Smile Politely

The Top 10 new restaurants of the decade

Part of living in Champaign-Urbana — and not just stopping over for a degree — is coming to terms with a few certainties related to our cultural and geographical landscape. Feel free to lament the lack of a natural body of water, or the fact that we don’t play host to a Minor League baseball team; these are things we have to drive to find because of choosing to live in a “micro-urban” location. Perhaps you are upset by the fact that we don’t have a zoo, or maybe you find the Children’s Science Museum a little bit lacking? These are all reasonable feelings to embrace, assuming you decide to call C-U your home.

Another certainty: we don’t have the same choices when it comes to dining out. Locally owned restaurants that are both affordable and delicious are few and far between by comparison to cities like Chicago or St. Louis. We have no Jewish deli to boast, and there is no traditional Irish pub serving up hot Shepherd’s Pie and Fish and Chips each and every night. We don’t have anywhere to get a tagine of Moroccan food, and we, sadly, no longer have a truly delicious Greek restaurant to order up some saganaki and yell “Opa!”

But for what we lack, we make up with in quality, and quantity, many many times over. The fact that Pekara or Amano’s isn’t on this list seems criminal to me and the idea that Lai Lai Wok and its fantastic dual menu isn’t here feels plain wrong. And what about jim gould and its perfectly dry-aged steaks? Or B-won and its truly endless selection of Korean salads and soups? After all, almost 10% of the population is Korean, you know? Does the fact that Chipotle Inc. fails to call C-U home disqualify them from contention? Certainly, the lines out the door each night would make it hard to ignore. These are all restaurants that made strong showings in our survey.

This list of restaurants, like our other Top Ten lists, is by no means exhaustive. We came to order these restaurants in the way that we have based on a very simple methodology: we asked people. We sent out over 30 emails to our writers, local chefs, and average folks, too. We asked them to give us their top ten favorite restaurants that opened in this decade, and they responded by naming over 35 restaurants total. From Crane Alley to Cravings and Sun Singer to Seven Saints, almost every new restaurant in this town was named as being one of the best. And for good reason. Most all of them have something delicious to offer. We encourage you to try each and every new restaurant that opens in this town, not just once — but multiple times — in order to truly give it its fair due.

After all, we live here, and life wouldn’t be very delicious if we were relegated to Applebee’s and Little Caesar’s each night. — Seth Fein


10. Taco Loco — 523 W. Town Center Blvd., Champaign (Opened 2007)

Taco Bell be damned, we are blessed with not one but two fabulous taquerias in Champaign, and my guess is that the only reason that El Charro on Green St. isn’t on the list is simply because it might be just a little too ethnic for most of the people we surveyed. Nevertheless, Taco Loco delivers the best tacos in this town, and not the ground beef plus lettuce + shredded cheddar + mild sauce in a crunchy yellow shell kind. No, these are real tacos, served in the same way that they do on the streets of Monterrey: carne grilled fast, with diced onions, cilantro and some of the best salsas you’ve ever tasted. There are four kinds. Be careful, they will beat your ass and make you cry. — Seth Fein


9. Escobar’s — 6 E. Columbia Ave., Champaign (Opened 2007)

Escobar’s is a great place to have a romantic dinner or catch up with a friend. The atmosphere isn’t too quiet or too loud, and the décor enhances the welcoming environment. Dinner is accompanied by a basket of bread offering focaccia and fruity breads, in addition to the typical Italian and wheat fare. While there are not a ton of vegan options on the menu, there is plenty for a vegetarian of my persuasion to choose from. Salads and soups are divine, and the vegetarian ravioli is exquisite. I can’t complain about the generous size of a glass of wine with my meal, either.— Amelia Bowen


8. KoFusion — 1 E. Main St. #104, Champaign (Opened 2005)

Part of making the transition from growing up as a city girl to living as a townie was coming to accept the fact that I was no longer going to be able to expect the same kind of night life that my former digs offered. That works for me, most times, since my life is different now than it was when I was living at Division and Damen in the heart of hipster heaven in Chicago. But whenever I get the urge to dive back into my old self, I can always walk into KoFusion and feel right at home. Mondays for dollar sushi is like a beacon for young professionals and grad students; getting a table is no sure thing, and everyone is just as concerned with people watching as they are with the surprisingly delicious rolls for just a buck. While Sushi Kame might compete in prices and quality, it’s the atmosphere here that gives it the edge. It’s just what Champaign needed in the new millenium: some big city attitude. — Justine Bursoni


7. Xinh Xinh Cafe — 114 N. Vine St. #H, Urbana (Opened 2009)

My vote for best new restaurant of the decade is Xinh Xinh Cafe, and not just because the owner Shai embodies the spirit of new C-U. It’s mainly the fact that this restaurant proves the theory that no matter where a restaurant is located, it can succeed with a few basic principles in mind. People often are quick to point to location as the reason for a restaurant’s demise — but then how does one explain Persimmon’s short lifespan? Xinh Xinh Cafe delivers exactly what people want: fresh food at fair prices in a way that satiates your every last desire. Boasting an array of traditional Vietnamese dishes like pho and banh mi, this strip mall success story is absolutely one of the finest culinary coups of the decade. I recommend giving his Wednesday Happy Hour a try, where all bowls of pho are a mere $5. Ask for the beef round on the side, and douse it in fish oil and pepper before dunking it in the piping hot beef broth. This is bliss. — Seth Fein


6. Thara Thai — 912 1/2 Bloomington Rd., Champaign (Opened 2006)

Despite its odd location, I always make the extra effort to go to Thara Thai — my favorite Thai restaurant in town. From classic Thai noodle dishes like pad see ew to Vietnamese pho, every dish I’ve had on their menu has been delicious. If you’ve never had it, I suggest the pineapple fried rice. It sounded odd to me at first, but this vegetarian fried rice variant has a sweet-spicy-greasy carb appeal that needs to be experienced. They will adjust the spice level to your liking, and I suggest you play it safe. Just like their portion sizes, they are very generous with the chilies. — Jason Brechin


5. Luna — 116 N. Chestnut St., Champaign (Opened 2003)

I was afraid that when Luna moved from campus to downtown that it might lose some of its charm, but boy was I wrong. The ever-evolving menu at Luna includes many vegetarian and vegan delights, tapas, and entrees. Luna adds gourmet flair to potatoes with their parmesan fries served on a silver platter. And don’t be scared that they occasionally have bone marrow on the menu. Try sitting at the bar on a crowded evening to learn about the bar manager’s creative cocktails and new wine additions. Also, be sure to check out their Sunday brunch. I recommend the Croque Madam with one of their fine mimosas. — Amelia Bowen


4. Siam Terrace — 212 W. Main St., Urbana (Opened 2006)

I have come to believe that the difference between an enlightened city (where people lead full lives and pursue their dreams) and a cultural wasteland (where people endure lives of quiet desperation and suffering) is the presence of a great Thai restaurant. (A great Indian restaurant is an acceptable substitute). Before Siam Terrace opened, C-U had a few well-meaning, earnest Thai restaurants. But from their spring rolls to their noodles to their Duck Basil to their sticky rice, Siam Terrace puts all the pieces together, wrapped in a happy ambiance. We can finally tell our out of town guests that yeah, though it used to smell like cowpatties south of town, downtown Urbana now has a destination Thai place, and they need not worry about our desperation after all. — Dan Schreiber


3. Bombay Indian Grill — 403 E. Green St. / 302 S. First, Champaign (Opened 2003)

Bombay Indian Grill offers one of the best options for lunch on campus, with a huge portion of food at any price point. I usually go with the daily special or chicken biryani — one of the best values on their menu. They offer dishes with a wide range of spiciness, but if the heat’s too much, get a mango lassi to cool yourself down. Their more-recently-opened First St. location offers up a better buffet than its predecessor, Basmati, and while the cost is a bit higher than the quick-service Green St. location, the food quality and dining experience reflect that. At either location, for lunch or dinner, there are plenty of options to satisfy anyone’s craving for bold Indian flavors. — Jason Brechin


2. Farren’s — 308 N. Randolph, Champaign (Opened 2000)

Tucked away on Randolph Street in downtown Champaign, Farren’s has become a neighborhood institution catering to everyone from college students to seniors, and families with young children to business types. The reason? Farren’s consistently puts out the best hand-formed burgers in Champaign. Whether you opt for ground beef or the upscale Kobe version, the staff will happily cook it to medium rare and set you up with some hand-cut, peel-on fries that you can douse with malt vinegar or ketchup. Of course, the real bonus is that they also can recommend the perfect beer to go with it, whether you order the famed blue-cheese, swiss, and mushroom Mother Lode or an everyday cheeseburger. Not in a burger mood? Order one of the many other sandwiches or salads often featuring local greens or entrees ranging from local chicken to mussels. They also have vegetarian sandwich and entrée options, and are equally adept at matching wines. — Anna Barnes


1. Black Dog Smoke and Ale House — 201 N. Broadway Ave., Urbana (Opened 2009)

The opening of Black Dog Smoke and Ale House last February answered the greasy-lipped prayers of a great many barbecue enthusiast in the C-U area. “Finally,” our collective unconscious exclaimed, “real barbecue!” And in its first week of being open, it became clear that this place was not going to disappoint. Ever since then, co-owners Mike Cochran and Pedro Heller have been serving up the best barbecue in town, bar none. The chicken, the beef and the pork are all perfectly seasoned, perfectly smoked and basted in their own fat, then served with a subtle but powerful sauce that never takes over the meat’s natural flavor but elevates it to a higher plane of taste enjoyment. The sides are astounding, the beer is well selected and the atmosphere is lively. Maybe the best thing I can say about the place is that it never fails to live up to the first time I had Mike Cochran’s barbecue, a few Fourth of July’s back. He was serving healthy-sized chunks of pork out of an old fuel tank that had been converted into a grill/smoker, to a huge congregation of guests in his back yard. The company was pleasant, the beer was delicious (or abundant, I can’t remember which) and the food was out of this world. As a restaurant, Black Dog takes everything that’s good about a back yard barbecue and distills it into casual bar and grill setting where the ambiance is as smart as the cocktails are tasty (mint julep anyone?). If you haven’t been to Black Dog yet, get your shit together. If you have, I’m sure I’ll see you back there sometime soon. — Caleb Curtiss

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