The longer one lives in C-U, I’ve come to find, the easier it is to become a little cynical, to dismiss large swaths of the food and drink community because of a few instances of terrible food, service, and aggressive mediocrity.
When the time to write this annual column rolls around, my initial instinct is panic: “Oh shit, what were the best things about food and drink in the last year?” After the momentary panic, and a flip through the last twelve months of photos, the panic becomes, “Oh shit, which things to edit out?” There’s a lot going on in C-U when it comes to things one consumes. There are some really delicious bites and sips to be had, for sure, and there are fun and interesting and innovative things happening. There are also old favorites that stand the test of time, and are perhaps overlooked or forgotten for the newest shiny thing to open. It’s nice to take a moment to consider the highlights from the last year, and look forward to seeing how these things grow and evolve in the next. — Jessica Hammie
BEST improved social media presence
One of my biggest peeves is terrible, out of focus, often disgusting food photos. Taking good looking photos is not easy, but when you’re in the business of food, it seems like it’s something worth the investment.
Courier Café has stepped up its social media game in a serious way. The restaurant posts several times a day, the photos are in focus, colorful, and diverse. There are photos of pies, the gardens outside the restaurant, the inside of the restaurant, burgers, breakfast, and drinks, too. It’s really wonderful to see this as an ongoing series of adventures, and perhaps most importantly, it makes me want to go to Courier and eat all the things. All of them. Those Taco Tuesday salads? I need them.
Props to Courier for a much improved social media feed. Here’s to hoping some other dining establishments will follow suit. (JH)
BEST bartender to pour you a classic cocktail
The “classic cocktail” has come back in style to an almost ridiculous degree over the past few years. Out in NYC, they were all about it at the turn of the century, but it’s finally made its way to the heart of the heart of the Midwest, and I am happy to report that there are any number of fine bartenders here in CU that can mix you a good one.
With all that said, no one pulls it off in the same way as Josh Gasienica, who currently runs the bar at Hamilton Walker’s. Of all of their many, many missteps — more on that later this week — this is one thing I can point to that deserves serious commendation.
From his demeanor, to his epic beard, to his penchant for addressing me as “Sir” no matter how many times I ask him to "please just call me Seth", to his impeccable technique, to his deft hand — an order from Josh with with precision, each and every time.
My advice, get the Hemingway Daiquiri. It’s perfect for any occasion. (SF)
BEST restaurant with a second location
Finally. Let’s hope it lasts.(JH)
BEST cocktail list
Praise be to Ashley Buerkett and Eric Meyer for taking over at Bentley’s when they did. For those of us still wishing for hangs at Mike ‘N Molly’s, this third or fourth iteration of the “last bar to the north” in Downtown Champaign really hits the spot.
The biggest reason is simple: they hired the best bartender in town, as far as I am concerned. I wrote as much a few years back when “Fu” was behind the rail at Radio Maria. But now, he’s got his own agenda, and that means infusions, and more infusions, and a ton of freedom to be as creative as he pleases.
The house cocktail is a stunner, if you are into the sort of drink that you can sip or shoot, and that will give you a jolt, when you need it. It’s called a “White Lie” and it’s a tequila infused with coffee from Columbia Street Roastery, and mixed with either almond milk or half and half. Order it on a weekday between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. and it’s half off for Happy Hour.
Beyond that, there’s a lot to love: the best Negroni in town, a Sazerac that makes NOLA feel closer than it is, an ode to the Brass Rail with a Squint, and one of the best Bloody Mary’s you’ll find outside of The Iron Post (where they still serve the best around, no lie). (SF)
BEST new trend
Most C-U restaurants available for delivery on GrubHub or OrderUp
When I first moved here, I was disappointed in the limited selection of food delivery options; it was basically Domino’s or Chinese food. Sometimes you just don’t want, or are unable to leave the house, and are in need of food. It’s sort of great to have your favorite thing from your favorite restaurant brought to your door.
In the last year or two, GrubHub and OrderUp have added a large percentage of C-U’s restaurants to their offerings, including ones you might not expect to offer delivery service such as Café Kopi, Watson’s, Jarling’s, and Hamilton Walker’s. Delivery does not come without cost, though — there are minimum purchase amounts, delivery and processing fees, and long delays. But these costs are worth it (within reason, of course) if you can have your latte or chocolate cherry snowstorm delivered to your door. I know many people who are uninterested and hostile to the idea of speaking to another person on the phone, and the online/app platforms for these services allow those weirdos to avoid human interaction. All in all, I’d say expansive food delivery in C-U is a win for diners. (JH)
BEST new brunch
While I won't call MIGA's brunch the best in town just yet, I can feel comfortable saying that their new brunch menu is something to pay attention to. Across the board, there are tons of great options for a super reasonable price, which basically means $12 or less across the board. Not to mention the menu is totally on point. It is the best new option for brunch in Downtown Champaign. (PS)
BEST potential to be an excellent food and drink event
I get a little cringe-y each time a new food and drink event is announced. So often they are not particularly well considered, and as an attendee I’m left feeling unsatisfied and broke.
Pygmalion Food did what few other food and drink events had done in the recent past: present a small, curated group of restaurants, and require those restaurants to offer reasonable portions of their food. At $4 and $8, the portions were affordable, appropriately sized, and the food was good. The restaurants (bacaro, Black Dog; Farren’s; Maize; Watson’s; The Pop Stop and Columbia Street Roastery also participated) didn’t stray too far from their standard menus, which felt right. Triptych was also there with a special beer — a collaboration with Curtis Orchard — that was seasonally appropriate for the time of year. The most important part of the food festival was the food, and that was done well.
The event was not particularly well attended, which was a bummer, but it allowed for short, quick moving lines and easy access to the food and drink. As long as festival organizers (Smile Politely’s dear publisher) can figure out a way to not only engage a larger audience, but also help create a logistical situation that prevents serious lines, the event is bound to become a mainstay in C-U’s food festival line-up. (JH)
I’ve been meaning to write an honest to goodness review of Alexander’s Steakhouse for what feels like a decade. Hell, it has been a decade. I have the photos. I have the story. I’ve eaten there upwards of 250+ times over the course of a life in which it has been open for business for the vast majority.
I will stand by it: it is the best place to get a steak in town. I wrote the same goddamned thing last year for BEST.
This year, I am writing it again, simply because I think that it’s important to remind you, especially in the face of two new contenders coming to town: Baxter’s (pretty good!) and Hamilton Walker’s (not so good!).
There are a lot of reasons Alexander’s remains the top spot to eat a steak here in C-U, and no, the fact that there’s not a lot of good options out there doesn’t count in my top 3, or even 5, or even 7. The reason is that you can pick your steak, and anyone who knows anything about steak knows that while the cut of meat is important, it’s the marbling that counts the most. As such, the fact that you are basically able to go to a butcher counter to select what you want, and then choose to cook it yourself or to have it cooked is key. No mystery. No shitty lean or oblong cut if you don’t want it.
It’s Choice beef, it’s not Prime. Still don't believe that the beef being served anywhere else is Prime. I want proof that has not yet been given to me. I am cynical. That’s OK. Choice beef works A-OK, especially when you pair it with butter and salt, the cornerstones of any really, really delicious steak. And that’s what the lead cook — Eddie — has been doing for almost 30 years.
30 damn years, folks. Eddie is a master behind the grill. He’s developed one of the tastiest seasoning mixes for a steak you will ever eat. It’s for sale by the pound if you want to take it home with you. It’s a blend of seasoned salt, garlic salt, and pepper, and the steak is lathered with butter once before it hits the sizzle one last time.
Add to this the side of mushrooms that comes hot in a skillet (which I maintain is unlike anything else in the world), a totally decent salad bar, as much Texas Toast as you can eat (please, everyone, stop buttering the bread before you put it on the grill. Wait until it's toasted, and then, put it on. THINK ABOUT IT), the skillet cookie, a staff that has less turnover than any restaurant in town, and the biggest, and best Long Island Iced Tea you’ve ever had — well, you are going to be a tough steakhouse to beat. (SF)
BEST restaurant to get an entree with fresh fish (non-sushi category)
Mark this one down in the “You gotta be shittin’ me” category. I couldn’t believe it when I was told, and so I drove myself all the way over to Duncan and Windsor to find out, only to learn that it was 100% true.
Billy Barooz, the sports bar / restaurant out there in southwest Champaign, is serving the freshest salmon and tuna in town, it appears. And by fresh, I mean it. They receive whole fish up to three times a week, fresh from the distro, who have it flown in daily. The break it down, and portion it up to order, and serve it with rice and veg. It costs like, $14 or something. It is absolutely sensational.
Just to see if I could get them to trip up, I asked for mine to be cooked medium to medium rare. On two occasions. Both times, absolutely perfect.
My friends, things are not always as they appear. You would be wise to go eat this, and eat it soon.
Hats of to them for doing it the right way. Lord knows we need more of that here in town. (SF)
BEST local food news
Storefronts for food trucks
- Cracked Food Truck opens restaurant on Green Street.
- Caribbean Grill opens restaurant at the Shoppes of Knollwood.
- Hopscotch Cakes and Confections will open bakery/market.
- Pandamonium Doughnuts set to open storefront on Windsor Road.
I think I can safely say that the stress, hard work, and fundraising these business owners endure in trying to get their storefronts open is matched by the excitement and enthusiasm of the community. Food trucks are fantastic and all, but some of us like the stability and routine of knowing exactly where and when we can find the things we love.
Beyond that, it’s really exciting and rewarding to see a business (and the people who run it) grow from a Kickstarter campaign into a full-fledged brick-and-mortar store. Selfishly, it feels good to say, “I helped support that with a donation,” and “I’m helping to support it by dining at this location three times a week.” More importantly, it’s amazing that we live in a community where this sort of enterprise is possible. (JH)
BEST news for Downtown Champaign diners
Indian food options: Kohinoor and Himalayan Chimney
There's always room for new and diverse dining options, no matter what restaurant scene you're a part of — so when I heard that Kohinoor was moving nearby my home, it appealed to me. THEN when I heard about another new option, Himalayan Chimney, going into the old Nitaya Thai location (RIP), although sad, was a good progression for Downtown Champaign dining. The more diverse options, the better. This is all good news. (PS)
Strawberry Fields + World Harvest
Once the one and only Mohammad Al-Heeti decided he was going to acquire Strawberry Fields after all those years of owning World Harvest, a merger to combine storefronts didn't seem too farfetched at all. When that merger finally came to life a few months back, it made such perfect sense and still utilized the space in an effective way — only making both stores more viable to the community on the whole. (PS)
BEST new food stuff to become available in Champaign-Urbana
Roasted Peking Duck — Fresh International Market
My wife’s work takes us to New York City multiple times per year. It’s something that I will be forever grateful for, in that, there’s no other place like it on earth. It defines the melting pot that is America in a way that cannot be replicated. As such, people who are into food are basically walking into their own personal xanadu.
Endless choices on where to eat abound, and for me, outside of the many Jewish delis from which to choose, no trip to Manhattan is complete without a stop in Chinatown for a Peking duck, hanging in a window, and available to purchase, OTD. That’s Out The Door.
They will chop it up for you, put it in a to go container, and serve it with a plum dipping sauce, and well, it’s basically my own personal heaven on earth.
Now, this perfect meat treat has found its way to Champaign-Urbana via the newly opened Fresh International Market, which is a macro-version of the Asian grocery we’ve come to know and love here in town.
Now is not the time to discuss the amazing cut of snapper I grabbed the other day from there as well. Now is the time to simply praise whoever it is we need to praise for bringing this to our town. It is amazing. (SF)
BEST place for free samples
Harvest Market opened up earlier this year to much fanfare — it was as if people had forgotten that in other parts of the country, there are plenty of grocery stores that have restaurants within, and massive sections of prepared foods. (The best of these, of course, is Wegman’s.)
Harvest Market’s Farmhouse Restaurant is solid; I really like the breakfast and the soups. The prepared salads are pretty incredible: Harvest Market blows all of the other local competition out of the water just by sheer numbers, which, of course, is easier to do when backed by a well endowed corporate budget. Whenever I’ve lingered near the prepared salads section, a very friendly employee has offered up samples, to which I generally feign disinterest, and then proceed to gobble up. Who knew that I would like caramel apple Snickers ambrosia salad? Who knew that was even a thing that people make and eat?
The samples don’t stop at the prepared salad bar. Need a shot of liquor while your toddler has a tantrum? Harvest Market has you covered. There is usually a bit of cheese set out by the cheese counter. Someone is set up right in front of the salad bar with something. You can often find someone in produce dishing out fruits or veggies. Harvest Market takes sampling so seriously that it has “Sampling Saturday,” and "Sampling Sunday," in which the store is full of sample stations. You can very easily visit Harvest Market and make a meal out of samples, and I don’t think there’s much shame in that. (JH)
BEST place to get sushi to dine-in
Listen, it’s Sakanaya. By a long shot. It is the best place to get sushi in town. Sushi Kame is legit, no doubt. But Sakanaya is better.
And here’s what: don’t be fooled by other sushi joints that offer you something called “Dollar Sushi”, when what you are actually getting are pieces of Maki roll, which is a type of sushi, yes, but frankly, a total rip off.
At Sakanaya, you can order the “I Love Salmon” or “I Love Tuna” for $22.
Woosh, $22? That’s a load, right?
Well, let it be known that your platter will come out with four pieces of nigiri, four pieces of sashimi, eight pieces of regular maki roll, and six pieces of spicy maki roll. Inside of those maki rolls are fresh, fresh salmon or tuna, your choice. No BS filler.
This ain’t Betsy DeVos mathematics. It’s the real deal.
I rest my case. (SF)
BEST seasonal beverage
Watermelon water, Maize
When it comes to seasonal beverages, I find warm weather drinks most rewarding. During this time of year, Maize offers watermelon water, and it’s superb. It’s sweet and refreshing and fruity, but it doesn’t feel as heavy (and carbonated) as a syrupy soda on a hot day. The watermelon water is available all summer at Maize, and it really is the perfect companion for spicy and well-spiced food, like those offered at Maize.
Pro tip: if you’re getting your order to go, you can spike your watermelon water with your booze of choice (I recommend something light, like vodka or light rum). (JH)
BEST shareable dessert
Carrot cake, Destihl
I’m not sure if a lot of people go out for dessert with friends, but I do. It’s a nice way to sub in sugar for alcohol, for those who don’t drink, or for those you would prefer to be sober(ish) when you hang. Destihl has one of the best dessert menus in town for these occasions. The carrot cake is incredible delicious, and at literally one pound, it’s more than enough cake to share with friends or your sweetie. There are plenty of opportunities to get enough bites of the cakey insides and the frosted outsides.
At $10, it’s affordable — especially if you’re splitting the cost with another person or two. You won’t find much more for $5 or $10 ‘round these parts. Next time you’re thinking of finishing off dinner with something sweet (and a coffee), consider Destihl’s carrot cake. You can also get it to go, and enjoy it elsewhere. (JH)
BEST place to get sushi to go
It took me a long while to come around on Harvest Market, but now that I have, it’s hard for me to not go there. I still hit the Co-op and Strawberry Fields as well, but if I am being honest, it’s the sushi at Harvest Market that has me coming in for more than just groceries.
It’s what you’d expect, a small sushi station next to the prepared foods. Other grocers have them as well. But this is a cut above, and the prices are as perfect as the selection. The store itself isn’t perfect — nothing is in town, honestly, as far as a grocery is concerned — but this added bonus makes it my favorite place to shop now. (SF)
BEST bar snack
Watson’s — Chicharrones
Bar snacks were soooooooooo cool a few years back. Now, most decent restaurants have them, and hey, that’s a good thing. Who doesn’t like a small plate or bowl of something to nosh while you wash one or more down?
Well, at Watson’s, old dude Shady Shades has done it up in a serious way. They are now serving chicharrones, which is Spanish for “pork rinds” and let me tell you, this bucket of fried skin and fat is something to revere. They sprinkle it with a cheezy-type powder similar to what you’d find on a Cheeto, and it is delicious.
Also, this bucket is huge. Like, almost enormous. $6 for this thing. It can be shared by like 4-6 people easily. And it is wonderful. (SF)
BEST specialty night that needs to become a weekly night absolutely immediately
Maize / Triptych — $25 all you can eat tacos and a couple of Triptych beers
Just a couple of weeks back, Triptych debuted a new beer called Fiesta Forever, which is, as you can imagine, a Mexican-style beer, not dissimilar from other dark lagers south of the border like Bohemia, Victoria, or Negra Modelo Amber. Squeeze a lime into it. It’s perfect for the warm months.
But they also decided to premiere it at Maize’s new location, and for $25, you could drink two of those beers, and dine on all you can eat tacos for three hours. It was Monday. It was a line out the door, and a line to get tacos the whole night.
I am not sure how the profit margin breaks down, but I feel like it makes sense. Tacos are like $2.50 a pop. Beers are like $5 a pop. That means six tacos and two beers.
There’s just something about these kinds of nights that do wonders for a place and its reputation. The sort of thing that people rally around. So, turning my words directly to Anthony and Armando: Fellas, please. Do this. Do it every week. Seasonal only, summer time. Do it, and it will be good. (SF)
BEST place for dining with a group
Golden Harbor is much beloved by my friend group, and, likely, your friend group. This is a bit of a cheap BEST entry, since so many in the community already know and love Golden Harbor. Occasionally I’ll encounter someone who hasn’t yet been, and for those of you reading who haven’t been to Golden Harbor: Go. Go now. Go with friends. Go with kids. Go with gusto.
Golden Harbor’s menu is so extensive, I’m not sure that it’s really even possible to try every single thing on the item in one’s lifetime. (But that does sound like a pretty great SP column; if you’re interested in doing that, let’s talk.) When I go to Golden Harbor, I want to order at least five different items, and this becomes problematic because it’s expensive, and it’s way too much food for one or two people. This is when it’s best to round up a group of people. Our SOP is to have each person pick a dish, making sure to have a nice variety of meats and veggies and noodles and whatnot. Taro buns (B4) are a must, in my humble opinion, and always ordered in addition to entrées. Dining with a group allows you to use the fun lazy Susan that is found on the larger tables. It allows you to try a bunch of different things, things you may not have wanted to order because you were worried you wouldn’t like them. The cost stays down — most entrées are about $15-ish, give or take, so you’re not really going to be in much more than $20 per person. You might even have some leftovers. (JH)
BEST pizza and beer scenario
Thursday nights at Triptych with Dragon Fire Pizza
Pizza and beer is as classic a combo as peanut butter and jelly, and Dragon Fire is among the best pizza in the area. Triptych is, undoubtedly, the best local beer in town. This partnership seems like a no brainer.
Just about every Thursday night, you can find the Dragon Fire Pizza truck parked at Triptych brewing in the evening hours until about 7:30 p.m. Triptych runs some beer through a Randall, Dragon Fire throws some dough on/near burning wood. In good weather, there might be no more relaxing and enjoyable evening than pizza and beer on Triptych’s new-ish patio. It’s all very chill. And delicious. (JH)
Contributors to this article include Jessica Hammie, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein. Photos by Jessica Hammie, Sam Logan, and Patrick Singer and from Facebook.