By Kristy Wilson
I can remember my first experience growing up eating an appetizer. When we went out to eat back then, I always thought that salads were appetizers for meals. While this is still sometimes the case, we all have to admit that the appetizer scene has changed.
For me it went from only knowing salads, to the “Bloomin’ Onion” at Outback and now, well, there are so many I can’t choose a favorite. Not to mention tapas bars that specialize in … the appetizer! Then you have Pinterest that has pretty much made the “Bloomin’ Onion” easy for anyone to make. Now that appetizers are a thing, I thought I would share some of the top local appetizers for you to try.
As is with all of my food posts, and really any article where I am recommending things, I will add my disclaimer. In no way do I think that this is a complete list. I know that there are many more options out there, but I can’t include them all because I haven’t had them all.
Having said this here are the details on the list. All recommendations are based on local restaurants and not larger chains. The list is divided into two categories; the more unique appetizers are for those who are feeling adventurous and the “favorites” — the go-to options that are by no means run-of-the-mill, but that a broader demographic would try and other restaurants might have a similar dish to.
Finally, please know that my family doesn’t eat much fried food. You wouldn’t guess that by the list. However, I wanted to feature some of the top selling, local appetizers along with some of our family favorites. What I ended up with seems like a lot of fried yumminess!
Unique and Different:
1. Big Grove Tavern, Champaign: Local cheese and beer tasting. Enjoy a 1 ounce piece of cheese paired with 3 ounces of a Midwest brew to compliment the flavor of the cheese. While several other restaurants have local cheeses and beers the pairing of the two into one appetizer are what lands this one on the “unique and different” list.
2. The Bread Company, Urbana: Fondue. There are too many varieties to choose from. While this may not be unique to some I am including it on this list because there is not an exclusive fondue restaurant (i.e. the Melting Pot or something of this sorts) in Champaign-Urbana.
3. Crane Alley, Urbana: Potato pancakes with corn salsa and poblano cream. Growing up we would use leftover mashed potatoes for potato pancakes the next morning. While they were good, there is no comparison to these. These are fantastic!
4. Destihl, Champaign: Beer battered bacon and citrus cured salmon. These two offer a bit of indulgence in the beer battered bacon and a bit of a lighter fair with the salmon. Both are delicious! (Destihl closed in April 2020.)
5. KoFusion, Champaign: Fusion roll and cucumber apple kimchi salad. The Fusion roll was my first experience with “sushi,” albeit a pretty Americanized version. I believe that this is why I am so partial to it. It has a nice combination of sweet (the rice, the sauce and the crab) and salty (the tempura). The kimchi salad is crisp and clean with a little bit of a pop to it. If you shy away from spicy foods, then this salad is not for you.
6. Miga, Champaign: Wasabi Caesar Salad (Romaine, dried tomatoes, fried anchovies, parmesan, bacon and wasabi Caesar dressing). Yes, I said that appetizers now go beyond salads, but for many salads are still go-to appetizers. This one sounds like a twist on an old favorite.
7. Milo’s, Urbana: Smoked salmon and goat cheese bruschetta. I have not had this but many rave about it. Looks like we have a date night at Milo’s in our future!
8. Silvercreek, Urbana: Pumpkin Hummus served with spinach tortillas and fresh veggies. While many restaurants have a hummus plate of some sort the unique flavor of the pumpkin is what lands it on this list.
9. Radio Maria: Since it is known in part as a tapas bar it was too hard to choose just one of the delicious appetizers. Here are two that I often hear people ordering and that we love: Arancini-fried mozzarella stuffed risotto with spicy tomato sauce; Queso de Cabra frito-fried goat cheese with jicama honey served with fresh sliced bread.
10. Sun Singer, Champaign: Pot Roast Nachos (slow roasted beef with house fried chips, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, cilantro, salsa and sour cream). A comfort food meets classic appetizer combo. Yum.
11. V. Picasso, Chamapign: Roasted Bone Marrow served with bacon jam and herb salad. I confess, I have not had this. If I am feeling adventurous (and I typically am!) when we go, I will definitely try this.
12. Watson’s Shack and Rail, Champaign: This is a new restaurant in downtown Champaign where Boltini used to be located. According to very reliable sources (a mother of one of the chefs and a mother of one of the owners) the food is awesome and these are some of the favorite appetizers: Crab hush puppies with sauce of the day; Gravy Fries (also known as Canadian Poutinè) includes potato wedges, fresh cheese curds and chicken gravy.
Favorites that Keep You Coming Back:
1. Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, Champaign and Urbana locations: Burnt ends and cornbread. I know I have written about both of these before, so here is the long and short of it. The cornbread is awesome (with bits of jalapeño and brisket), but the burnt ends are amazing! Know how I know? The answer is not that I have eaten them … they are always sold out. If you want these, then you better get there early.
2. Crane Alley, Urbana: Sweet potato fries served sprinkled with brown sugar and a side of barbeque sauce. These taste fresh. There is nothing worse than going someplace nice and getting french fries of any sort that taste like the freezer.
3. Maize, Champaign: The best guacamole in town. We swear by it. And the homemade chips are not too salty and certainly never cardboardy.
4. Farren’s Pub and Eatery, Champaign: Fried cauliflower stuffed with cheese and served with a side of ranch. Maybe this is for those who struggle to eat their veggies? I have always liked cauliflower with cheese. Add in the other components (fried and ranch) and you get a tasty, every once-in-a-while, splurge treat.
5. Seven Saints, Champaign: cheese curds served with marinara. Everyone talks and raves about these. I still have yet to try them, but I trust the sources that say they are the best in town!
6. Sitara, Urbana: Simosas (fried pastry stuffed with a savory blend of potatoes, peas and spices). I have family that makes these from scratch and they are amazing. These are almost as good, which says a lot about how wonderful they are.
7. Sun Singer, Champaign: cheese spread platter served with fresh fruit and breads. Walk up to Sun Singer on any given summer day and you will see several table tops adorned with this dish. The nice thing about it is that you are able to pick from a variety of cheese spreads and aren’t locked into trying a pre-selected three.
8. Wedge, Champaign: Nachos (homemade tortilla chips with chorizo and a choice of beef or chicken. Served with a side of guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream). What sets this dish apart from other nachos in town is the handmade tortilla chips and the chorizo. The combo of those two things makes them our favorite nachos in town.
Again, I know that there are more that I am forgetting or that I haven’t yet tried. What would you add?