A Horseshoe, for the uninitiated, is an open-faced sandwich that originated in Springfield, Illinois in 1928. Joe Schweska, head chef at the Leland Hotel, created the dish to spruce up the hotel’s lunch menu. His original version placed a horseshoe-shaped piece of ham on top of two slices of bread, “nailed” in with potato wedges, all smothered in a Welsh rarebit sauce. The recipe has evolved over the years and the dish now can be found all over the capital city. Today’s version usually features a hamburger patty in lieu of ham, French fries instead of potato wedges, and any one of a number of cheese sauce variations. If you’re not hungry enough for a full Horseshoe, order a Pony Shoe instead. Neither is a light lunch.
Hank’s Table brings the Horseshoe east to Champaign, along with a full menu of drinks, sandwiches, and flatbreads they call “Midwest, feel-good food.” It opened in July 2019 after a remodel of V. Picasso and a reconfiguration of space with Christopher & Co. jewelers next door. Like the former restaurant, it still features locally-sourced ingredients from owner Traci Lipps’s Willow Creek Farm. But whereas V. Picasso had an upscale atmosphere, Hank’s Table is decidedly homey and rustic. Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling above dining tables made of reclaimed wood, and a motif of vintage license plates features on the rear clapboard wall. The front dining area is open and airy, while the back room and bar is cozy with exposed brick walls. TVs line the walls in both the dining room and the bar. Large parties are well accommodated, with two tables that seat ten or more.
The drink menu has wine, beer, and a complement of both specialty cocktails and classics. Hangin’ in the Breeze ($7) is one of the restaurant’s original creations, made with mezcal, Aperol, yellow Chartreuse, and lime juice. The colorful liqueurs create a hue of a California beach sunset. The smoky spirit comes to the senses first but the rest of the ingredients create a balance that ends up being refreshing. It would be too easy to have another.
The Last Word is a Prohibition-era drink that, along with other forgotten cocktails of its day, has made a recent comeback. In the mid-2000s, a Seattle bartender revived the tipple after finding a recipe for it in a 1950s cocktail book; it crossed the country’s bars quickly after that. Gin is the base spirit, but the herbal qualities of green Chartreuse are what give the drink its kick, with Maraschino liqueur and lime juice playing supporting roles. The liquids mix to a pale, sea-foam green — the same one popular in mid 20th century kitchen appliances. The version at Hank’s Table ($7) is too strong and unbalanced. It is served in the same size Mason jar as the Hangin’ in the Breeze, which is larger than usual by about half. A pronounced licorice flavor comes on forcefully at the end, suggesting the drink has too much Chartreuse and was not well mixed. It was a disappointing complement to the other, much better cocktail.
The appetizer list emphasizes comfort foods: creamy macaroni and cheese ($9), soft pretzel with beer cheese ($10), and cheese curds with marinara sauce ($7), among others, and better if shared. A lighter alternative is the hummus and roasted cauliflower ($8), which is accompanied by pita bread and a raisin dill relish. The vegetables are roasted nicely with a bit of crunch and are neither too well done nor too raw. The butter used to prepare the cauliflower is noticeable, however, and may be too much for some hoping for an appetizer of healthy penance before diving into a main meal of sin. The hummus is the star of the foursome. A bright orange color pops thanks to the mix of chickpeas and roasted red peppers. A hint of spice lingers on the tongue after the first taste and the creamy spread pairs well with the cauliflower. The helping is generous and necessarily so given the ample portion of pita bread served. Unfortunately, the pita was stale on a recent visit, making it necessary to eat the remaining hummus by fork. The raisin dill relish is an unexpected addition. This is not a hot dog–type relish, but a less sweet chopped pickle with herbed cream cheese. Like the hummus, it pairs well with the cauliflower, but ultimately seemed to be an extraneous component of the set.
Image: A plate sits on a wood table. On the plate is a burger covered in cheese, an onion ring, and a bright yellow honey mustard sauce. There are also French fries on the plate. Photo by Jesus Barajas and Kate Garfinkel.
Diners will find grilled flatbreads, sandwiches, and tacos on the entrée menu. The flatbreads arrive on thick wooden cutting boards and are large enough to serve two people with medium appetites. A trio at a booth along the wall ordered theirs with barbecue fried chicken ($13); the sweet smell of sauce wafted in the air and tempted other diners to order one. The majority of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches — handhelds, in Hank’s parlance. Burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and wraps, and a fried egg sandwich make up this section, and all can be prepared for vegetarians with Beyond Burgers. The Swine ($9) is a single six-ounce pork and bacon patty with provolone cheese, honey mustard dressing, and a fried onion ring on a brioche bun, served with French fries on the side. The patty is flavorful but not juicy, and the melted cheese adds a hint of sharpness to the meat. Honey is prominent in the dressing, making it on the sweeter end of honey mustard sauces, becoming rather cloying by the last few bites. Order the burger with lettuce for a satisfying crunch.
A handful of salads are available for those not fully prepared for a hearty, Midwestern-style meal. The most filling is likely to be the Cobb salad ($10), a protein-heavy medley of grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, bleu cheese, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes. Lemon vinaigrette substituted for the usual champagne vinaigrette recently; it was a welcome accompaniment to the salad. The chicken is moist and flavorful and, unlike meat in many Cobb salads, is served warm, appropriate for a dinner salad. A guest commented that she thought the salad appeared small at first. Appearances turned out to be deceptive, and she changed her mind after she had her fill. It is perfectly adequate fare.
Diners can find variations of nearly all of the menu items at Hank’s Table elsewhere in Downtown Champaign. But the one they cannot find elsewhere, of course, is the Horseshoe. Both the Horseshoe ($16) and the Pony Shoe ($9) come with a choice of beef, pork, or lamb patties covered in beer cheese, served atop a brioche bun surrounded by fries. The difference is that the Horseshoe comes with two patties while the Pony Shoe is served with one, which still doesn’t really qualify it as a half portion. The lamb patty has the pleasantly strong flavor the meat is known for, and like the pork patty in the Swine burger, is neither juicy nor dry. The beer cheese adds creaminess and a subtle bite to the flavor profile. Eating the dish properly requires just a bit of work because the fries come to the side rather than on top of the patty, and all four components really do need to come together in a single bite to appreciate the plate for the Central Illinois marvel that it is.
Upon hearing of V. Picasso’s transformation to Hank’s Table last summer, a cynical observer could be forgiven for questioning why Downtown Champaign needed another burger-centric restaurant. While there are some culinary bright spots — who doesn’t love a gooey, cheesy, meat-and-potatoes dish every once in a while — those who already have their favorites at other places may not be convinced to find a new favorite there. But go at least once to try the Horseshoe. Just don’t plan on accomplishing anything that requires mental alertness or physical agility very soon after.
122 N Neil St.
T-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.