This year, several restaurants in C-U made nationwide lists for barbeque, pizza, and more — and why not? In this college town, we've got some standout food selections. But we'd like to highlight a few things we keep going back to this year. Things that are new or different or that we can't stop talking about. Things we're going out of our way to eat and drink again and again. (SK)
This is far and away our least adventurous BEST for Food and Drink. I pretty much stuck to Downtown Champaign for this one, if only because I've been camped out there for some time this year, and that I don't want to strut some of what's to come later this year in our first issue of Bonfire, our print quartely, due in August.
We're in the thick of putting together the first volume of Smile Politely's Comprehensive (Yet Not Exhaustive) Guide to Drinking and Dining in Champaign-Urbana. And we are eating our way through menu after menu to make sure we don't leave off anything that should be considered worthy. So for now, a few selections from the city centers, if you will.
There's good stuff out there. You just have to seek it out. (SF)
BEST WEDGE SALAD
Boltini / Biaggi's / Anyone who just gets it
I won’t lie to you, here, in this one moment. I am obsessed with Wedge Salads. Anyone who knows me at all has grown tired of my endless ranting about Champaign-Urbana’s lack of a true, bona fide steakhouse. We’ve got nothing, really. Alexander’s is the closest, but the moment you see a salad bar, you know you are in the wrong place. Texas Roadhouse and Longhorn Steakhouse don’t count either. If you’ve been to a Mastro’s or Gibson’s, you know what I mean. We don’t have a true Chicago-style Italian pater familia; a bad boy. Something to end your night, as it were. Complete and total rip-off, but sheesh — it’s good.
So, despite that fact, I can’t seem to stop ordering Wedge Salads wherever I can get them in town. So far, I’ve had five, and I think that’s it? Are there others? Help me, if you can: Boltini, Houlihan’s, Biaggi’s, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Big Grove. I think that’s it? Seriously — let me know if there is another option.
While writing this, my best friend, who is a chef in Astoria, NY, asked me, “What the hell makes that Wedge better than any other?” And he has a good point. A Wedge Salad is to starters as an over-easy egg is to breakfast. There’s really only one way to prepare it, despite the fine and delicious efforts of anyone who tries to doctor it up.
So, why Boltini over Biaggi's? I suppose because it’s the only local place I know of that’s doing one. Is it the BEST? Maybe? Perhaps Biaggi's over Boltini? They give you as many as you want for lunch, and it's just as good. Doesn’t matter.
And Big Grove’s? Not a Wedge Salad. Not except in theory, but I am not looking for a well-composed dish with interesting flavors and ideas behind it when I order a Wedge Salad. I am looking for iceberg lettuce, which will act as a vehicle to put blue cheese dressing, blue cheese crumbles, and bacon into my mouth.
It’s one of the best moments in my life, when I choose to order it. Seriously. You need a steak knife to manage one. Yes, that’s true. I love them so goddamned much. (SF)
Note: Above photo of a Wedge Salad neither Boltini or Biaggi's or anywhere in this town. I took it on my cell phone camera at Sotto Mare in San Francisco last year after I ate some edibles.
BEST PLACE TO BUY FRESH, LOCAL MEAT
Common Ground Food Co-op
Since the Common Ground Food Co-op's $2.5 million owner-funded expansion in 2012, they've been able to create a food co-op worth raving about. It's a co-op that now is not only able to pay its employees a fair wage and build a classroom for community learning about food and cooking, but that also significantly increased their selection of local fruits and vegetables (especially fresh greens!), deli items, cheeses, alcohols, grains, and more. But I'm most excited about the local meats.
For the first time ever in C-U, you have a choice of buying all local and safe meat from a fresh meat case instead of wondering how many days your mass-produced flavor-free pork or saline-injected chicken traveled to get to the grocery store. From Triple S pork to a quiet Amish farm down the road raising chickens, the co-op selected its meat sources carefully, only choosing the best. Meats from farmers you may recognize from meeting at the Urbana Market at the Square, like the Moore Family, are available in the fresh or frozen case, all year round. (SK)
BEST FOOD TRUCK SANDWICH:
Cracked — The Morning Bender
This particular sandwich does everything you want it to, especially if you crave egg yolk as a sauce — the most beautiful and decadent of all — and just want your traditional breakfast all in one bite.
It’s simple: an egg, hash browns, cheddar, on your choice of bread. I went with Texas toast, which is, as you know, a load bearing white bread, ready for anything, usually.
Add some hot sauce, and you’re in business.
But it brings up feelings for me. The Cracked Truck is proof positive evidence that mobile food can be successful, safe, delicious, fun, and well — frankly, a reminder of just how far behind we are in terms of promoting food culture in Champaign-Urbana. Cracked kind of wins by default here, although, a strong case can be made for the Mas Amigos trucks, as pretty much everything they do from that fleet is really delicious.
But that’s it? Just a handful of trucks? In a community like this one? We have an empanada truck now too, which is great, I hear, but I just want more of ‘em. Don’t you?
Here’s to hoping that 2013 and beyond brings us more of them. Paging The Butcher? The Butcher? Are you receiving me? (SF)
Maize Mexican Grill
Maize shows up in my phone's favorite list right below my sister — I can't deny it. I call them too frequently to place a pickup order for chalupas, and then I drive to get them. This really wouldn't be a big deal if I ever got in my car to go anywhere else besides the grocery store and, more importantly, if I didn't live less than a block from another place that serves tacos, which would be a reasonable substitute for chalupas if those Maize chalupas just weren't so incredibly good. (As you know if you've been to Maize, the current dining area is quite small, so if you go at a busy time, ordering out rather than waiting for a seat is often the savviest option.)
The chalupas, which you can order grilled or fried, come with beans, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and cheese, including some pretty tasty queso fresco. The topping is your choice of asada (steak), chicken, pastor (pork), or veggie. I've tried all the meats, but I always return to the asada. This is not to say that the tortas, the quesadillas, the gorditas, the tlacoyo, or any other menu item is not as fantastic, but I personally cannot stop eating the chalupas. To top it off, they travel pretty well, as I imagine the quesadilla would too.
Fortunately for all of us, Maize plans to expand soon into the empty, under-utilized space in the old train station at Chestnut and University. The dine-in problem will no longer be a problem, and we can all enjoy chalupas and drinks in downtown Champaign. (SK)
When you are talking about drinking whiskey, and you just want to get things started right, head over to the Godfather of Champaign Bars: the Esquire. You have to believe that the bartenders at this place are just kind of, well, perfect. It’s what I’d called a very generous pour, every time, and it stands to reason that you literally can’t ever walk into an empty bar there as a result.
Oh sure, there’s food, and dressing your own bar sandwich and throwin’ peanuts on the floor while watching a game has its charm, too. But me? I go to Esquire because they don’t fuck around. You order, tip well, and they treat you as you should be treated. (SF)
BEST TEQUILA SELECTION
Wedge Tequila Bar and Grill
This tequila bar and Mexican food joint opened up in fall 2012 by the Fuentes brothers, the owners of El Toro. Without a doubt, the selection of tequilas at Wedge surpasses any other tequila outlay in C-U, with a list of over 100 types of tequila on the menu. They carry Blancos (meaning white, or unaged/barely aged), Reposados (meaning rested, or aged two months to a year), Añejos (meaning old, or aged one to three years in oak barrels). They also carry Ultra Premium tequilas — these are a variety of older, rarer, and usually more interesting tequilas (read pricier). The bar serves a tequila-based cocktail menu, featuring nicely and surprisingly balanced mixed drinks. For many of these, they infuse the tequilas on site with different fruits or vegetables. (SK)
BEST LATE NIGHT BITES
Black Dog Smoke & Ale House
When you were a child, if you thought about the very best part of the fried chicken, you likely would have decided it was the battered, crispy fried skin. If you don't say this as an adult, you're merely lying to yourself in a futile attempt to be more healthy. (It won't work. Do everything in moderation.) But we all know the truth. And so does Chef Joshua Boyd, who serves just the crispy fried chicken skins with honey and chipotle hot sauce on Black Dog Smoke & Ale House's Late Night Menu. This starter is just one of a handful of tasty bites on the late-night menu. You can start this meal with a selection from the late-night cocktail menu, a departure from the typical cocktails, but many currently listed are a twist on the obscure and not-so-obscure classics.
The quirkily named main-dish dogs for your late-night meal range from the Yuppy Brunch (Breakfast Sausage, Bacon, Fried Egg & Maple Mayonnaise) to the Von Baron (Bratwurst, Bacon, Braised Sauerkraut & Beer Mustard) and are served on a soft roll. The eternal question is whether you eat the fabulously unwieldy dogs with your fork and knife or with your hands and the answer depends completely on how many drinks you've had prior to eating your dog. Enjoy, and please take a cab home if you need to. (SK)
BEST BISCUITS AND GRAVY
There’s no shortage of trendy places to get a satisfying brunch in C-U, but most leave something to be desired with their biscuits and gravy. From sogginess to seasoning issues, all other renditions left me unsatisfied and yearning for my mother’s version. But amid the old school, unpretentious diner vibe of Sam’s Cafe, I finally found them: Soft, fluffy biscuits that held up to a flavorful white gravy that tastes like it’s been simmering for hours and has just the right amount and combination of spices. With salt and pepper on the table, you can tweak these B's and G’s to your liking, but rarely do they need it — and I have sampled them a lot. Plus, not only can you get them seven mornings a week (rather than just on the weekend during the brunch rush), but you’ll probably only spend half what you would at any other downtown establishment. It boggles the mind. (KH)
BEST BRUNCH... AT THE MOMENT...
Big Grove Tavern
When Big Grove decided to start brunch, I was really glad. I mean, great — brunch. It’s a good thing and they prepare food as well as anyone. But it was also because I was damned ready for some new dishes from Chef Jessica.
Start with a Bloody Mary, which, honestly — officially takes the cake for best in town. It’s a marvel of flavors, and my hat’s off to the stout back that they bestow upon you with an order.
Next, these eggs, poached, and sitting atop a spicy and hearty marinara, and nestled in a bed of cheesy grits. Now that’s a good meal.
You wish it came with some toast points, and you can get them on the side for $2, but in the end, you are talking about a perfect bite, with or without the bread.
So, with all of these new options at brunch at Big Grove, I just wonder, what will their next menu look like? After a year, I know plenty of folks that love food that are ready for a bit of a change over there. (SF)
BEST BAR, LIKE MINNESOTA-STYLE BAARS
Art Mart — Oatmeal Fudgie
Good lord. Have mercy. This thing is knock your socks off good. It's just the thing you need to regret ever having stepped into the dome of temptation that is your life. It's just $2.37 + tax, but it weighs, like, at least 10 oz. It's like lead. And it's oh so soft.
The chunks of chocolate are massive. The oatmeal, um, I think it's in there, but it's nothing that makes you think for a second, "Hey, this is healthy, right?" Not even fucking close. This bar of goodness is actually strong. Mean. Angry, actually. It will beat you down. The way you deserve to be beaten down for eating such a delicious and decadent dessert. You and I both know we don't deserve one. And yet, here we are, eating it, as if we owned it.
But we don't. It owns us. Behold, the Oatmeal Fudgie. (SF)
BEST ROOT BEER FLOAT
Jarling’s Custard Cup
I realize you’re saying to yourself, "Duh, Custard Cup is freaking delicious. Since when is this news?" However, when was the last time you ditched your usual sundae or snowstorm and had a root beer float when you were at Jarling’s? Better yet, when was the last time you had a root beer float as an adult period? It’s okay, I forgot how awesome they are, too. But last summer, for some unknown reason (possibly delirium from standing in line in the heat), I ordered one. Now I can’t stop. When they closed last year, I bought a quart of vanilla custard and case of root beer to hold myself over. I braved the lingering winter weather to satisfy my craving on opening day this spring. And hell, I’ll probably average one a week for the entirety of the summer. Sure, custard — especially from Custard Cup — is far superior to ice cream. However, Jarling’s also uses fountain Barq’s Root Beer, the best in my opinion since it’s slightly less sweet than other brands, thereby cutting the decadent custard nicely. To put it simply:
custard > icecream
Barq’s Root Beer > all other root beer
Custard Cup = root beer floats with custard and Barq’s
Custard Cup RBF = Super Yummy Times. (KH)
This article compiled by Susanna Kline, Seth Fein, and Kelly Hearne. Photos by Chris Davies.