CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Next Saturday is homecoming at the University of Illinois and our Hungry Hound, despite his allegiance to visiting Wisconsin, now has a reason to visit Champaign-Urbana more often: his daughter. He figured a lot of Chicago-area parents might be heading down to see the game with their kids, so he and Madeline did some of the legwork.
Nostalgia runs deep for alums, making the trek back for Homecoming. The Quad, a restored Alma Mater and lots of walking around campus are a given. What about places to eat? I turn to a proud sophomore - my daughter Madeline - who says start the day in Urbana, at The Courier Cafe, housed in the same building where Hefner and Ebert got their start at the Courier Newspaper. The all-day cafe is known for their hearty breakfasts and thick milkshakes.
"I think the fact that we're off campus actually makes it a lot easier, because the parking is easier and there's a little bit less traffic," said Rebecca Wells, who works at The Courier.
For lunch, we hit two places - first, Watson's Shack and Rail back in Champaign, where the emphasis is on Nashville-style chicken, but they also make a respectable pimento cheese plate with homemade pickles, and offer a few boozy slushies, just like your favorite hipster haunt.
With locations in both Champaign and Urbana, Black Dog Smoke & Ale House is all about low and slow barbecue. We visited the Champaign location, and loved the pulled pork sandwiches and sliced brisket, not to mention the sweet potato fries.
"We just like to take no shortcuts, we cook it low and slow and we borrow from all the different styles we can find," said owner Mike Cochran.
Don't forget to try the twice-baked casserole.
"Basically a twice-baked potato but we don't put it back into the skin; we just put it in a tin and cook it off," he said.
Dinner was more upscale, at Miga - of course, when your parents are paying, why not? Here, a new sushi bar features sashimi and maki rolls, but the kitchen is also ambitious, churning out smoked scallops embedded in broken rice, topped with puffed wild rice. Expertly-cooked fish pairs well with the wine list, while some traditional Korean dishes find their way onto the menu, like bibimbop, with its tangle of pickled and cooked vegetables, rice, greens and thickly-cut steak, plus an egg on top.
"So we try and take recipes and traditional dishes from around Asia and kind of put our own twists and spins on it," said Blake Biggs, the Chef at Miga.
Now normally I'd be excited about the big game because I went to Wisconsin, and they're coming here to Champaign. But since my daughter is a proud member of the University of Illinois, I gotta go a little I-L-L...I-N-I.
In this week's Extra Course, Steve and Madeline talk about a pair of new coffee shops in Champaign, one of which has a fantastic pastry case.
Extra Course: Coffee shops in Champaign
The Courier Cafe
111 N. Race St., Urbana, IL
Watson's Shack & Rail
211 N Neil St, Champaign, IL
Black Dog Smoke and Ale House
320 N Chestnut St, Champaign, IL
301 N Neil St #104, Champaign, IL
630 S. 5th St., Champaign, IL
Hopscotch Bakery + Market
820 W. John St., Champaign, IL