In fact I can’t wait to see the comments on the Facebook post for all of the things that I missed, and likely some new ones that I will need to try. However, below are just some of the ones that I came up with that our family chooses when we eat out, or that we take people to, order from, when we have out-of-town visitors as a way to give them a taste (pun intended) of Champaign-Urbana living.
Disclaimer before you read through the list: In no way do I believe that this is a complete list. Having said that, this list is not intended to upset any local food places that were left off. These are simply the places and food items that I am aware of. I based my choices mostly on restaurants that are local to Champaign-Urbana, their most popular dishes and/or their dishes that are not typically served in other restaurants. You will find the list in alphabetical order for a quick name reference.
Having said all of this, I invite you to go and sample some of the tastes of Champaign-Urbana.
1. Bombay Grill’s chicken biryani. This is a favorite in our household! Basmati rice with chicken, potatoes and fragrant spices. We save this as a treat or if we are carb loading for something (ummm … yeah, typically it is for a treat; we rarely carb load for any events).
2. Black Dog’s burnt ends. Confession: I have never had these. The reason? If you don’t arrive within an hour or two of Black Dog opening, then they are completely sold out. And this is the reason that I know that they are the “thing to get” at Black Dog.
3. Cake Artist Studio’s brown sugar oatmeal cake. This cake is our family’s go-to for all events. “You’re getting married? Oh! We should have a brown sugar oatmeal cake at the shower!” “Are you going to have a brown sugar oatmeal cake at the wedding?” “Oh, you’re having a baby?” Well, you get the picture! Be prepared for a sweet, toasted brown sugar taste with a buttery finish. Those with blood sugar issues please be advised this is not a good choice for you.
4. Courier Café’s homemade sweet potato chips and chocolate malt. Not to mention their great salad bar that you purchase by the ounce. I grew up going here as a kid and the things mentioned above were always the meal that I chose. To finish the experience have some coins ready and fish for a gum ball in the old-fashioned crane candy machine.
5. Crane Alley’s turkey burger. Avocado puree and roasted red bell peppers to top off this juicy and flavorful burger. If a burger is not your thing, there are plenty of other yummy options on their menu.
6. Cream and Flutter’s signature red velvet cupcake. We have been avoiding (well, limiting; avoiding is such a strong word) sweets for a while, so I have not had a cupcake here in some time. However, I remember ordering this along with a cup of their coffee and thinking that the moments I spent eating it were a nice little escape from reality.
7. Curtis Orchard’s apple donut. I don’t really think that a description is needed. However, for the best experience go to the Flying Monkey Café and watch the donuts being made on-site from scratch. The smells alone are worth the trip!
8. Custard Cup’s Sprite float with lemon custard. A family friend introduced this to me many years ago and it is still one of my favorites. Of course there are a million other combos and flavors to choose from if lemon isn’t your thing. And the Snowstorms are typically the treat of choice for most. However, if you like lemon and want something a bit on the “lighter” side, then this might be for you.
9. Destihl’s beer-battered bacon. It is drizzled with a maple chipotle sauce that makes this a bacon lover’s dream. This is the kind of thing that you might not want to order every time you visit, but it is worth trying. Kind of like a fried Snickers bar at the fair. People tell you about it, so you have to try it, but you realize that it is totally not good for you (in the best kind of way!) with the first, amazing bite!
10. Escobar’s empanadas. A flakey pastry loaded with pork, black beans and plantains. Yum! These are typically only available at lunch time. I have never had a meal here that I didn’t like and the freshness of their produce is always impressive. Editor’s Note: Escobars is now closed. However, you can find a few Escobar favorites on the new menu at Milo’s in Urbana.
11. Farren’s motherlode burger. One of Farren’s famous burgers with sautéed mushrooms, blue cheese sauce and Swiss cheese. This is the item that I hear raved about most often and when I asked around people confirmed. Personally, I love their strawberry chicken salad. Don’t drive too fast down Randolph Street or you’ll miss this semi-hidden gem of an eatery.
12. Original House of Pancakes’ apple pancake. An oven-baked, apple-loaded pancake with a cinnamon glaze that is heavenly. OK, so yet another confession. In doing research for this piece, I discovered that OHOP is not a local restaurant. It is a chain that is in more states in the continental U.S. than not. However, I felt as though the apple pancake was still a Chambana must have, so I broke my rule of only local restaurants. Be prepared to wait — typically for a table and also for this dish (it is baked in an oven and can take up to 45 minutes). Both are worth it!
13. Maize’s steak torta (“and the chips are the best in town!”). I have heard amazing things about it. This recommendation comes from a friend who is a fellow food junkie.
14. Merry Ann’s diner stack. I have lived in Champaign-Urbana for more than 25 years and there is one thing that I have observed Merry Ann’s Diner is packed every Saturday and Sunday morning from 2 a.m.-noon, especially when the college students are in town. Could it be that the diner stack (hash browns, cheese, sausage or hamburger, and eggs all drowned in sausage gravy) is a popular post-bar food? I grew up hearing my step-dad talk about the diner stack. I have never had the courage to try it for fear that it might send me into a food-induced coma, but it sounds like it would be a combination of all the items on the menu that I would have a hard time deciding between!
15. Mirabelle’s Fine Pastries’ chocolate almond horns. These cookies have a nice crunch on the outside and a softness on the inside. Add chocolate and, voila, the perfect treat to stroll through downtown Urbana with.
16. Monical’s Pizza’s red dressing. I don’t know what it is about this dressing. It is sweet and tangy, but it is different than most French dressings. I know many people who have moved out of the area that will stop in and buy bottles when they are in town for a visit. I grew up dipping my pizza in the stuff. It is good!
17. Pandamonium Doughnuts’ cereal killer (yeast doughnut with white cream glaze and Fruity Pebble topping). I have not had a Pandamonium donut because they are often sold out by the time I can get myself and my two kids out the door to any place they are being sold. If you take a peek at Pandamonium’s website you will see its locations are listed along with start times with the caveat of “until sold out.” Let me tell you, that last part comes quick on most days. The lines are long where the Pandamonium Doughnut truck pops up, but I have heard they are worth the wait.
18. Papa Del’s original Sicilian pan pizza. No recommendations on toppings here, just choose this crust option, get the toppings of your liking and you are in for a treat. Did you know that you can have Papa Del’s pizza shipped? This might just be the perfect gift for that friend who moved away.
19. Pizza M’s Pizza M (artichoke, bell pepper, tomato, onion, goat cheese and mozzarella). Change up your standard pizza toppings with this fresh ingredient favorite, named after the restaurant.
20. Radio Maria’s tapas. I scanned through the menu and couldn’t choose just one. The tapas are a “need to eat,” but the tapas experience in general and Radio Maria’s ambience are what qualify this as a pick for me.
21. The Ribeye’s salad bar. People drive to Indiana to go to the Beef House, but I will always be loyal to the Ribeye. The salad bar has fresh-made, non-traditional salads and the homemade croutons are the best. If you like going to salad bars with Bac’n Pieces, then this might not be for you because the bacon bits are real. Pair this with the fresh breads (and maybe a twice baked potato if you’re really hungry) and your meal will be complete.
22. Seven Saints’s sliders. Yes, I know not choosing one is kind of lame on my part, but there are so many yummy ones to choose from.
23. Sitara Indian Restaurant’s lamb vendaloo with naan bread. I don’t eat very much lamb. However, given that it is a popular offering in Indian dishes and in an effort to give diverse recommendations I am going with this recommendation from a friend.
24. Sun Singer Wine and Spirits’ ‘Sun’Gria and grilled cheese. I have not had the ‘Sun’gria but I recently met a group of 10 people here and 6 of 10 ordered the ‘Sun’ Gria, so there has to be something to it! The grilled cheese has fontina and white cheddar cheeses with apples on challah bread. It is served with a fig jam. This sandwich is the perfect balance of sweet and savory, if like me you find yourself always trying to balance those tastes on your palette.
25. World Harvest’s falafel sandwich. I am not an expert on falafel, but this was an unexpected find at this international and gourmet food store. I popped in once on my way back from a doctor’s appointment at Carle. I needed to get something for an African dish we were making and I realized that I had spent my lunch hour in my appointment and had not thought about what I would do for food. I ordered this and it has been a favorite of mine ever since.
Do you have a suggestion for a ‘must-eat’ food in Champaign-Urbana? Let us know!