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Masa Boats on the Prairie, and Other Pleasures of Champaign-Urbana November 17, 2009

Posted by merp in Blogging, Champaign-Urbana, Drink, Food, Gardening, Life.
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As you know, the merp family has recently left Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, after 8 years for me and 6 for the Mr.  As a farewell and a guide for others – especially folks who might be new to the area – we had originally planned to to a series of  blog posts reviewing our favorite eating spots in town, the places we’ll really miss. But, to no one’s surprise but our own, I suppose, we ran out of time.  So here is our much more concise (though still pretty long) Culinary Pleasures of C-U list.

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Champaign-Urbana is a fine place to live, a diverse and interesting community, but its vibrancy is often screened by a surface blandness. Significant swaths of that blandness are heartfelt and genuine, but there’s also much, much better here. A few of our picks are worth a stop if you’re in from out of town; some are good only in a relative sense, but if you’re living there, you’ll need them.

Favorite Restaurant All-Around: Radio Maria, 119 N. Walnut St., Champaign

This one is well worth a special visit if you’re passing through town.  A highly original menu of flavorful pan-Latin fusions, consistently careful execution, and fresh, local ingredients made it our go-to place for a nice dinner out.

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Masa boat at Radio Maria

Their Sunday brunch is also fabulous – I (Tanya) nearly always get the masa boat (“cornmeal boat filled with scrambled eggs, goat cheese, mushrooms, zucchini, red bell peppers, and green onions; topped with chipotle salsa and served on a bed of black beans, house potatoes, and flour tortillas”).  There’s also an adjoining tapas bar.  Don’t miss the goat cheese and pumpkin seed sauce appetizer/tapas.

Escobar’s is a similar restaurant, arguably as good, also with an inviting Sunday brunch – their muffins are to die for, and their Guatemalan breakfast is pretty much my platonic ideal of breakfast.

Asian Food….

Believe it or not, Champaign-Urbana does really well with Asian food – our picks have real competition, and there are new places opening all the time.  The University’s student body is about one-third Asian/Asian American, and the local community has a larger Asian-descended population (proportionately) than Chicago – and by quite a large margin – and these communities are pretty well served now.  (‘Twas not always so.)

Favorite Korean: Goodfella Korean Bistro, 905 S. Neil St., Champaign

The Korean community in C-U is especially large and visible, and there are quite a few Korean restaurants to choose from.  B-Won and Yellowfin are fine and good, and Woori Jib is our favorite for a cheap bite in Campustown, but Goodfella gets our vote for a good dinner, goofy name notwithstanding.  The food is apparently North Korean in style, so although they serve all the basic Korean favorites, the sauces and flavorings are sometimes a little unexpected if you’re used to the more familiar South Korean recipes.  They do a good “Korean BBQ” at your table (bulgogi, kalbi, and a variety of other grillable items).  But most of all, they are exceptionally warm and welcoming, to Koreans and non-Koreans alike, and will always take the time to explain the menu.

Favorite Thai: Thara Thai, 912 1/2 W. Bloomington Rd., Champaign

Champaign-Urbana has three Thai restaurants, and Thara Thai is without question the best.  But, tucked away by the cheap motels and warehouses  near the interstate, you’d never know it was there if someone didn’t tell you.  Fortunately, a lot of people have been told, and it’s been thriving for several years now.  The Thai owner is friendly and gregarious, and the food is well-prepared and as spicy as you can take it.

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Crispy tofu at The Wok

Favorite Chinese: The Wok, 703 Eastwood Dr, Mahomet

Mahomet is a bit off the beaten path, a small town about 10 miles west of Champaign.  It’s becoming more and more of a commuter community, but about the only reasons we ever had to drive out there were Lake of the Woods and The Wok –  which is right across from the giant chicken you can see from the freeway – you’ll see what we mean.

The Wok is a favorite with Chinese students at the U of I, and an entire wall is given over to a wonderfully comprehensive Chinese-language menu.  If you can order from that, do.  If not, of course there’s an English-language menu, but don’t hesitate to ask the owner for recommendations – she lives to be helpful.  The food is pretty much Taiwanese in style, and is consistently excellent, though the ambience is more in the styrofoam plate vein.  Be sure to get the crispy tofu.

Favorite Vietnamese: Xinh Xinh Cafe, 114 N. Vine St., Urbana

For most of our time there, C-U was without a single Vietnamese option. Now there are two. Xinh Xinh opened this year next to the Schnucks, finally giving Urbanians a source for pho and even banh mi. Things were a little uneven at first as things got started, but the last few times we went, everything was consistently good. Xinh Xinh seems to be keeping a steady stream of customers, too, partly due to the outgoing owner’s efforts to reach out to the community and even learn everyone’s name.  Hopefully this place is on its way to becoming a C-U institution.

Favorite Asian Groceries: Green Onion, 2020 S. Neil St., Champaign;
Far East Grocery, 105 S. Fifth, Champaign

Champaign-Urbana is full of Asian and international groceries of various persuasions; these were the two we frequented the most, and they are polar opposites.  Green Onion is Korean, also featuring a decent selection of Japanese foods, and was opened just a few years ago by a recent arrival from Korea with a very contemporary sensibility.  They feature some organic products and lots of ready-made packaged foods, and the overall atmosphere is very professional and clean.  There are also some Korean “deli” items made on-site (various kinds of kimchi, bi-bim-bap fixings, fried tofu, kim-bap/sushi rolls, etc.).

Walking into Far East, on the other hand, you suspect you may have stumbled upon a warehouse of illegal Southeast Asian imports, and that packets of dried tiger might lurk in a corner somewhere.  But they don’t.  It is a more-or-less legitimate business, profiled in this review, and has been there for years (though when we first came to town, they didn’t even have that, um, rustic-looking sign, just a door in a concrete wall).  It is by far your best selection of Chinese and Southeast Asian groceries.  And, not surprisingly, the prices are rock-bottom.

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Tacos!

Favorite Tacos: Taco Loco, 523 W. Town Center Blvd, Champaign

Mexican, on the other hand, is not C-U’s forte.  Or fuerte.  There’s your usual array of U.S-style greasy-plate Mexican places, utterly unremarkable.  Chevy’s, a national chain, was actually the best Mexican in town.  Eventually, the Mexican grocery, El Charro (55 E. Green St., Champaign) opened up a little taqueria inside, and it’s pretty ok.

Within the past year, though, Taco Loco opened up, on the edge of the prairie, beyond the mall.  This is your go-to place for authentic, cheap tacos – two corn tortillas, a some cilantro, tomatoes and onions, and your choice of the usual assortment of meat choices, with one of three house salsas.  Nothing extraordinary, but very, very good – and tacos are only 99 cents on Saturdays.

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BBQ at Black Dog Smoke and Ale House

Favorite BBQ: Black Dog Smoke + Ale House, 201 N. Broadway

Our favorite barbeque in town is, fortuitously, North Carolina style ‘Q. Yet another restaurant that’s opened in the last year, Black Dog stands out for putting their meat front and center. Unlike most of the other places in town, their sauce is vinegary, spicy, runny, and not particularly sweet – in other words, it bears almost no resemblance to ketchup and doesn’t overpower the meat. Their NC style chopped pork is good, but the brisket is not to be missed – it sports a flavorful, crisp smokey crust and is melt-in-your-mouth tender. And who can say no to the smoked potato? Black Dog is apparently starting to source its meat from Stan, our go-to source for local organic meat.

Favorite Frozen Custard: Jarling’s Custard Cup, 309 W. Kirby, Champaign

Well, actually, we never bothered to go to the other custard place in town.  Jarling’s is iconic.   Frozen custard is a Midwestern thing, similar to soft-serve ice cream, except much worse for you, and also much better.  Jarling’s is a place from another era, a summer hangout (it’s only open from March to November) for town and gown alike.

An unusually slow summer evening at Jarling's Custard Cup

Favorite Fish Sandwich: Seaboat

Anywhere else in town, ask for a fish sandwich and you’ll get fish encased in a thick, greasy layer of batter (Derald’s food truck has hands-down the best fish sandwich of this sort). Compared to that, Seaboat’s fish sandwich is nearly health food – but it’s also the best. Instead of a batter, their fish fillet has a simple, spicy breading, and it’s served on a wheat roll with lettuce and tomato. It’s delicious, it doesn’t fall apart when you eat it, and you don’t need to take a nap immediately afterwards. What more can you ask for?  Seaboat also does fried chicken and a variety of Southern sides.

Seaboat's perfect fish sandwich

Favorite Grocery: Common Ground Food Co-op, 1 Lincoln Square Village (Vine and Green, basically), Urbana

We both joined CGFC as soon as we got to town (through our membership in COUCH) back when it was a dingy (yet homey) little cave in essentially a church basement, almost entirely volunteer-run, as it had been for 25 years.  In the eight years since, we’ve both clocked hundreds of hours there, behind the register, inventorying stock, and, in Tanya’s case, serving a stint on the Board – all just a miniscule contribution to the collective energies of the co-op, which has blossomed, mushroomed and cauliflowered into a large, diverse, prosperous and now actually-visible community.  The co-op – still 100% member-owned and governed – now has an amazing professional staff and, as of August 2008, a beautiful new storefront in the Lincoln Square Mall in downtown Urbana, across from the Farmers Market.

The food is carefully selected for quality and sustainability, and much of it is local.  The co-op also offers classes on various food topics (canning, cheese-making, cooking on a budget, etc.), and organizes social events pretty regularly.  There’s a nice little deli now in the new store, and a comfy porch area for eating and sitting in warm weather.  Members can have direct input into pretty much any aspect of the co-op.  The prices are a bit on the high side (except for staples, which are deliberately kept low), but think of what you’re paying for!

Other Favorite Grocery: Urbana Farmers Market, parking lot of Lincoln Square Mall, corner of Illinois and Vine, Urbana

Every Saturday morning, May through November, everybody in Urbana walks their dogs and babies down to the parking lot of the Lincoln Square Mall to buy vegetables.  Ok, this is not true.  Not everybody goes.  The Merp family alone has missed countless market days in favor of sleeping in and eating pancakes in pajamas.  But it is always a good showing, of farmers and shoppers alike, a “see-and-be-seen” scene for the sustainable living set.

TripleS

Triple S Farm's booth at the Farmers Market

In addition to farmers’ booths selling everything from peaches to mushrooms to honey, there are also bakeries, handcrafts, musicians, political and community groups, and occasionally the adopt-a-greyhound folks with their velvety dogs.  Farms of note include: Triple S Farm (sustainably grown meat and eggs – absolutely the best bacon you have ever had, and once you start buying these eggs, you’ll never go back, at least not willingly.  And Stan’s a great guy);  Blue Moon (one of the oldest organic farms in the area, with a wide selection – they source a number of local restaurants, too);  Prairie Fruits (goat cheese!  You can also enjoy gourmet dinners on their farm in the summertime); Tomahnous Farm (a smaller, family farm, also certified organic – don’t miss their local-variety strawberries in early summer!  Very small, slightly sour, but add sugar, perhaps make freezer preserves, and experience true strawberry flavor).

One of the best things about Champaign-Urbana is that you can get to know your farmers personally.  You’ll find that one is a friend of a friend; you can visit the farm; you can socialize with the chickens.  You’re food is that close.  For that matter, you can be your own farmer.

A Little Renaissance?

As you may have picked up from the above comments, eating in C-U has improved tremendously in the past 8 years.  We don’t have the statistics, but it would not surprise us if there are twice as many restaurants now as then, and certainly enormously more variety.  Organic farming has burgeoned and the Farmer’s Market has grown and thrived – in fact, it is probably outgrowing its space now.  And Common Ground, dependent on the commitment of its members for success, has shot through the roof.  It might not be an exaggeration to say that Champaign-Urbana is in the midst of a food renaissance.

But we’re gone now and have left these recommendations behind, soon to be obsolete.  To keep up with new developments, we recommend Lisa’s blog Champaign Taste.  She’s often first on the scene when a new restaurant opens, and is good about checking back later for improvements.

As for us, give us a little while, and we’ll report back on what’s good to eat in Durham.

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Comments»

1. Mom/Alice - November 18, 2009

Highly unlikely that I’ll ever be in Champaign-Urbana again, but I read your entire impressive list! I remember Radio Maria with pleasure. Wonderful that the co-op has so “blossomed, mushroomed and cauliflowered”!

2. Tina Virshup - November 20, 2009

Wow – makes me want to vacay in C-U! Can’t wait for the reviews in Durham….

3. merp - November 23, 2009

Ha! Maybe we’ll turn East Central IL into a vacation destination yet! Stranger things…

4. Maureen - November 28, 2009

You must try Margaret’s Cantina in Carrboro! I moved away from the Triangle 7 years ago (to L.A.) and I’m a little jealous you landed there.

5. Dustin Keele - July 17, 2011

As a U of I alum who stuck around for a couple of extra years, I can say that I give my approval to your assessment of the culinary landscape. I was impressed by how thorough you had been; including a range of locations about the CU urban sprawl.


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