Smile Politely

The best burgers in town?

Before moving to C-U, my husband and I visited the area for a few days to find housing. The first restaurant we were taken to was Farren’s. “This place has the best burgers in town,” we were told. I thought it was a bold statement. While reviewing the menu I noticed that the burger toppings were slightly indulgent and flavorful. Cheese and mushrooms? Blue cheese sauce? Could it be an attempt to smother out a mediocre meat patty?

Chances are you’ve eaten at Farren’s, and you know the deal. You know which menu items you prefer, and that’s great. Some of you are die-hard burger fans, some fans of the tacos, some of the salads. Maybe you’re even a fan of the lovely grilled scallops appetizer. I’ll tell you this: the strawberry chicken salad is excellent. The Mediterranean pasta salad is one of the best I’ve ever had. (And you can now purchase jars of salad dressing, which pleases many people and might even get you to eat more veggies). But the things that surpass all menu items are the quality, fancy-but-not-too-fancy burgers.

The last few times I’ve tried to eat at Farren’s I’ve been out of luck. The line has literally been out the door, and I’ve been forced to make other plans. Because you can’t see into the restaurant as you walk by and you have to descend a ramp to get to the dining room floor, it’s hard to tell how crowded it is.

The restaurant is completely open, with about 18 tables and a handful of seats at the (full) bar. Servers come and go as they are available, so the person who takes your drink order won’t necessarily be the same person who takes your food order. It’s confusing, yes, but that’s okay. They won’t mess up your order, I promise.

Since I’m always trying to eat more vegetables, we started with the fried cauliflower ($7.50). Parmesan cheese accompanied tender-crisp cauliflower inside an encasement of perfectly fried batter. The subtle cheesiness paired well with the slightly salty and crispy batter and the creamy and cool ranch dressing. They made quite the poppable appetizer.

My husband ordered the hamburger ($7.50). Weird, I know — but it was delicious. The plain hamburger could have easily been overcooked or totally boring, but was not. All of the toppings were on the side, and with some ketchup and mustard, that meat patty disappeared pretty quickly. The sear on the outside lent some burnt deliciousness to the juicy, moist meat. The lightly toasted bun was a little buttery and soft. He ordered the fresh cut potato chips as his side, which were perfectly fried and dusted with some seasoned salt. The deliciousness of Farren’s burgers was truly tested by this order — there was nowhere for the meat to hide. No meaty mushrooms and melty cheese, no spicy peppers, no sauces.

I usually order the Green Chile Burger ($8.75). The green chile sauce offers a bit of sass without slapping you in the face, and the pepperjack cheese offers a bit of heat, but not enough to take away from the other flavors.

On this last visit, though, I decided I needed some more sass in my life, so I ordered the Fire Burger ($8.75). The burger patty was topped with a heaping pile of sautéed jalapeños and red bell peppers (the menu also indicated onion, but I didn’t see or taste any in mine). Then the heaping pile of sautéed peppers (seeds and capsaicin-laden membranes included) was covered with a slice of habanero- jalapeño cheese. I like spicy, but this was a challenge even for me — those peppers were hot! The burger was perfectly cooked, and like my hubby’s hamburger, had a nice little char on the outside while the inside remained tender and juicy. The toasted bun was soft, but sturdy enough to hold the patty and toppings together.

What wasn’t expressed to me several years ago was that Farren’s might also have the best hand cut chips and fries. They are delicious, and well worth the extra two dollars or so to get them as a side. (Tricolor tortilla chips are the default, and they’re boring.) I ordered the hand cut fries, and those crispy potatoes were a perfect foil for the heat of the burger topping. The fries were thin and browned, but I could still taste the potato inside of the crunchy exterior. The portion was huge. Between the fried cauliflower appetizer, the huge burger, and heaping mound of fries, I was totally stuffed.

Unlike many traditional burger joints, Farren’s offers more than the Morningstar black bean burger for vegetarians, although that is indeed on the menu. The spinach and mushrooms sandwich ($8.25), pesto and cheese ($8.25), and black bean tacos ($9.50) are excellent vegetarian options. If those don’t work, there are a handful of salads. However, if you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t like mushrooms (they exist!), you’ll have fewer options. I’d love to see a house made veggie burger on the menu.

I’m not sure if Farren’s is in the pocket of, or in bed with the mushroom industry, or if someone just really likes mushrooms, but there are no fewer than seven dishes on the menu that contain mushrooms.

Mushrooms, okay. But what about those tacos? Here’s the truth: I’ve not actually had them. For shame, I know. Each time I go to Farren’s, I want to eat a burger, so I never order the tacos. But I have it on good authority that they’re very tasty. So try them. (I will next time, too.)

There is a full bar for those in need of a cocktail, an excellent assortment of bottled beer, and six different drafts. Not into alcohol? How about a fancy bottled soda? Those are great with burgers.

The atmosphere is always loud and lively. The acoustics in the underground space don’t permit quiet mumblings; you’re really going to need to be assertive in your conversations. Despite this, it’s a great place to take someone you like to spend time with, as well as those you’re getting to know: nothing brings people together like good food. You’ll find all sorts of people eating there: business folks, dates, families, dude-bros, lunching ladies, potential faculty being wooed. It’s loud, but it’s not too loud to hear the people at your table.

It’s no secret that Farren’s serves the best burgers in Champaign-Urbana. That’s not to say that there aren’t other great burgers available in the area — there are — but Farren’s has juicy, not too thick, generously portioned beauties that will satisfy any burger craving. And don’t forget about the fries.

Farren’s is located at 308 North Randolph, Champaign, and is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Farren’s does not take reservations.

Photos by Jessica Hammie.

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