Smile Politely

Three food venues that don’t make the grade (yet)

A few of Smile Politely’s editors tried some new places that opened recently, and we didn’t love them. We’ll probably go back, because that’s what we do. We give a place a few tries, we let them work out the kinks, and we hope they succeed.

This trio has their strengths and their weaknesses, and they span a variety of genres that we love: Mexican food truck, pizza/bar, and Chinese buffet. Here’s what we thought.

Burrito King Food Truck

Oddly enough, for the past year or so, I’ve been talking a lot about tacos here on Smile Politely. Perhaps it’s simply because I like them so much; who doesn’t? Or, perhaps it’s because I can’t shake the idea that Romney’s America is so goddamned sickened by the idea that we might already be living in a bilingual society, forced into interacting with interesting and wonderful people, who want little more than to belong and associate — you know, the way human beings tend to want.

Who knows. Fact is, I love tacos. And I love how readily available they are to me these days. The best are still 45 minutes away, and that’s cool with me.

Maize? Please. El Charro? Really excellent, and $.99 a piece on Wednesdays. Perfect.

Mas Amigos, both the restaurant and their fantastic Motorizado, parked daily at Prospect and Bradley, is highly legit — and they deliver. So, I write these next paragraphs with one very fundamental piece of knowledge, and I am thankful for that: we’re entitled to good tacos any day of the week here in C-U. And yay for that. I am glad.

Burrito King has been located on Green St. for the past few years now, and outside the one time that I ate a burrito there by accident (which was totally fine, and nothing more), I haven’t thought twice about it.

But with the new Food Truck ordinance being tried out, it seems like they decided to jump on board with the program, and for that I applaud them.

The applause, unfortunately, ends there.

I have a hard time with this. I don’t like writing a bad review. And quite frankly, at Smile Politely, it’s rare that we do. After all, we didn’t start this magazine to tear people down. We started it to prop people up. But at a certain point, we’ve started to second-guess that idea. Quite basically: how can anyone trust us if they never hear the bad shit? How can we truly congratulate restaurants on a job well done if there is no metric for a job poorly executed?

I don’t mean to go all Khalil Gibran on you, but that’s the way it is.

So, here’s what: Burrito King tacos simply aren’t very good — at least out of their truck. They are priced out OK, sure. But no better than the average taco in town at $2 a pop or so. And the salsas are totally fine, honestly. For them, it’s the proteins. I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager a sawbuck on the idea that the meat is boiled. At least the pollo and the carne asada. I couldn’t get beyond those two, because I am unwonted to spend my calories on food such as that.

Listen. I get it. It’s tender meat. And it makes sense if you are going to then turn around and spice it in a way that makes your mouth happy. But in my experiences, thus far, they didn’t. Not even close. It tasted really, really boring.

So, that’s my criticism. Take it or leave it. I want to love Burrito King truck, because it’s parked in front of City Hall most days, and the generator is as loud as a bastard. I kind of like that. A little nasty Downtown. Like the 80s.

But I want my nasty to come with flavor. I think that’s reasonable. I hope it changes, because I’d sure love another option Downtown for lunch. (Seth Fein)

Black Rock Pizza Co.

I crave pizza a lot. Most of the time, actually. It’s one of those childhood foods that I was probably supposed to give up or at least learn to eat less of, but instead started eating more as an adult. In fact, when I figured out that making your own pizza crust at home is brilliantly easy, it could have meant the end of eating pizza out, but instead it meant eating twice as much — sometimes at home, sometimes out. As you might imagine, this means I am particular about my pizza. Almost fanatical. But, always up for a new adventure, I tried Black Rock Pizza Co. in Urbana.

First, I must say that I’m baffled by the name. They changed the venue from Red Star (the failed Urbana club) to Black Rock, yet the ever popular Black Dog already exists around the corner. I could get over the trending Urbana “color adjective + noun” choice, though, if the pizza proved to be good enough.

The problem is that since I know how easy making your own crust is, I expect nothing less from restaurants when I go out. So when a restaurant produces a pre-fab, frozen crust, you can expect that I’ll be disappointed. That’s what the crust tasted like at Black Rock — the thin crust, a little like cardboard, and the thick crust a little like, well, Pizza Hut. Don’t get me wrong. That Pizza Hut-style pizza has a special place in my heart. I lived on Pizza Hut deep-dish back in the day, before I moved here to Illinois, where all the former governors serve jail time, and the state food is deep-dish pizza. But I think we can do better than that in Champaign-Urbana.

So what the hell, Black Rock? I know that’s a teeny tiny kitchen, where fresh cooking or baking en masse are maybe out of the question. But what about grilling some fresh pizza dough on the flattop grill and throwing some fresh farmer’s market ingredients on top?

Speaking of toppings, the menu includes varied, but still typical, pizza topping fare: supreme, meat lovers, veggie, Mexican, Hawaiian, BBQ, and buffalo chicken. It seems like they’re going for old standbys along with more recent combos popular with the chains.

This is a foodie town, and on top of it, one densely populated with pizza places. So either make really great crust or make me even more interesting toppings like the macaroni and cheese pizza this Boston restaurant makes. Or both. If you’re going to offer me a Hawaiian pizza, don’t give me the Canadian bacon and pineapple that the chains can give me (whoever decided Canadian bacon went on Hawaiian pizza anyway?), but give me Kalua pork and grilled pineapple with a spicy chili-based sauce.

Black Rock is not without its benefits. Our server was nice, and they have some live music. They kept the cool, original bar from previous iterations of the restaurant, behind which they keep a fully stocked bar.

Personally, if I want great deep-dish crust in Champaign-Urbana, I go to Papa Del’s, and if I want to some flavorful, interesting toppings and don’t want to make pizza at home, I order Pizza M at Buvons or grab Manolo’s. But if you want some pizza and a drink while listening to live music, this may be your place. I do hope they make some adjustments to the menu, though, because I think it could be so much more. (Susanna Kline)

Ichiban Buffet

About once a month, I find myself standing in front of a steam table, loading my plastic plate up with lo mein noodles, fried rice, egg rolls, crab Rangoon, General Tso’s chicken, and dumplings galore. In my heyday, I managed to take out five full plates of assorted Chinese food, plus a bowl of green tea ice cream and a fortune cookie (which told me that I was predestined to live a long, healthy life!). In recent years, however, I’ve winnowed my take down to two solidly packed plates, a shift in my diet which has led me to become a bit more of a discriminating buffet patron. Instead of throwing on a slice of the inexplicable pepperoni pizza, often set out next to the egg rolls, I opt instead for another serving of dumplings. And then another one. One day, I may even fill an entire plate with dumplings and then stick my face into them and chew until they’re all gone.

But if I end up doing such a thing any time soon, and I certainly hope I do, I will not be doing it at Ichiban Buffet, which just sprung up in the strip mall next to Schnuck’s in Champaign. Now don’t get me wrong here, Ichiban is brand spanking new, and as such, we really ought to reserve final judgement. I, for one, like to think about a young buffet such as Ichiban as a major league ball player freshly called up from the farm: full of potential, replete with flaws, but not yet fully tethered to its habits. And in this sense, well, the kid has potential, but could use some development as well.

To start with the positives, Ichiban offers a wide selection of buffet items, as well as several unique (read: strange/baffling/terrifying) options, such as “Milky Corn,” a sushi chef, and a Mongolian-style barbeque chef — although, I should point out that any self-respecting, high-level buffet goer (such as myself) forgoes the latter two features nine times out of ten in favor of the panoply of delicious options being held at a steady temperature in the steam tables. And, unfortunately, it is to this point that I must say Ichiban could use some help.

At 11 a.m., when I went, many of the food items looked to have been sitting for a little while too long — nothing looked dangerous, per se, but the Sweet & Sour Chicken was just dry enough to prevent me from suspending my disbelief and eating a half a pound of it.

Left with little recourse, I filled my plate with this and that, small samples instead of the tour de force I generally engage in. In some respects, this turned out to be good, as I got a well-rounded idea of what the place was about. The bad news is that, well, Ichiban is still developing. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the dumplings, which were clearly of the ilk that one would get at The Esquire at 1 a.m. after taking his fifth shot of pineapple tequila. Now, to be clear, I love the shit out of Esquire’s dumplings, but when I’m at a buffet (i.e. the big time) I’m not there to fuck around — I’m there to eat some goddamn delicious steamed and seared dumplings, not the thin-skinned, thawed out bullshit that I got.

Clearly, I’m passionate about dumplings, but beyond being unable to deliver on what should be a signature item, Ichiban has a larger problem — one I’m sure they’ll either work out, or fail as a result of not having worked out: the place needs a system. In order for a buffet to be successful, the staff needs to rotate the product frequently, ensuring that popular dishes are well stocked and the uneaten dregs are carried away and replaced with new, soon to be uneaten dregs. It is a question of ethos, really.

At the Chinatown Buffet, located on Marketview, near Prospect, they have a woman with a motherfucking walkie-talkie who monitors the steam tables during lunchtime and radios back to the kitchen when the fried rice gets low.

You getting this, Ichiban? They use the power of radio frequencies to ensure their food is fresh and delicious. Now, I didn’t expect a new buffet to know about this sort of high-tech shit right off the bat, but I do know that if I were opening a buffet in town, thing number two on my list would be to go all Marlow in Season 3 of The Wire and scope out my competition. Of course, thing number one on my list would be to get my hands on some bad-ass dumplings.

With all that said, I will most definitely be returning to Ichiban. I have genuinely high hopes for their development. Furthermore, when it comes Chinese Buffets, I am downright Christ-like in my ability to turn the other cheek. (Caleb Curtiss)

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