All right, y'all. It's a new month, the sun is shining, birds be chirping, summer feels as though it's on its way. I'm in a good mood. And often I equate good moods with food (it's a sick, sick cycle, dear reader). Therefore, let's take a look at some of Matty-Matt's favorite food locales around town.
Yup, that's right. It's what I'm hoping will become an annual edition of: Matt's Favorite C-U Foods! Ready?
Here we go...
Best Mexican: Fiesta Cafe
Long been a favorite of mine. Its quality is nearly always consistent, and the food is typically served piping hot. You got some nasal congestion going on? Have a dish at the Fiesta Cafe, and those passages will clear like the Red Sea. The taste is often unique and delicious, and the staff is usually friendly. I also like El Toro, but find their food to be a little on the bland side, and their proliferation has sort of removed their charm. Mas Amigos is good, but is not quite the same since it moved from Champaign to Urbana.
Best Italian: Manzella's
It's a close call here between the winner and Minneci's. Both offer-up tasty entrees, and have a long, local history. But Manzella's wins on price. Simply put, you can dine there more cheaply than you can at Minneci's. I enjoy the aged decor at Manzella's, and its old-fashioned quaintness is another feather in its cap. Of course, that is mainly down to personal preference. If you want something slightly more upscale, go to Minneci's. The food is also excellent, just priced a little higher.
Best Coffee Shop: Cafe Kopi
Probably a 'duh' entry here. With its downtown location, funky yet tasteful decor, expanded seating area, wi-fi access and strong selection of drinks and minor food items, Kopi has long been -- and likely will continue to be -- a coffee hound's destination in C-U. Love the local artwork that adorns the walls there, too.
Best Sandwich Place: Caffe Paradiso
Tucked away in the southeast corner of campus, this place is a local gem. Paradiso has a nice, relaxing atmosphere to it, while still consisting of a lot of college students click-clacking away on their laptops and holding court on a variety of subjects. But the sandwiches, dear reader... oh, the sandwiches! They taste so fresh, so good! The soups are a tad hit & miss. And it's a bit pricey. Still, the quality is top notch.
Best Homestyle: Apple Dumpling
Probably my favorite style of food, I make the sojourn there nearly every Sunday for the wonderful (albeit small) buffet. Fried chicken, real mashed potatoes and thick, creamy gravy, noodles and vegetables -- it always hits the spot. The decor is pretty plain, although it has somewhat of a farm motif. The staff is friendly, once you get to know them. Try going on different days of the week for the daily specials. It's good country cookin'!
Best Chinese: Rainbow Garden
Those who know me know that I'm a tough nut to crack when it comes to food. "Picky eater" is a label that has frequently been assigned. Nowhere is that more true than with Asian cuisine. I've been to several eateries, and only a very few have managed to satisfy. Rainbow Garden is probably the best of those. I like to get the spicy chicken with, of course, rice. It makes for a good combination. Other things I've sampled there have also been pleasing. My one experience with Golden Harbor wasn't bad, either.
Best Pizza: Jupiter's
Bet you thought I was going to say Papa Del's? Ha! It's alright, but everyone is doing deep dish these days, and often doing it well. The thin crust pizza, while also common, is hit or miss depending upon the establishment. With Jupiter's, it's almost always good and delicious. With a plethora of sauces, toppings and speciality pizzas to choose from, Jupiter's wins this category hands down, pie crust in the air. And the prices are very reasonable.
Best BBQ: Black Dog
This is a tough one, folks, as none of the local BBQ joints really get my juices flowing (no pun intended). They each have their pros and cons and, of them all, I'd have to give the edge to Black Dog. Despite the sometimes annoying wait times, the food quality is consistent, it tastes good, and the prices are fairly low. There's also Po' Boys, but they're just so-so. I kind of liked Smoke, but it closed. Haven't tried Bo Bo's yet. Lord & Lacy have some nice offerings, but right now they just cater, no actual restaurant exists.
Best Breakfast: Sam's Cafe
This was a really, really hard one to choose. I love me some breakfast food and, to be truthful, there are a plethora of choices from around town that provide a nice, solid dining experience. But Sam's in downtown Champaign really clinches it with its low prices, quality offerings, friendly staff and plain-yet-community-friendly decor. I still say they have the best omelets in town, and I've heard from multiple reliable sources that the French Toast is great.
Best Drinking Establishment: The Blind Pig
Once again, another difficult category. A year or two ago, this would easily have gone to Boltini, with the Pig running a strong second. Now... ? Boltini's luster has worn-off quite a bit, and now a newer bar, Quality, runs a very close second to the Pig. Both are top notch, but in very different ways. If you want a modern ambiance with slightly snobby -- but not too snobby -- wait staff and patrons, then go with Quality. If you want a laid back, British pub feel with a large beer selection, then go with the Blind Pig. I could spend hours in either establishment, and often have!
So, there you have it: 10 categories, 10 establishments, all of them excellent choices for a night (or day, or morning) out. You really can't go wrong with any of these places, and even some of the ones that didn't make the cut. Those of us foodies here in town really are spoilt for choice. My waist line can attest to this.