When it comes to unique restaurants in central Illinois it is hard to find a better selection than right here in Champaign/Urbana. There are restaurants with Asian cuisine, pizza and pasta and even places that specialize in Indian food. However, one choice that is more scarce is vegetarian restaurants. Typically, local dining spots offer options for our vegetarian and vegan friends, but most menus don't have it as their center of attention. Thankfully, there is one right on campus: The Red Herring. This restaurant has been turning out delicious entrees, sides, salads and soups for over thirty years.
The kitchen is run by a close knit group of employees. They love what they do and their talent is shown through the meals they prepare and serve daily. A sense of family and belonging filled the kitchen when I was there, and hardly did I ever see anything but a warm smile on everyone's face.
Tables with lava lamps and warm looking lampshades dotted the area along with paintings all over the wall featuring local artists. As soon as I stepped in I was greeted by warm, vibrant colors and folk/bluegrass music playing in the background. Almost at once I was greeted by smiles from the kitchen staff telling to me to sit wherever is comfortable.
I managed to catch head chef Holly Curia in between preparing meals and asked her what made this space special to her.
It turns out the restaurant has been an active part in the community by serving as a meeting ground for groups who are concerned with environmental and social discussion. On what keeps her going through times when the restaurant feels stretched, Curia feels “motivated by [the] mission” at the restaurant. Holly continued saying that the mission of The Red Herring “is social and environmental justice” to which such issues can bring together communities and more importantly open up discussion.
I asked a customer seated near me what he would suggest to eat. He strongly recommended the black bean burger which is “totally out of this world good."
I needed to get something else to warm me up, so I also ordered the soup of the week, which was a southwestern soup.
When my entree and soup was called at the counter to pick up it smelled heavenly. The southwestern soup had a blend of black beans, carrots, lentils, and spices. It definitely had that southwest kick to it but not so much you couldn't handle it; just enough to tickle your tastebuds. The portion was just right for a small cup.
Next thing up was the Black Bean Burger with a side of fresh salad. The salad came with cucumbers, onions, and peeled carrots on top of a bed of fresh greens. The dressing was a herb-vinaigrette and its taste was close to an Italian dressing but with fewer calories.
This wasn't your run of the mill veggie burger you find in the frozen food section of your grocery store. The patty consisted of sweet potato, black beans, millet, cilantro, onions, and herbs on a freshly baked ciabatta bun. Topped with lettuce, tomato, southwest dressing, and avocado made it a pretty hearty burger to boot.
It was exciting to see the workers in the kitchen prepare my meal. Active scenes of chopping up cabbage, slicing carrots, pouring dressing, and decorating my plate was a diffrent experience than waiting in a dining area wondering when your food is going to come out. Here you can see it right before your eyes.
Throughout the whole meal you could taste the freshness of the ingredients, and rightly so as the restaurant prefers to use vegetables that are grown in the area. Farms such as Sola Gratia in Urbana supply the restaurant with a wide variety of vegetables during the regular growing season.
It's not just about serving a great meal at affordable prices however. One of the ultimate goals is to educate people: learning how to subsitute animal by-products in cooking, and the use of diffrent spices and vegetables in cooking. Offering fair trade coffee instead of big name brands and why it is important to support growers all over the world being paid a fair wage for their work.
All together, this was one of the best vegetarian meals I have ever had. I left with a full stomach and wondered when I would be back there again. The historic building it is located in, nestled near the heart of campus, proves to be a great location for students who are looking to have a nice lunch but have a time restraint. In the future, when people ask me if there are any good vegetarian restaurants in town you can bet the first place I will recommend with be The Red Herring.
All photos by Sean Hartin.