Seth Fein: This review is a unique one. I’ve been going to Alexander’s for literally upwards of 25 years, and I consider it to be my favorite restaurant in Champaign-Urbana. That sentiment is a reflection of my interest in simple food, prepared with the right ingredients.
In some ways, this is a love letter to them, and a serious thank you to their staff, some of whom have literally been working there for over 30 years.
But this starts by just acknowledging how awesome it is that, in the end, we’re talking about a restaurant with multiple huge open pit barbecues built inside of it. There’s no other way of putting this: that’s awesome.
Rob Schaffer: Human history is peppered with numerous revolutionary discoveries, most of which have gently changed the winds of fate for our fair species. One of those discoveries, actually more of mastery, was of fire; its effect has been monumental. Fire as a tool has been modified, upgraded, improved, and simplified over the years, but it remains one of the elements that span millennia and its impact cannot be overstated. Fire still connects us with our ancestors from perhaps one million years ago or more, and above all, its utility as a source for cooking is universal. That lust for fired meats still persists in many of us today.
Fein: I know some people who find this concept to be ridiculous and insulting to the idea of dining out. I understand why someone might be put off by the idea of going out to eat, just to have to do what you were trying to avoid in the first place. But it’s not really the idea of having to cook for yourself that brings you out of the house and into a restaurant, is it?
Schaffer: Well, no, and if you are really that upset about the idea, they will cook your steak for a paltry $2 extra. But I have a different perspective. Alexander’s allows you to have that backyard barbecue in the dead of winter, or if you live in a grill-less apartment; plus they handle the cleanup. It’s also nice to meet new people while congregating around the pit all while enjoying a cold beer.
Fein: Totally agreed here. I’ve had dozens of great conversations with all kinds of people around that open pit at Alexander’s. Plus, they serve up the meanest and most powerful Long Island Iced Tea you’ve ever had. $10 for this glass of insanity.
I’ve always wondered who came up with this idea, this concept of bringing a backyard barbecue inside, and I presumed it was a Midwestern thing, because of the long cold winter.
Schaffer: The backyard barbecue is almost a birthright in the Midwest, so it is rather fitting that some industrious Midwesterner came up with the idea of grilling your own steak at a restaurant. The history of this kind of dining isn’t totally clear. The best information I could find, with an admittedly hurried search, points to 1973 when Glen Rubenbauer opened Rube’s Steakhouse in Montour, IA. It’s a simple concept really: the restaurant has the steaks, the grill, the drinks, and most importantly — it handles the mess. The idea brings the social event of a backyard barbecue inside, where weather and yard space are no longer an issue, and where the idea of having to clean up after yourself disappears.
Fein: God bless this Rube character. I want to meet him and I’d do anything to eat at Rube’s, now that I know more about it. In fact, it’s something I plan on doing next year when we head to Mission Creek Festival in Iowa. I have to see the originator of this idea for myself. But more to the point, I actually love cooking food, and what I absolutely abhor is having to clean up after I am done. That’s the big selling point for me, I think. I love to cook, and I hate to clean. Alexander’s is like Xanadu, if you are like me.
Schaffer: The CU area is blessed to have one of these restaurant varieties in the form of Alexander’s Steakhouse. Opened in 1986, Alexander’s is a member of the Mercedes Restaurant family which includes three other Alexander’s locations (Normal, Springfield, Peoria) along with Famous Dave’s. I have fond memories of Famous Dave’s at Round Barn Center. If you do as well, it can still be found in Bloomington and Peoria.
Fein: I definitely love open pit charcoal barbecue, and I appreciate it as a way to produce really tasty food, all of it flecked with a carbon flavor that can’t be replicated. In a way, this is Santa Maria style grilling, but without the crank to allow you to control the temperature quick and easy. In this case, you can move your food from the hottest part of the grill to a cooler part, though. No problem. That said, perhaps we should just lay out exactly how this all works, since I think it’s not always clear to anyone who hasn’t been there.
Schaffer: Well, you can look at the menu for direction, or simply walk over to the meat case and let your eyes do the work. All steaks are USDA Choice and hand cut in house daily, some are even cut to order. Choices range from sirloin kabobs ($19.99) all the way up to a 3 pound sirloin called the Beefeater ($54.99). In between there are various sized cuts of filet, t-bone, NY strips, KC strips, and marinated sirloins. They also have chicken breasts (2 for $20.99), pork chops (2 for $20.49), swordfish or salmon ($23.99), and lobster tails (2 for $57.99). Your meal comes with unlimited baked potatoes, Texas toast, and trips to the salad bar. If that still isn’t enough they have shrimp cocktail, calamari, potato skins, onion strings, or fried mushrooms as appetizers.
Fein: First things first, I pick my steak the moment I get into the restaurant. Ideally, a steak is prepared after it has had a chance to come up to room temperature and has been seasoned with salt to extract some of that beefy flavor to the surface. So I pick my steak, salt it, and let it rest. It won’t get all the way there, but frankly, I don’t go to Alexander’s to dine and dash. In a perfect world, that steak sits out for an hour while I drink a Long Island, chat with friends, watch a game, whatever.
Schaffer: A trip to the salad bar is a great way to ease in to the whole experience, though. The selection is exactly what you would expect; iceberg / romaine blend or spinach, cherry tomatoes, red onion, shredded cheese, olives, crumbled bacon, hard boiled eggs, and an assortment of dressings. Everything is clean, fresh, and well attended.
Fein: They need to add a dried fruit, like craisins, to the salad bar. Been telling them for years. Regardless, it’s still a very decent salad bar, and I am always happy for the fresh peas, sunflower seeds, red onion, and pepperoncini. But on to the main show, allowing the grill side chef to prepare your food is totally something you should consider, especially if Eddie is working. Ask for Eddie’s Style, or Pittsburgh Blue, and he’ll do it as well as anyone behind a grill anywhere.
Schaffer: On my last trip we decided to cook our own while enjoying some cold beers. After a little salt and pepper, the steaks can assume the position over the coals. The main fire pit is roughly twelve feet long by four feet wide; plenty of room to accommodate several would be chefs. At the pit there are baked potatoes wrapped in foil, melted butter, and more loaves of Texas toast than most supermarkets. I like to grill up some garlic bread while the steaks are cooking.
Fein: I do as well, but this is where I have to interject, and yet again remind people about how to make Texas toast. There are literally vats of melted salted butter on these grills. And they are to be used on the steaks, on the potatoes, and yes, on the bread. 75% of the time, I see people put melted butter on untoasted bread, make it soggy, and then put it on the hot grill, where it essentially just burns the bread, instead of toasting it. If you are reading this, please stop doing that, for all of humanity’s sake. And for the sake of your caloric intake. If you are going to eat this, eat it the way it was meant to be served. Toast the bread first, then butter it. That's the way the grillside cooks do it, and for good reason. Seriously: think about it. Please.
Schaffer: OK, are you finished? Thank you. The grilling time is also a good chance to shoot the breeze with your friends or any strangers you meet. This is where Alexander’s shines; you forget how dreary the weather is or the fact that it is Monday night and you slip into a mindset more akin to a weekend in the summertime. The atmosphere is relaxed and casual with friendly waitstaff guiding you along the journey. They also offer spaces for private parties and large groups with more fire pits. If after all of the above, you are still hungry they do have a dessert menu. Unfortunately I have never made it that far, but based on everything else it’s probably very good too.
Fein: It is good, and the skillet cookie is something that is totally worth your time if you can make it that far, as you say. But the big thing is the grilled meat, and the potato and toast, but that does not absolve anyone of their obligation to order the sauteed mushrooms, each and every time they dine in at Alexander’s. These are the most delicious and tasty side dish I have ever had in my life. A few years back, I took a picture of them, and tweeted out from the Smile Politely account that they were the best side dish in C-U. My access to Twitter was taken away for that stunt.
Schaffer: All in all, I think C-U is pretty lucky to have one of these places, and it has been here for more than 30 years. Another chain called the Butcher Shop had locations in Memphis, Little Rock, Knoxville, Dallas, and Chicago, but I can’t find any evidence they still exist today. In all my travels the only other “grill your own meat” places have been Korean barbecues, which we also have, so it is a point of pride for the Midwest. If you are looking for something a little different, give Alexander’s a try…I think you will have a good time.
Fein: Yeah, no question. I actually judge a person on how they view this type of restaurant, in a lot of ways. I totally understand someone not really liking the concept, or people who just don’t find steak, and potatoes, and sauteed mushrooms, and huge cocktails to be to their taste… actually, that’s not true. If you don’t like these things, there is something wrong with you. Even a vegetarian could enjoy this place. They have veggie skewers for $2 a pop. I won’t hear anything else, Alexander’s is my favorite restaurant in this community, and I look forward to dining there again soon.
202 W Anthony Dr
M-F 4 p.m.
Sa + Su 11 a.m.
Photos by Seth Fein, Patrick Singer, and Rob Schaffer