Smile Politely

Date Lab: Date night for $50 or less

It’s Date Night! Well, it was also Tuesday, but isn’t it a nice change of pace to have “date night” early in the week rather than the typical weekend? Tuesday is the new Monday, and in my book, that also means “Treat Yo’ Self.” So, my husband and I decided to head downtown and treat ourselves to a little bit of everything….for $50 or less.

Whenever we go out most of our bill tends to be spent on drinks, alcoholic libations, if you will. So when we’re feeling thirsty, we’ve learned to curb the temptation by embracing the old college ritual of pre-gaming (free-ish!). Except now we class it up a bit. The night’s cocktails of choice? A Negroni (a classic aperitif) and Death in the Gulf Stream (be like Ernest Hemmingway, embrace the gin). Two negronis and a Death in the Gulf Stream later, we headed out to fill our bellies with a little more sustenance.

My goal for this “experiment” was to see if we could have a great night out at a few local establishments on the cheap (it was a Tuesday after all). This would have to include an appetizer we could split, two entrees, and drinks. If we felt like it, or if it fit within our budget, we could throw a dessert into the mix as well. If you’re like me and you’re a planner, then what’s great about so many of our restaurants is that they offer online menus with prices included. I also wanted to do a little restaurant/bar hopping and try something different for each course, especially since everything is so close together. Prior to going out I picked three different places and dishes for the two of us that I knew would fall under $50 while still leaving some wiggle room for tips, extra drinks, or dessert.

My first choice was to enjoy an appetizer at Wedge Tequila Bar and Grill. I haven’t been there in a long time, and had also never tried any of their appetizers. Unfortunately the last time I was there I can only remember that the tacos I ordered were too spicy to even enjoy. And trust me, I do love me some spice and I love me some tacos, so it takes a lot for me to put one down and not want to finish it. This time though, I had my heart set on trying the tamales: hand-rolled, red chile, pulled beef, roasted tomato salsa, $5. It sounded simple and delicious. It was about 7 p.m. when we arrived and it was pretty quiet — maybe three people in the whole place — and they were sitting outside on the patio. We were greeted right away and the service was very fast and pleasant through our short stay. I asked the server the question I had been dying to know the answer to: “How many tamales come with the order?” We’d had a few drinks, and I was starving! My eyes are always bigger than my stomach at this point. “One,” she said as she indicated how big it was with her hands. What? But I wanted like, 50? Ok, realistically I thought maybe 2. We debated our options but still stuck with the tamale. I’m glad we did. It had the perfect amount of spice — it wasn’t overpowering and it didn’t build; it stayed constant so the flavors really came through, especially the roasted tomato. The texture of the pulled beef with the soft masa was a nice pairing too. Surprisingly content with our one tamale (but agitated with our very sticky table) we were excited to move on to our next stop: Watson’s Shack & Rail.

If you haven’t been to Watson’s Shack & Rail then I say, you my friend, are in for a treat. It’s become our go-to place lately. The boozy slushies are so fun and the food is really great too. We’ve tried the majority of their menu but one thing that always caught my eye that failed to make it to my table is the vegan popcorn tofu po’ boy. I just could never resist the chicken and I have to admit I was a little bit skeptical too. But this time I finally ordered the tofu po’boy ($7). My husband’s meal of choice was the Nashville hot chicken ($10). Our orders were up lightning fast, which is great but one thing I really don’t like is when we are seated at one of the few tables at the back of the restaurant. The bathroom and kitchen traffic is extremely irritating because it’s so constant and such close quarters. The front of the bar has such a great atmosphere and when we’re seated at the tiny tables in the traffic tunnel it just feels like we’re castaways.

My tofu po’boy was TO DIE FOR. It blew away my expectations and I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to try it. The tofu was cooked perfectly: cut into large cubes, it had a wonderfully crispy and flavorful breading on the outside and a nice, tender center. The remoulade was so delightful and well balanced that this pickle hater didn’t even mind that they were on the sandwich. It tasted perfect. It’s better than tacos (did I really just say the tofu was better than tacos? Yep, that just happened). As for the Nashville Hot, it was certainly hot. Be prepared for that.

The chicken was cooked perfectly just as it always is there, but there could have been more than four potato wedges added to the meal. As a side note, they were offering their blistered shishito peppers as a special (basket for $6) as well. We didn’t get them this time but prior to this we shared a basket with another couple and it was the perfect portion. The premise was a bit like Russian roulette in that the waitress told us there would be one mystery hot pepper in the mix. While we didn’t think any of us got a hot pepper, the rest were simply delicious. Bright green in color with a sweet-hot-smoky flavor, they are my new obsession (so much so that I bought seeds online to grow my own). You must try them! At this point we were at approximately $28, including tax and tips. We thought about splitting a slice of pie (only $5). Watson’s had posted a yummy photo on Instagram earlier that day of a maple buttermilk chess pie, but at this point we were pretty content. We also knew our next and last stop would be imbibing in some brewskies at The Blind Pig, for it was Mug Night!

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are The Blind Pig’s Mug and Whiskey Club nights. For the life of me I don’t know why we haven’t involved ourselves in the whiskey club, but we do have the beer mugs. For the one time purchase of a glass mug you can then bring it in every Tuesday and Wednesday for $2 off draught beers! If you’re not sure which one you want, the bartender can give you a small taste before you purchase. We went with the Blind Pig Red Eye Standing By and Blind Pig ExSB — the total for both was only $5! Described as having four malts and two hops, I got the former and I thought it was really well balanced. For me, the ExSB was a bit too hoppy, but my husband really loved it. It turned out to be a really nice evening so we sat outside in the beer garden by the fountain and under the string lights. There was a great vibe and good conversations going on around us.

All in all it was a great night and our final tally turned out to be…….drum roll please……$34.08. For one appetizer, two entrees, and two beers — all delicious and all local — I’d say it was a really great date night!

Wedge Tequila Bar and Grill is located at 415 N Neil St, Champaign, and is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday through Tuesday; and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesday through Saturday. 

Watson’s Shack & Rail is located at 211 N Neil St Champaign and is open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday; and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. The restuarant is closed Monday. Sunday brunch starts October 9th (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)!

The Bling Pig Brewery is located at 120 N Neil St, Champaign and is open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.

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