Smile Politely

More than BBQ, Po’ Boys serves terrific food and a taste of the past

I grew up on Lange Avenue in Savoy and went to Booker T. Washington Elementary on Grove Street in Champaign. It was a long bus ride that included switching busses at Carrie Busey — an experience that taught me the value of non-stop flights. Truth be told, I enjoyed the bus ride. I was a fairly social kid, but I also enjoyed watching the world go by outside my Blue Bird Bus window. The driver typically had WLS AM 890 playing. Before you young folks shudder, WLS actually played pretty decent music in the 70s and had the highest paid DJ, Larry Lujack, who was very funny. (Google Animal Stories).

For five years during my 30+ minute commute, outside my window I remember wondering how farmers planted their rows so straight. I remember passing the Ginza Flower Shop (now Spiros Law), Smalley’s Woodworking (still there!), Mercy Hospital (now OSF), and a hole in the wall building with smoke billowing out of a smoke stack called Po’ Boys. I remember thinking it was odd that a restaurant was only open Friday and Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. 

Arnie Yarber opened Po’ Boys in 1953 and fed countless barbecue lovers until 2006. I never got to try the original Po’ Boys, but the same sauce recipe and passion can be found today at their Urbana location, run by Andy, Jean, and Lindsay Rasner. The Rasners carrying the mantle of this local institution makes sense. Their roots run deep. Their grandfather Huey Rasner owned Huey’s, a general store at Five Points from 1957 to 1986 which is now nuERA Urbana. The Huey’s billboards were iconic. A funny cornpone character with a tattered hat and corn cob pipe with the tag line “Huey Sez…” If I were creating a billboard today, it would say “Huey Sez get yo’ ass to Po’ Boys for a damn good meal made by local folks”! Here is why.

We will get to the awesome barbecue and sauce that has endured for 68 years, but let’s start with their pizza. My wife has been telling me that I’m missing out always ordering rib tips and wings. She finally pulled rank and insisted I try their pizza.

On a gray table, there is a pizza holder with a thin crust pizza sliced. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

In summary, this pizza is now in my top three pizzas in the Champaign-Urbana area. The crust is thin but holds up to all the toppings. It’s crisp on the outer edge while chewy toward the center. They use semolina flour which gives it a great texture.

An overhead photo of a sliced pizza with sausage and onions on a gray table. The pizza is elevated on a pizza stand. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

We had a 12 inch sausage, mushroom, and onion pizza ($18.50). The sausage was legit Italian sausage in a nice, large size with the perfect amount of spices. The anise flavor was really good and was in balance with the rest of the spices. Po’ Boys used red onions, which I absolutely love on pizza, and fresh mushrooms. My wife commented that they sure don’t skimp on the cheese either. The cheese to pizza ratio is about as perfect as you can get. Not to take a backseat, their sauce is a perfect balance of spicy and sweet. It would make an excellent dipping sauce on its own.

On a piece of white bread, there are lots of rib tips and a small plastic cup of sauce. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

Next up, we ordered one of the best values on the menu: a half order of rib tips ($13.95) which includes two sides. The half order was a generous portion, and these tips are meaty! There were not a lot of scraps left on my plate. The rib tips came served over a white slice of bread, which is one of my favorite things to eat after finishing the tips because the bread has absorbed all of the delicious sauce I poured over the tips.

I go the Po’ Boys original medium sauce. You can get the original in mild or hot as well. They also offer a thicker sauce available in mild, medium, or hot. I cannot get enough of the original vinegar-based sauce. It has that tang and was balanced with sweet and pepper flavor. I always save some of the sauce to dip their housemade chips in. If there were any sauce leftover (which is never), I would finish it straight with a spoon. It is clear why people have loved this sauce since 1953.

In a green plastic basket lined with parchment paper, there is a pile of housemade chips with a small cup of coleslaw. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

I chose housemade chips and a side salad with Italian dressing as my two sides. The house madechips were outstanding and fried to order with the perfect amount of salt. Some were crunchy, and some were chewy. In fact, some chips were both crunchy and chewy — which was the best. I ate most of the chips plain, but as mentioned before, I find it hard to resist not dipping them in the barbecue sauce.

On a white circular plate, there is a side salad with cheese, tomato, crouton, and lettuce. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

The side salad was very refreshing, and every time we go, it’s always served very cold and crisp. There’s plenty of tomatoes, cheese, and croutons atop the lettuce. The croutons were outstanding in flavor and added a nice crunch.

On a white plate, there are six chicken wings arranged in an arch above a cup of sauce. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

On a second visit (I need to clarify in case my doctor is reading this), we tried Po’ Boys’ smoked chicken wings ($15 for ten) with their traditional buffalo sauce. They also offer teriyaki, barbeque, sesame ginger, and plain. We shared ten wings. My wife prefers the flats, and I prefer the drumettes. They do a great job of spitting the flats and drumettes equally, so everyone wins!

The wings were excellent without any sauce: a subtle smoky wing with an excellent amount of seasoning. They were also very meaty wings with not a lot of fat. Their buffalo sauce was on point with its mixture of hot, tang, and butter. It had some heat, but it will not blow you away. You could make a meal from the order of six wings.

A slice of pie sits on a white plate. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

We also indulged with two desserts: coconut cream pie ($4) and peach crumble ($4) ala mode ($1.50). So, in the Gilligan’s Island debate of Ginger versus Mary Ann, I’m team Mary Ann. This has nothing to do with looks, personality, or sense of humor. It has everything to do with Mary Ann’s coconut cream pie. Every time she baked one for Gilligan, I had a craving. It is one of my favorite desserts, and the one at Po’ Boys is hands down the best. Theirs is all about the crust. It was much more than a graham cracker crust. I can’t quite figure it out, but it had a shortbread cookie-type of texture and taste. In fact, I highly recommend eating the slice so you end with a large thick piece of this crust to savor. The filling was wonderful as well. The coconut cream pie was topped off with scratch-made whipped topping and coconut shavings, a true delight.

On a white plate, there is a peach crumble with dark sugar crunched and baked brown. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

The peach crumble was outstanding. A generous serving of the crumble and ice cream means you can pretty much get a bite of crumble and ice cream in every bite. The peaches were fresh and sweet, and the crumble had great texture and flavorful spices. The last bites of half melted ice cream melding with the peaches and crumble were to die for. Georgia wishes they had peach crumble like this.

Po’ Boys is located in a strip mall, but once you enter the restaurant, it feels like a comfy local joint that serves great food. There was a lot of local art on the walls. You can even buy the art if the mood strikes you. There is also some fun old school art including an old school Huey’s T-shirt. It brings a certain local retro-comfort to the place.

Inside at Po' Boys, there are many tables with black metal chairs. Photo by Carl Busch.

Photo by Carl Busch.

It is rare that a restaurant and a recipe stand the test of time. Not because of decreasing quality or demand, but because the next generation is not interested in the restaurant business or the present owners cannot find another buyer. I long for many restaurants no longer here. That is what makes Po’ Boys story so great and unique. A restaurant started by one family when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president in 1953, and run by a different family today with the same quality and recipes: a true Champaign-Urbana landmark and institution.

Po’ Boys
202 E University Ave
W-Su 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Carl Busch.

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