Let’s cut right to it: The second year for the Pygmalion FOOD Festival can certainly be declared successful. Last year’s FOOD component was a week earlier than everything else, and because of that and the fact that it was the first time, it wasn’t particularly well attended. This year was completely different: FOOD was incorporated into the regularly scheduled programming, happening concurrently with MADE and MUSIC.
FOOD kicked off on Friday night, right at 5 p.m., and for the most part, all of the vendors were set up and ready to go. A small group of local restaurants participated: Big Grove, Black Dog, Farren’s, Maize, Papa Del’s, Pekara, Pop Stop, and Watson’s. (If you missed last week’s preview article, you can find it here.) Food writer Bobbie Bonebrake and I will share our thoughts on individual menus below (noted with our initials), but permit me this space to share some of my overall thoughts on the event.
(I should point out that the owners of Pygmalion are also the owners of Smile Politely, but I am an independent, free willed and thinking person, so any accolades are well earned.)
Logistics first. No admission fee is a no-brainer, but still worth appreciating. The fact that attendees can roll up and buy the foods without secondary currency — no tickets! — is the best. Secondary currency is necessary in many settings, but it sucks. No one likes it. The closing down the eastern most portion of Main Street in Downtown Champaign, placing the food vendors adjacent to the MADE fest and constructing a stage at the east end of the space anchored everything in a coherent and lively way. There were plenty of high top tables, and the placement of paper towel rolls on the tables was nothing short of a stroke of genius. There were plenty of trashcans and recycling bins. My gripe from last year about the lack of seating still stands (hilarious pun, I know) — some sort of seating would have made things so much more comfortable for peoples over a certain age, and those who make poor choices in regard to footwear.
The complimentary Topo Chico was awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever properly had Topo Chico before last weekend; I might now be a loyal brand follower. Even after the sun went down I felt like I was basting in a
warm hot, moist oven, and I’m certain that if I had to purchase all the liquid I consumed, I would have gone home early.
The bar was easy to access, and drink prices were reasonable. I had the Slowdive Lemonade, and while sweet and refreshing, I wonder if it actually contained vodka; that is to say, the drinks were super weak.
I’m not sure how I feel about Pygmalion FOOD as a food festival. Some restaurants embodied the festival-ness/festive-ness better than others. With a food festival, I want something slightly special that is either “a deal” or not necessarily on the restaurant’s menu. A few places did this particularly well: Black Dog, Maize, and Watson’s. Black Dog’s pineapple pork slider was something not offered on the regular menu; at $4 it was the perfect festival food at a great price, and it was tasty as hell. I was able to forgive Maize offering tacos at an entire dollar more than their regular menu price because the restaurant brought two non-regular menu items to the festival and killed it — the tamal and the churro were fantastic (please put them on the regular menu!). Watson’s wings were different than what can be found on their regular menu, and they were cheaper by $4. That’s a double whammy of specialness.
I see two routes moving forward with FOOD. The first is to leave it as it is: continue to curate the vendors and set the $4 and $8 price points, but let restaurants kind-of-sort-of do what they want. The food vendors are in service to the rest of the festival, but in the best possible way because it’s not a bunch of Jimmy/Papa Johns garbage food. The second is to build out more programming — cooking demos, panels, restaurant tours, special menus, chef talks — and really make it a thing. Either way works. Based on the crowds I saw on Friday night and Saturday, people are excited to be able to attend for free and check out some affordable options from the better places in town. If, behind the scenes, the opportunities to further develop FOOD are available, I think people would participate in that stuff, too.
There was no sophomore slump for FOOD. Even if nothing changes for next year, it’s proven to be an accessible, approachable and enjoyable part of the Pygmalion Festival. (Though some seating would be nice.) Continue reading to see what we thought of the individual performances. — Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink Editor
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we foodies were pretty stoked when Pygmalion added the FOOD component last year. This second year brought improvements and I really liked the layout and the selection of local restaurants that participated. As much as I want it to be even more successful in the coming years, I enjoyed not having to wait in long lines and there seemed to always be a table available. I frequent a lot of local restaurants throughout the year, whether it be for a Smile Politely article or on my own, but I hope to always be able to say that I tried something new at Pygmalion FOOD. — Bobbie Bonebrake, Food Writer
Big Grove Tavern
Southwest Chicken BLT $8 | with organic chicken, Nueske bacon, Chandley Farm tomato, Shullsberg Creamery muenster cheese, el milagro tortilla
Fried Brussels Sprouts $4
I mentioned in my preview that I was not particularly jazzed about this southwest chicken BLT, but was hopeful that it would surprise me. I was surprised, but not in a good way. It was way too salty. It was not “southwest.” It was too creamy and liquid-y. I did not like the hot, wet, lettuce.
When I read the menu, I was really excited by the fried Brussels, and said as much in my preview. If you ordered them on my recommendation, I apologize. My sprouts may have been fried at some point, but would better be described as soggy, wet, oily boiled mush. (JH)
Pulled pork slider $4 | Central Lean pulled pork smoked in banana leaves with pineapple mojo sauce, served with a side of pineapple slaw
When I saw the description for Black Dog’s pulled pork slider I was pretty stoked to give it a go. I love pineapple and pulled pork is one of my go-to choices at most every BBQ restaurant. They sourced local pork from Central Lean based out of Paxton and smoked the meat in banana leaves and pineapple mojo sauce. All true to form for any “luau-style” recipe. Banana leaves impart a subtle sweet flavor and aroma to whatever they’re wrapped in, but also utilized because they’re waterproof and so they keep all the yummy juices in while allowing the meat to remain nice and moist without getting burnt.
Now let’s talk about the sauce, because as Jess so aptly put it in her preview, mojo sauce is what is up. There is, of course, a lot of different versions of the sauce but at its base roots it refers to any sauce that’s made with olive oil, garlic, and some sort of citrus juice. In Black Dog’s case, they chose to use pineapple. For the longest time I didn’t like adding slaw to pulled pork sandwiches but I have since seen the light and I now love the cool crunch and slight flavor that helps round out the stack of bbq’d meat on bun. I tried both the sandwich and slaw by themselves first. The pork was cooked very well and indeed very moist. The flavors were very subtle which is sometimes good in order to appeal to the masses, but I was hoping for a little more punch. It would have been nice if there was maybe some extra pineapple mojo sauce available to add to the sandwich. And because I like it to be a little extra saucy, I thought the slider definitely benefited from adding the pineapple slaw on top. The slaw was nice and crunchy with red and green cabbage and pineapple chunks. It was light and citrusy and I liked the extra pineapple flavor it gave to the slider when eaten together. All in all, a very good slider. (BB)
A selection of Farren’s burgers as sliders $4 | Hamburger, or with cheese, The Russell, Green Chile, Motherlode, and Veggie, yellow mustard, red catsup
I didn’t actually eat a Farren’s slider this weekend, but I watched as two friends did. I am full of regret. (JH)
My oh my does Farren’s make a good burger! It’s one of our favorite places to go. Last year at Pygmalion was the first time I tried the Motherlode and it was love at first bite. It’s become the burger I always order now. It consists of sautéed mushrooms, Farren's famous blue cheese sauce, and Swiss cheese. Pro tip: if you hold your burger over the fries as you eat (or here at Pygmalion, tri-color chips) you get loaded blue cheese fries. The Russell has always been my husband’s favorite and it’s pretty close to the Motherlode, but it’s taken to the next level by adding bacon and using pepperjack cheese in place of Swiss. Their beef patties have a great flavor and are well cooked and juicy. This year I branched out further and tried another I hadn’t had before — green chile. This burger uses pepperjack cheese. They always ensure the cheese is melted beautifully on the burger patty. Then it’s topped with the mixture of sautéed chilis, onions, and spices. Sometimes using a pepper like this I feel that it can be a bit bitter tasting, but the caramelization you get from the onions and the other spices they use really made for a great flavor. I did find that for an event like this, the wait time for these sliders seemed a little long, but they definitely made it worth the wait because it was cooked so well. (BB)
Tamal $5 | Traditional scratch-made Mexican tamal, filled with pork or poblano pepper, steamed in a cornhusk
Taco, one for $4, two for $7 | A traditional taco with your choice of carne asada, al pastor or zucchini blossoms, garnished with fresh cilantro & onion
Volcan $4 | A tostada topped with grilled cheese, onions & cilantro with your choice of carne asada, al pastor or zucchini blossoms
Churro $4 | Sweet cinnamon and sugar dusted churros
Maize knows what it does well, and executes. The tacos were delicious, as usual, as was the volcan.
The tamal, an item not on the regular menu, was also very good. I had the pork, and it was well seasoned and moist. A friend was advised to cover his in the avocado sauce and was quite happy with that experience. I hope that these make an appearance on the regular menu sometime soon — I’d happily order them, though maybe not for $5 each.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written during my tenure as the Food & Drink section Editor, you’ll know that I have a soft spot (quite literally) for (from) dessert. I was pumped about the churro, and was even more pumped that it was super soft and sweet and cinnamon-y and freaking delicious. I won’t tell you how many orders of churros were shared among my group of friends, because you will judge, and I don’t need that kind of hate directed at me. Suffice to say that I will be a regular churro-orderer should these delights appear on any Maize menu in the future. (JH)
Papa Del’s Pizza
The Original Sicilian Pan Pizza Slice, cheese or sausage $4 | Deep dish pizza filled with premium cheese and topped with a rich tomato sauce
Have you had Papa Del’s? If you have, you know it’s delicious. Of course it was delicious last weekend — it’s a loaf of bread smothered in sauce and cheese, and in my case, dappled with sausage. It was a little hard to eat without a knife and a real plate, but I managed. Did you know that Papa Del’s serves slices during lunch hours? I know what I’m eating for lunch next week. (JH)
A selection of sweet crepes:
Lemon filled $4 | Dusted with powdered sugar
Nutella, banana, and walnut filled $8 | Garnished with whipped cream
Fresh strawberries and sweet cream filled $8 | Garnished with whipped cream
It was all sweet crepes on the Pygmalion menu, but they also serve savory crepes in their bistro downtown if you want to give those a go. Crepes are typically associated with French cuisine and usually made from wheat flour (for the sweet ones at least), but Pekara used white flour for theirs. I had the Nutella/banana/walnut crepe fairly recently and it’s fantastic, but the Luscious Lemon was special to this occasion so I definitely had to try that one. The crepe batter is spread out thin, into a large circle and cooked on both sides. Once it’s flipped over they imparted the lemon flavor by spritzing it with lemon juice, then added a dollop of whipped cream, folded it up and sprinkled powdered sugar on top. By the time you’re ready to dig in, the warmth of the crepe has melded the lemon flavor with the cream and it tasted amazing. I loved the simplicity and it was still bursting with flavor. Crepes are a bit hard to eat with plastic forks, as I’m sure the French didn’t intend for us to use plastic cutlery like peasants, but luckily I’m not above diving in with my bare hands when there’s a sweet “really thin pancake” on the other end. (BB)
The Pop Stop
Sorbet style popsicles $3
Wappy Sprayberry | Strawberry, Blueberry, Lemongrass Lemonade
Mango Sunset | Mango, Cantaloupe, Raspberry, Cane Syrup
Pineapple Habanero | Pineapple, Habanero, Lime, Chili Powder & Salt, Cane Syrup
It was the perfect weekend to get your popsicle fix! The Pop Stop featured three sorbet flavors and four gelato flavors. If you didn’t already know, their pops are all hand-made with fresh ingredients. I don’t think I’ve met a pop of theirs that I didn’t like. This weekend I indulged in all three of the sorbet flavors. The Pineapple Habanero (I’m sensing a theme) is a fun one to try. Don’t be scared — there’s just a little bit of heat at the back of the throat; it’s mostly pineapple and lime. It isn’t super sweet; the lime, pepper and added salt help sway it from that. Wappy Sprayberry was my favorite (and it’s fun to say). Strawberry, blueberry, and lemongrass lemonade are three ingredients that packed a lot of flavor and it was a beautiful deep purple color. (BB)
Gelato style popsicles $3
Maple Bacon Cookie Dough
It was so hot, and the Bourbon Caramel popsicle was so creamy and sweet and delicious, I ate it before I took a photo. (JH)
Full pound of Miller Amish citrus marinated chicken wings with a Pyrat rum glaze $8
Elote salad $4 | Corn, ancho, mayo, cotija cheese, cilantro, onion & lime
Watson’s brought its A-game to Pygmalion FOOD. The wings were grilled on site, so they were hot and fresh. The wings were citrus-y and sweet and juicy and really, really good. The elote salad was surprisingly delicious. I’m generally not a fan of anything with mayo, but this corn salad was tangy and crisp and fresh and cheesy and delicious. (JH)
I’m a big fan of Watson’s wings but I had yet to try their elote salad. Watson’s offering of a full pound of wings ($8) and elote salad ($4) was the perfect pairing for sharing. My husband and I each got three wings a piece and the salad was a fair amount to split between the two of us. They grilled their wings to order and they were covered in a Pyrat rum glaze (the Caribbean theme continues!) with sliced green onions sprinkled on top. The char from grilling was a nice change up from the usual fried wings and the flavor it adds is oh-so-good. The glaze was a great balance of sweet and savory.
I really enjoyed the elote salad. Elote, Mexican street food, is typically served on the cob with all the ingredients slathered and sprinkled on top. But I too appreciated it being a salad version — it’s easier to share and less messy. Ancho pepper has a nice smoky flavor and there was plenty of cotija cheese. They didn’t go overboard with the mayo so I thought it was all well-proportioned: not too spicy, a little creamy, and the corn was nice and crunchy. (BB)
Photos by Jessica Hammie and Bobbie Bonebrake.