When you walk into Bevier Hall, you might not have much of an opinion. Tiled floors, administrative whites —it feels like an extension to the bus stop outside. Like an adventure film, if you follow the staircase, you’ll be led down a hallway that transforms into a unique, flavor-filled experience each week. The University of Illinois’ Spice Box is open for the Spring 2019 semester, offering diners an opportunity to travel around the world with their senses.
The Spice Box takes reservations only, in advance, and it provides a themed prix fixe menu (a complete meal offered at one set price) to patrons. The entire dining experience is created by a university student, from the décor to the recipes used. The pop-up restaurant appears Friday nights only. (You can read our review and interview from 2014 here.)
My husband and I attended last weekend; the meal was Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian inspired. The student running the Spice Box, Nina, managed effortlessly. She greeted each table and shared heartwarming stories of the night inspired by her grandmothers. My husband opted for their regularly planned menu, a five-course meal starting with bread and ending with dessert ($22). Their specialty option was vegetarian ($13), providing three courses.
Warm, toasted bread paired with ramekins of guava jam and queso fresco arrived quickly. Our server recommended we spread the jam and then sprinkle a generous amount of queso fresco on top. The sweet, tangy guava paired with the milky cheese was divine. It was simple, but packed with both flavor and texture.
Our bread course was followed up with a cheese empanada trio resting on three different sauces: salsa verde, avocado mousse, and chimichurri. The braiding on the empanadas was slightly imperfect, giving them a homemade look. At our table, the avocado mousse was the star of the dish. It was light (which can be hard working with avocado), creamy, and slightly sweet. Both the chimichurri and salsa verde were executed well, though my personal preference would have been to elevate the spicy profile, especially in the salsa.
The prix fixe menu included a salad with pickled red onion, queso fresco, avocado, lime vinaigrette, and fried plantains on a bed of mixed lettuce, a light burst of citrus after the empanadas. The main event was a chicken leg sitting atop a hearty portion of chorizo-filled rice. The chicken was perfectly cooked, easily pulling off of the bone and beautifully seasoned. The chorizo elevated the Spanish rice oozing with chiles and savory spices.
The vegetarian main course was mofongo: garlic mashed plantains sitting over the avocado mousse. These were not your traditional mashed potatoes. Similar in flavor to a sweet potato, the mashed plantains were starchier. I would order them off of a menu any day, though I did feel like I was eating more of a side dish than a full entrée. Since I had missed out on the salad, I opted to try their signature cocktail, a pineapple mojito ($5), to add a bit of fruit “salad” to my meal. Beer and wine, as well as a unique drink, are available for each dinner service.
We were already feeling very full, when the prix fixe final course came in: dessert. Coconut tres leches cake paired with a caramel rum sauce topped with homemade whipped cream. We shared, though the portion size was definitely for one, so we fought over the last bite. The cake was incredibly moist, the flavors of buttery rum and vanilla melting into the whipped cream. The pineapple notes didn’t quite come out, but the cake was memorable. It was a signature dish I would keep coming back for.
Fine dining for two, at $50, is impossible to do, but you can at the Spice Box. The meal ran longer than we anticipated, but the wait staff was communicative and checked in to make sure we were comfortable. We booked a 5 p.m. reservation, the earliest time, which gave us some time to take in the atmosphere and spend time with the student staff. Themes this semester range from international fare to television-inspired, including a personal fave titled "I'll Be There For You." Make your reservations here.
The Spice Box
905 S Goodwin
Reservations only, F 5 to 7:30 p.m.
Photos by Jordan Goebig