I had never been to Paxton before, and my friend who lives in town was looking forward to taking a few of us up to her stompin’ grounds. We decided on an early dinner after a long day of work — we went to the newly opened Harvest Ale House, which is owned by the same person as Paxton's Humble Hog. When we arrived, there was ample street parking out front. The façade of the building was clean and beautiful, complete with new awnings and door decals showing their logo. It was definitely hard to miss this building as the rest of downtown Paxton, with its weathered mom-and-pop shops and watering holes, is not remotely as trendy and new. Inside, the décor matched the outside of the building: a mix of vintage (old pictures of Paxton, a refurbished wood bar, an old cash register) and trendy (Edison light bulbs, oil rubbed bronze fixtures, stained glass). It reminded me of one of so many gastropubs that are popping up all over Champaign and Chicago. There is ample seating for parties of all different sizes, as well as a large table that seats at least 12 in more of a private setting in the back.
My friends and I scoured the internet for a menu prior to arriving so we knew expect from the cuisine and see what other people recommend. To my surprise, there was not one menu posted anywhere on the whole world wide web, nor are there any Yelp reviews, or anything beyond their Facebook page. The reviews that came from Facebook were very positive and gave a little insight to some of their offerings. They don’t have a website, so Facebook is the only option for information you may need to know.
There were four of us eating, which was the perfect size party for trying appetizers and desserts without feeling overwhelmingly full. We were very pleasantly surprised to see that many of the beers offered on draft are local, and they had a really cool assortment of harder-to-find drafts from around the country. Draft beer was around $5, and they also had a variety of wines and mixed drinks available.
The menu has many delicious choices for appetizers (called small plates) to share. We decided to get cheese curds to share ($6.95). The curds were a perfectly crispy, beer battered combination of yellow and white, served with a tangy chipotle aioli. My friends and I were trying to figure out what gives the aioli the distinct tangy flavor, and we settled on the possibility of nutmeg, which we enjoyed. There were not many cheese curds in the serving, which was fine because we didn’t want to eat too many before dinner. The “small plates” name is very appropriate as the servings were not gigantic.
For entrées, we each ordered something different. I had chicken fingers ($6.95) and fries (the chicken fingers are on the small plates menu and I asked for a side of fries, $2.50). The chicken fingers were pieces of white meat, which were beer battered, crunchy, and delicious. The fries were pretty standard straight-cut fries, but they were freshly fried and salty. The chicken fingers come with a choice of Humble Hog’s barbecue sauce, ranch, and Carolina Reaper hot sauce. I opted for the Carolina Reaper and ranch, a personal favorite on my chicken fingers. The portion was three chicken fingers which was plenty for me when paired with fries.
One of my friends had bacon and avocado grilled cheese ($7.95). The sandwich had avocado, smoked bacon, caramelized onions, and a mix of cheeses between Pullman white bread. My friend felt that the sandwich was a great balance of all ingredients, but the bread could be cut a bit thicker to stand up to all of the contents between the slices. The sandwich came with a choice of side (baked potato, broccoli, fries, applesauce, herbed veggies, or a house salad) and she chose fries as well. She was very happy with her choice.
Another friend had the HH burger: a 1/3lb patty with Humble Hog’s barbecue sauce, smoked bacon, and cheddar cheese ($9.95). The burger was cooked perfectly and very juicy. The toppings were in great balance to the burger and the bun. For her side, this friend chose a baked potato and added ale house cheese and candied bacon on top ($0.99 each). The candied bacon was incredible — sweet and smoky, and paired so well with the ale cheese, which was a white cheese sauce smothered all over the potato. We were all envious of that great looking side, and my friend said it was delicious.
The third of my friends tried the Pells Street nachos ($9.95). This was one selection that didn’t belong in the “small plates” section of the menu — there was nothing small about this portion. She was served a mountain of white corn tortilla chips smothered in slow cooked pulled beef, the same ale house cheese sauce that was on the potato, as well as jalapeños, pico de gallo, and cilantro. The pulled beef was seasoned wonderfully with southwestern spices and peppers. The cheese sauce paired perfectly with the other ingredients and gave the whole dish a nice creaminess in contrast to the spiciness of the jalapeños. The tortilla chips were a bit flimsy after the addition of the heap of toppings; a sturdier chip may have faired better. Our only criticism was that the pico de gallo and cilantro were not listed on the menu as ingredients. Had my friend known that they were included on the nachos, she would have asked for them to be on the side. Despite this, every nacho component was extremely fresh and well prepared.
Despite feeling incredibly full, we laid our eyes on the dessert menu and noticed funnel cake sticks ($5.95). Intrigued, we ordered them to share. We were not sure what to expect, and sure enough, a mound of funnel cake strips was presented to us, coated in powdered sugar and served with a cinnamon dipping sauce. This was one of the most fun dishes I have experienced at any restaurant. The strips of funnel cake batter were deep fried and stood up to dipping, tearing, and sharing. They were so delicious and, in themselves, worth the drive to Paxton.
Overall, we had a wonderful time at Harvest Ale House. The setting, food, and experience exceeded our expectations. We’ve since tried to spread the word to friends and family to head out to Paxton as we will all surely be back.
Harvest Ale House is located at 102 South Market Street, Paxton, and open Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight.
All photos by Jessica Wolff.