By Emily Harrington
Everyone loves Mexican food. The smallest towns surrounding Champaign-Urbana may not have as much as a grocery store, but they have a Mexican restaurant. Until I became an adult, the only Mexican food I was familiar with was Taco Bell at 2 a.m.
Then adulthood hit around the same time that a surge of Mexican restaurants hit town. Many of these restaurants taste the same to me. The one with the best chips became the only way I could decipher them from one another. They all tasted great to me. Anything smothered in queso—delicioso.
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Then a teeny new spot opened during the fall of 2011. It inhabited the former iconic Ye Olde Donut Shoppe on the edge of the University of Illinois Campus. Enter the game changing Maize Mexican Grille at 60 E. Green St. in Champaign.
This place has only a handful of seats, and it has only a handful of parking spots. When school is in session, it’s positioned on one of the busiest intersections in town. Even with these logistic drawbacks, Maize always has a line out the door. And accolades, too.
I knew the popularity of Maize, and the buzz surrounding it, warranted a visit. We were especially encouraged when the larger, more accessible location opened this spring. Maize at the Station (Maize La Estación) inhabits the old train depot at 100 N. Chestnut St. in Champaign. The location is charming and historic, yet downtown Champaign infuses the area with elements of trends and funk.
My extended family met for dinner there on a weekday night. I was (per usual) running late so that had me in a panic over trying to find a parking spot downtown. The metered parking in front was full, but a sign directed me to the back of the building where a row of free parking was dedicated to Maize patrons. I wedged myself into a spot, and I carted my little ones into the back entrance. On your way in, the graffiti walls, train tracks and vintage vibe of the existing shops in the historic building provide an interesting juxtaposition of old meeting new. We walked past the wood bar to find our people. It is a one room restaurant with bright walls, charming archways and minimal decorations. It’s more about the food here than anything else.
It was crowded and loud. It wasn’t loud enough, however, to mask the excited chatter of my 4-year-old. My family was already seated. They had a short wait for a large table. (Parties of six or more incur a 20 percent gratuity.) While we were there, a consistent line remained. This is a first-come, first-served casual restaurant.
My parents handed me an extensive menu, and they passed me a plate for the free fresh tortilla chips served with a red and green salsa. I preferred the milder red salsa. As with most Mexican restaurants, the cuisine consisted mostly of an endless combination of meats, cheese, veggies, rice, beans and a tortilla. It is no different here. Except for the taste. It tasted flavorful and fresh. And you could identify all the different components. The vegetables were bright and vibrant. The meat looked juicy and well cooked. (They offered carne asada-steak, chorizo-Mexican sausage, pastor-marinated pork or chicken.) The tortillas were handmade.
I ordered the chicken nachos ($9.95). My heart sank when I realized there was no menu for kids. (They did have high chairs, however.) My son, like most kids, is not a Mexican food eater. Not an eater of flavor at all, really. I carefully choose the blandest thing I could find for him—a chicken quesadilla ($3.95). The other members of my crew tried the tacos ($2.75), fajitas ($13.95), huaraches ($4.25), burritos ($6.40), gorditas ($3.75) and fish tacos ($3.25). So, basically the entire menu. My brother had the guacamole, too ($6.95). Muy bien.
Many ordered adult beverages. These included a $5 Dos Equis (#basic) and classic lime margaritas ($8)—no ultraviolet mix here. There’s an extensive tequila menu, too. Wine, beer and cocktails on the menu have been chosen authentically to correspond with the cuisine.
My nachos were good. Keep in mind, you won’t see everything doused in velvety queso. Rather, melted hard cheeses or crumbled chihuahua cheese.
When my son had to potty, I peeked at the room just down the hall that used to be my favorite restaurant—Café Luna. Our server said the space is owned by Maize. In the future, it will be used as additional dining space. The best part of the additional space—the lovely outdoor area. They plan to have live music in this part, too.
The unrelenting popularity of Maize will certainly turn the tides for this unlucky restaurant space. It has previously housed the failed City of New Orleans, Tracks and Café Luna.
At the moment, the hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.—every single day. I recommend dining in at the downtown location, and I recommend getting only takeout from the campus spot.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.