Smile Politely

Po’ Boys re-opens without telling a soul

I grew up in Urbana, and despite the fact that I now reside in Champaign, I am damn proud — damn proud — to call myself a Tiger.

As a result, I went sledding at Orchard Downs, not Cannonball Hill. I went shopping at Jerry’s IGA on Philo, not on Kirby. When it was time to play arcade games, I slotted quarters into Golden Axe at Aladdin’s Castle in Lincoln Square, not at Spaceport. When I went to buy records next door and talk to that jack-ass salesman, Don Gerard, about why Bareback Ride by Walt Mink was what should have been blowing up instead of Siamese Dream, it was at Record Service East, not on campus.

Later still, I partied in Blair Park, not Morrissey Park. I took my first real date to Kennedy’s — or rather, Rick’s — not Mountain Jack’s. I walked to eat my then-free sweet corn every August, because I lived close enough that I didn’t have to drive.

And now, when I think about classic restaurants from my era, I think about The Elite Diner, The Courier, and The Jolly Roger. 

Not Po’ Boys. I never think of it at all.

After all, I grew up in Urbana, and we didn’t really eat at Po’ Boys.

But now, just a few years after its closing, I can. And you can, too.

Yep. You heard it here first. And we were even a month late. Po’ Boys, that classic Champaign institution of no-frills BBQ goodness on Wonder bread, has re-opened under new ownership, in Urbana on Rt. 130. It’s in the building that used to be The Brickhouse and the local OTB, which used to be Wendl’s, and what was T.K. Wendl’s before that.

OK. Calm down.

For those of you Champaign Po’ Boys purists out there that are already breathing heavy, let this next bit be a small sigh of relief: the sauce is identical — the same exactly — as it was when it was being made by Arnold Yarber in the little shack on the corner of Market and Columbia. And that’s really what kept people coming back again and again on Fridays and Saturdays only from 5 – 9 p.m. week in and week out for 40 some odd years.

The reason that the sauce is the same is simple: the new owners, Jean Rasner, and her brother Andy Rasner, along with his wife Lindsay, got the recipe — THE recipe — from a man who bought it from Arnie himself some years back. When I asked them about it, they kind of stammered a bit, with a lot of “ums” and “uhs” and head scratches and mystified memories. But I read the code: don’t bother asking any more about it. The most I got was this:

“It cost a lot of money.”

And fair enough. The Sauce is an institution unto itself.

But the Yarber family are not the only folks in this story to be able to lay claim to a nice slice of C-U history. The Rasner family has deep roots here as well. Their grandfather, Huey Rasner, owned Huey’s, the general store at Five Points. For you newbies around here, that’s where University and Cunningham meet. But there used to be a road running right where Blockbuster Video is now, creating a five road intersection. Five Points.

I went to Po’ Boys once when I was a child. I can’t remember why or what I had, except that I know that the ceiling was metallic and the people there all sat at a bar, eating their food on wax paper. Honestly, I never much thought of it. After all, I grew up in Urbana, and we didn’t eat at Po’ Boys.

My good friend however, who alerted me to this strange turn of events, is a Po’ Boys junkie. He speaks of it often. He knows that I am a crazy BBQ guy, and that if you ask me straight, I’d tell you that Lil’ Porgy’s has the best sauce in this town (and perhaps anywhere in the world) and that Black Dog has some of the most succulent pulled pork in the Midwest. He also knows that I think that Famous Dave’s ain’t shit and that I am stoked for next weekend’s Blue, Brews, and BBQ Fest, which is FREE this year.

But my friend, he’s a Po’ Boys junkie. And he didn’t fail to live up to it last night because he ordered another Polish after we finished the one we ordered to split.

These next comments are paraphrased, only from memory, all in regards to his sitiing down and eating at the newly re-opened Po’ Boys:

“I can’t fucking believe it.”

“This is spot on. The sauce is the same.”

“The Polish is deep-fried. I love it. Perfect.”

“I can’t fucking believe it.”

Now, I am not going to get into the story of Po’ Boys, and its half-century of history in Champaign. I am not going to talk about the lineage, and his son who took it over when Arnold became too old to run it. I am not going to discuss how, truthfully, it was only one of four restaurants in Champaign-Urbana that I would ever consider calling up Guy Fieri about to feature on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. (The others? I’ll write on that a different time. Only two remain open.)

Nope. I am not qualified. I haven’t done the research, and it would be disingenuous. Plus, it’s late, and I want to go to bed.

But I thought that I should alert you to its presence, at the very least.

There is a reason no one really knows about the re-opening of Po’ Boys: the restaurant isn’t ready to be marketed yet, by their own admission. I can’t really write a proper review of their food because the meat they are serving isn’t their own. They have to get their smoker in place first, and get it just right. Despite that, their beef sandwich is pretty darn good, and just $4.95 with house-made potato salad:

They also have homemade kettle chips, a chopped pork sandwich, and a full menu of American food items as well. And evidently, there will be pizza, too. It says so on the sign.

There is no doubt: it’s different. It has to be. After all, this is T.K. Wendl’s to many people, including myself. In my head, it’s where I used to play softball and where I watched HUM perform alongside Poster Kids and Wax at PlanetFest 4 or 5 (or whenever it was that upper-management at WPGU actively pursued live music). It’s where I umped games for two summers trying to pay my bills when I was touring with my band. It’s T.K. fucking Wendl’s on Rt. 130. And it’s going to be hard for me, or anyone else, to think of it differently.

It’s not the old Po’ Boys. It doesn’t have the same charm, and it doesn’t have the same canned soda, according to my friend. It’s also served by waitresses who bring it in baskets with wax paper, not just simply, wax paper.

But it is Po’ Boys. Because the spirit is alive, and well. And what’s more, the sauce is the same — and for Midwestern BBQ, that means everything.

Let’s hope it stays that way for a long time. Champaign-Urbana deserves it.

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