Ever since brunch became something that the young and trendy took from the old and retired, it's turned into a national phenomenon. In fact, one can pretty well gauge the depth of a city's culture based upon how many options it serves up on late Sunday mornings.
Originally, brunch was designed to cater to the after-church crowd. Since sermons didn't end until well beyond the breakfast hour, and since it wasn't quite lunchtime yet, people decided to turn the meal into a great feast celebrating the end of or the beginning to another week.
Now, it's attracted the attention of the heathen as well. Those who fell into bed fully-clothed at five in the morning also have a place to dine when they awake still half-cocked from a night of drinking and debauchery.
Needless to say, restaurateurs have picked up on it, and in C-U we now have a veritable buffet of brunch options to keep us thoroughly satisfied, week in and week out.
First stop on the Brunch Hunt: Radio Maria, the original trendsetter in downtown Champaign.
Radio Maria has been serving up brunch for as long as I can remember, and that's a good thing, because they've got one of the best values around, especially when you consider the quality of the food. Their menu is deep: you can choose from traditional plates of breakfast food (the Diner Plate) to huge omelettes (with a ton of options) to lunch sandwiches (more on The Cuban below) to specials with Mediterranean flair. Oh, and they have some killer pancakes too.
On this particular occasion, we were seated promptly and served by the best: Evan Smith of the band Neoga Blacksmith. We make it a point to request his services, as he is arguably the best server in the house.
I never go without a cup of coffee, and it's always a treat. Served in ubiquitous white ceramic mugs or cafe-style clear glass cups, this is arguably some of the best in town. Water with lemons is served quickly, and before we know it we are giving up our order.
For the purpose of research, we go glutton on this day and order the house: a Pinta's omelette, which is a four-egg number done up with caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese. It's served with a nice helping of home potatoes and a slice of their delicious homemade beer bread.
Next we order the pancakes. Two for just $4? Insanity. It comes with pieces of plantain tucked in the batter, which makes for a nice addition in texture and flavor. Another nice touch is the cinnamon-laced butter served on the side. The syrup is my only true complaint: it's not pure maple syrup. Adding that option to the menu would go a long way, even if there was a surcharge. Syrup purists would purchase it.
I am a freak for a good Cuban sandwich. If you don't know what it is, let me explain: between slices of grilled crusty bread, roasted pork loin and center cut ham are topped with melted Swiss cheese and layered with thinly cut dill pickles and yellow mustard. Radio Maria has their own take on the Cuban, and while it's certainly not the best I've had (go to Miami or, better yet, Havana), this one does the trick. When the cooks are being mindful, the ham and pork are cut thin the way they're supposed to be. Today, my sandwich was well prepared.
Since we're going all out, why not add an order of beignets into the mix, for good measure and a few more calories? These were perfectly fried — light and crispy but still with enough bounce to give way to a really delicious bite. If you are looking for something like what Cafe du Monde serves in NOLA, then these will do you right. I am a sucker for fried dough, and at $2 a plate, this is a treat and a value all in one.
All in all, Radio Maria does brunch right. I've probably eaten here well over 50 times since I became old enough to make my own culinary decisions. I tend to stick with what works for me now: an omelette with a cup of coffee. When I am feeling more adventurous, I do the Masa Boat Surprise. It's a cornmeal boat served with eggs, chorizo sausage, a variety of beans and salsa, and more. Or, if I'm feeling a little more lunchtime, the blackened catfish never disappoints.
Radio Maria arguably set the trend in brunching downtown, and, if I am any sort of prognosticator, it will continue to lead the way for years to come.
Radio Maria is located at 119 N. Walnut Street in downtown Champaign.
(Photos by Justine Fein-Bursoni)
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