, rich chocolate, and enough spices to make your mouth awaken with fear. But don’t worry; the moment you think it’s going to be too much, you munch a plantain chip and have a sip of a cocktail and are ready to dive in for more. Priced at a very reasonable $15, this dish should leave you with leftovers for next day’s lunch. And if you are like me and rarely eat leftovers based on boredom, this is one dish that should change your mind. I could eat it almost every week. (SF)
Best place to get grains: Common Ground Food Co-op
Wheatberries, farro, and rolled rye flakes. After searching for them elsewhere, sometimes for hours and sometimes for months, I stumbled on each one of them unexpectedly. Now I know where to go, and I’ll let you in on the secret so you’ll never have to search again: they’re all in the bulk bins at the Common Ground Food Co-op. You’re not looking for farro? Maybe not, but what about the other “normal” grains like rice and oats? They’re far cheaper at the co-op. I imagine the wall of bulk bins might frighten some people away, but bulk often means less expensive, so just get over bagging and tagging it yourself, and enjoy the freedom of getting exactly how much you want for once instead of letting someone else decide the quantity.
Hands down, the Co-op serves as the widest and also most eclectic bulk selection in Champaign-Urbana, while still managing to beat the prices of some of the other places who carry lesser selections of similar items. I admit I did find wheatberries at another store first — for about three times the price per pound. Whatever grain or bulk item you want, try the Co-op first. (SK)
Best new restaurant: Maize
There is little left for me to discuss here. This is the best Mexican food in town. It doesn’t have the best of everything, so to speak, but on the whole, it’s the best. And by best, I mean most authentic, most charming, best prices, and best service. And, well fuck it, best dishes as well.
I won’t go into a long sales pitch here. And I promise that one of these days, I am going to do a longer in-depth interview with Armando, the owner and brains behind the operation, but for the moment, just get over there and order a few dishes. Try the huaraches; try the huitlacoche quesadilla; indulge in the chalupas, which come three to an order. Doesn’t matter. It’s so good that you will likely be back to try more. (SF)
Best Flatware: Rainbow Garden
I went to the new Rainbow Garden on University in Urbana when it opened, expecting to eat lunch and either talk about the food, or, if the food just tasted okay, to talk about everything else. Then during my first three visits, all with different people, no one could shut up about the flatware.
Someone would be talking, but as soon as the first person picked up a fork or moved a knife, they’d interrupt, “Wow [or some other exclamation or expletive]! This is heavy!” This inevitably launched us into a conversation about the heaviness of the flatware and the purpose of such weight: To keep people from stealing it? To prevent the flatware from bending in the dishwasher? And what made it so heavy — was it filled with lead? Eventually, we stopped puzzling and began eating, but the flatware question lingered during the miso soup, through the Orange Chicken, and beyond the fortune cookie. Why so HEAVY?
Each time, my dining companions decided they liked the place, if for no other reason than the unusually heavy flatware. (SK)
Best cocktail for a summer’s day: Pimm’s Cup
Look outside. It’s like, 78 and sunny. What are you doing at work right now? Tell the boss that someone is ill, or that your allergies are too much to contain, and go home and pour yourself one of these perfectly refreshing and delicious summer cocktails.
Pimm’s Cup No. 1, or just Pimm’s, is a traditional British drink, and one of the official beverages of Wimbledon. One of the reasons that the gin-infused liqueur works so well on a summer’s day is because of the low alcohol content. At just 25% (or 50 proof), you can drink on these all afternoon and not be too drunk to enjoy the evening.
Here’s how you do it:
- Pour 2 ounces of Pimms’ into a tall tumbler glass
- Squeeze the juice of one lemon into the glass
- Pour 1 ounce of simple syrup into the mix
- Fill the glass with ice
- Top it off with club soda
- Stir; add a garnish of cucumber
Enjoy. Cigarettes optional, for those of you who have no soul. I am one of them. (SF)
This list was compiled by Susanna Kline and Seth Fein.