Make room for Campustown cuisine

Make room for Campustown cuisine

Now that the hordes have left the University of Illinois campus, it's a good time to check out restaurants in Campustown. But there are so many, with new ones popping up all the time. To give you a few ideas, staff writer Melissa Merli met with six UI employees for lunch at their favorite Campustown eatery.

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Hutchinson doesn't eat lunch out often, but when he does, he chooses Jerusalem Middle Eastern Cuisine, 601 S. Wright St., C.

"So look at this. Isn't it amazing?" he said, gesturing to his plate, the No. 202 special.

It comes with fish, meat or chicken; three vegetables, including a green salad with vegetables and a light sesame-oil dressing; saffron rice; hummus; pita; and a beverage. A bargain at $7.09, including tax.

Hutchinson ordered fish the day I caught up with him and his friend Mike Sczerba, who also works for the university.

"I like the fish because they put this incredible crust on it, and your vegetables change from day to day," Hutchinson said. "Today, you have okra in a tomato-based sauce. You always get the salad, but it might have different ingredients. The other vegetable dish today has lima beans and white beans. The hummus and rice are constant, and you always get a warm pita. You get decent food that's wholesome and not fried."

Hutchinson sometimes orders the lentil soup to go, for $3.

"It's out of this world," he said.

Jerusalem is in a familiar location to old-timers: It was the first Campustown space occupied by Papa Del's pizza.

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At lunch on Tuesdays, you will find Song, if he's not traveling, at Mandarin Wok, 403 E. Green St., C, with other faculty in the Probability Group in the Department of Mathematics.

"I don't go out to eat that often — it's difficult to say what the 'best' restaurant is — but I like it very much," he said. "I feel very comfortable here."

Located for the past decade or so in a block of Green Street now packed with other Asian restaurants, Mandarin Wok is a convenient hike from Song's office in Illini Hall. And the majority of customers are usually Asian — a dependable sign of authentic Chinese food, he said.

I met him and his wife, Jean Guo, who works at the UI Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, there for lunch. The couple shared Song's favorite dishes: twice-cooked pork and bamboo shoots.

The Mandarin Wok menu is printed in Chinese and English. If you don't know exactly what you want, you can tell owner Amy Lin, who takes the orders, what you're thinking of, and she will make suggestions, Song said.

After patrons place an order, they are served at their tables, without having to post signs with numbers on them.

"She has a very good memory," Song said of Lin. "She probably sees where you are sitting."

He also occasionally enjoys dim sum at Mandarin Wok. The tea is free with a meal. The flavors when we were there: jasmine and chrysanthemum.

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Gladney considers himself a connoisseur of mac 'n' cheese, so when he craves it, he heads to Firehaus, 708 S. Sixth St., C, just a short walk from his office.

There, he orders "Engine 78 Mac 'N Cheese," billed as the "haus macaroni," topped with melted mozzarella and Monterey Jack.

He thinks it's the best around, second only to the mac 'n' cheese he enjoyed at Cheese-ology Macaroni & Cheese in the University City area of St. Louis. That eatery, which closed in 2015, served a dozen or more variations on the staple.

Gladney eats at Firehaus, his favorite Campustown restaurant, at least once a week, not always ordering Engine 78.

"There's enough variety that I can change up my meal," he said. "The main thing is I like the quality of the food. It's always well-done and tasty."

Besides mac 'n' cheese, he likes the Italian beef special on Tuesdays, and the spicy French dip and Buffalo chicken sandwiches.

"Sometimes I'll get an appetizer as my meal because it's that good, like the pretzel bites," he said. "I hear the wraps are good. I'm not a wrap eater, but people I come here with like them."

A nice perk: UI staff receive a 15 percent discount on their checks.

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Like most fans of Maize Mexican Grill, 60 E. Green St., C, Ann Yeung drives by the Campustown location to see whether there's a crowd.

"I went by there twice during finals weeks, and it was extremely filled," she said.

Like others who fell for Maize, which opened in 2011, she was delighted to discover that the second Maize location finally opened last week in the old Champaign train depot downtown. I met her there, as the Campustown Maize is closed for a couple of weeks because of road work on Green Street.

Maize is Yeung's favorite Campustown restaurant because the food is fresh. That goes for the tortillas, which are handmade, except those for the burritos. She also enjoys the chips and accompanying hot sauces, likewise made fresh on the premises.

"Where else can you get corn mushrooms or zucchini blossoms?" Yeung asked. "It reminds me of the freshness and flavors of food I had in a town I visited in 2009 in Mexico."

(Maize, according to its menu, re-creates the traditional dishes and flavors of Mexico City, the state of Michoacan, and food of the mountains near Guerrero, a state along Mexico's Pacific coast.)

Yeung would have a hard time saying that she likes one menu item over any other. She just knows that whatever she orders, the meal will be satisfying.

For lunch Monday, she had a taco de Lomo, which is filled with rib-eye steak, onion and cilantro; and a quesadilla with zucchini blossoms. She also tried, for the first time, iced horchata, or rice water.

"The horchata was light and sweet, but not too sweet, balancing well with the spicy sauce always available that heightens the freshness of the handmade tortillas, cilantro, onion and savory fillings, whether the rib-eye or zucchini blossoms with cheese," she later said.

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Kelly likens Sakanaya, 403 E. Green St., C, to Japan House, a "little oasis" where it's quiet and the food is good. She has lunch here once every two months or so, more often in the summer when campus is less crowded.

When I caught up with her for lunch, she ordered seaweed salad and the Sakanaya Special, a roll with grilled tuna, spicy tuna, asparagus and bonito (fish flakes). Other lunch specials included entrees, chicken wings, and sushi and sashimi combinations, and two sushi rolls for $10.

"I order something different every time I'm here," Kelly said. "I tend to like sushi. They have really good combinations here, and a pretty deep menu. I like that a lot. I'm kind of a light eater at lunch, so it's nice to have something lighter, especially in the summer."

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The first time Artz walked into The Bread Company, 706 S. Goodwin Ave., U, she heard Brazilian music playing over the sound system. The Brazilian singer has also performed live there, but that's not why she likes the restaurant so much.

At least two aspects of the eatery remind her of home: the fresh bread and the vinaigrette salad dressing. She usually orders soup or salad and rarely orders a sandwich, but when I met her there, she was having a side salad with rosemary vinaigrette and a toasted roast-beef-and-cheese sandwich.

"I rarely eat or order a sandwich, but this is really good," she said. "It kind of reminds me of my husband, who loves meat."

She really appreciates the fresh bread and sometimes picks up a loaf to take home in the evening.

"We usually have fresh bread in Brazil, and it's hard to find here," she said.

Artz, who eats at The Bread Company three or four times a month, also enjoys the fondue made with raclette cheese.

"That's so delicious," she said. "Their pizza is good, too."

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Orbiter wrote on May 18, 2017 at 5:05 pm

Nice article highlighting local eateries. But the use of the term "hordes" to describe the undergraduate students of UIUC is most unfortunate. Perhaps Ms. Merli has forgotten that the term is considered derogatory or disparaging.  The students are the life-blood of the campustown area, and though quiet and tranquil now, the businesses would wither and close without them.  No need to deprecate them while they're away.  :)