Monday, October 28, 2013

Fire Trucks & Friar Tuck's: Champaign-Urbana, IL

This is the finale of my recent road trip to visit as many family members as possible in the shortest length of time.  On the way down to Tennessee we stopped off very briefly in Champaign, Illinois to stay the night with my dad.  Growing up, I spent the long cold winters in Minnesota with my mom, and most of the summers with my dad in Champaign.  When I was a kid, there wasn't a whole lot to the town other than the area around the U of I campus.  I could ride my bike in just about any direction and reach corn fields.  Things have changed a lot over the years.  Now there are several fine dining restaurants, cool bars and even a few breweries.

We arrived fairly late in the day, but had time to go out to dinner in town.  We gathered up my dad and met up with our friends Kathleen and Shea, then headed down to the Black Dog Smoke & Ale House.  This is my favorite restaurant in Urbana and has made the top 10 lists as one of the best smokehouses in the USA.  They have a small but frequently rotated list of craft beers and often serve cask ale as well.  The place is tiny and they do not take reservations, so there always a big line outside waiting...but it is so worth that wait!  While lurking outside awaiting our turn and smelling the heavenly aroma of smoked meats waft from the doorway, Shea brought us out a beer sampler tray shaped like a dog bone.  We were able to try a bunch of cool beers that are not all available in Minnesota, including the Schlafly pumpkin ale.  When finally seated, we all dug into our plethora of smoked meats and gorged ourselves until disgustingly full.  A great place to visit for food and beer.  We ended the night hanging out with our friends and testing out Shea's beer stash and putting his mixology skills to good use.  Early the next morning we headed South (see my entries on Nashville, Huntsville and Birmingham for my take on the beer scene in those cities.)

On our way back from Alabama we were able to stop off longer in Champaign.  Arriving at night again, we met up with my dad, his girlfriend Kelly and my little brother TJ at Radio Maria in downtown Champaign.  We have been going to this restaurant for many years and it is one of my favorite places to return to when coming back home.  An upscale but not hoity-toity place, they serve good quality food and tapas in a setting surrounded by found art.  They have a great coffee encrusted fillet served atop a vanilla sauce that is out of this world.  The restaurant always had a good bottle list (I remember accidentally ordering a 750 ML bottle of Avery Beast (17% ABV!) here early on and having a difficult time walking out of there,) but have expanded the tap selection greatly since adding a bar side.  They offer samplers of beers as well, so I was able to try even more unusual beers.  They offer a trip around The Wheel for $40--a sample of every beer they have on tap in their wheel shaped tap tower.  I still have to do this some day, but probably need my sister Kimmy there to help me out!

After dinner I dragged my family down the street to the Blind Pig Brewery.  This is the smaller sister to the Blind Pig pub and is often called The Piglet by locals.  They usually have 2-4 house brews, brewed on the tiniest professional brew system I've ever seen (1 barrel?), about 8 other rotating craft beers, and a ton of bottles. The place was hopping, but we managed to snag a small table near the door for our group.  I shoved my way to the bar and brought back a sampler of all four house beers to share with our group.  All of the beers were very good, showing a lot of improvement from the last visit.  The coffee stout was amazing, and the IPA was spot-on.  I could tell my party was flagging, so we finished up our sampler and headed for home and much needed rest.

The next day we had lunch at Zorba's, a college staple serving up fantastic gyros since the year I was born (1973 if you must know.)  The restaurant actually burned down a few years ago and thankfully rebuilt, so I can still visit on my rare trips through town.  This restaurant more than any other reminds me of my past--walking in at nearly 40 and having the exact same gyros and fries as I did when I was 5 is oddly comforting.

Nice wheels, bro!

It was really fun hanging out with my dad and brother on this brief visit.  TJ and I are separated by nearly 20 years and have not had much time to spend together.  Now that he is all grown up, I found that we had a lot more to talk about: gardening, grilling and smoking, etc.  Since he was 12 TJ has been buying and selling things on-line, starting with cell phones and moving up to cars.  Over the years he has owned a full sized limousine, a small school bus (yes he drove the short bus) and several other unique vehicles. We took a trip out to The Car Dealership That Time Forgot in Mahomet to check out TJ's newest acquisition: a 1975 decommissioned fire truck.  He took me for a joy-ride in this smoke belching beast of a vehicle, showing off it's crazy loud air horn and air brakes.  And when it stalled out in the middle of an intersection...who's going to complain--its a fire truck!  I was unaccountably joyous during this little jaunt, I guess the car loving gene didn't totally pass me by.  I'm waiting to show up one day and find out that my brother has bought some sort of combat assault vehicle like a tank or troop transport.  Maybe I shouldn't give him any ideas...

Action shot...

After our Sunday drive around rural Illinois in a 1975 fire truck, we headed out to Savoy, another growing suburb of Champaign area.  Our first stop there was one of my favorite beverage stores in the State: Friar Tucks.  This is a small chain of liquor stores in Illinois and Missouri that have an enormous selection of spirits (and most notably beer!)  With different distribution patterns than Minnesota, I can find a lot of beers here like Lost Abbey, Jolly Pumpkin, and a bunch of unusual Belgian imports.  They also have a homebrew section of the store, but doesn't compare to Midwest and Northern Brewer back home.  I picked up a few key beers to bring home, but had already loaded up the car with strange ones from the South and didn't have much space left in the car. 

My beer hoard

After stocking up on bottles for Minnesota, we traveled all of a half-mile to the newest brewery in the area: Triptych Brewing.  Named for the three brewers who came from separate paths of life, this is a small brewery located just a few buildings down from the dojo my family used to go to.  I never in a million years would have guessed that this rural "suburb" of a college town, known mainly for its airport and golf course, would develop its own brewery.  The world is a-changing...and only for the better if you are craft beer fiend like me!  The brewery looks like a small office building or warehouse from the outside.  Upon entering, the brewery is to the left--showing off a small system and stainless steel conical fermenters.  Straight ahead from the doors is the long bar, with a seating area to the right of that.  They serve no food, but do have a snack machine for some available munchies.  I also spotted a couple of Four Roses Bourbon barrels aging in the tasting room...what boozy secrets might they be hiding?  My family and I all bellied up to the bar and we split a sampler of all the beers (mostly Sj and myself.)  The beer menu was unique: three large TV screens above the bar with a listing of the beers that rotated through each beer and gave brewing, ABV% and hop details on each.  I would have loved to talk to one of the brewers/owners, but they were all off at GABF in Denver that week.

I liked a lot of the eight beers I tried at Triptych.  My favorite was the Dirty Hippy, and English style low alcohol mild--I could have a few pints of this and be very happy.  Second on my list was an apple beer, made with cider from the local Curtis Orchard, where I used to visit in my childhood.  They have been doing a series of single hopped beers called Hop School, and they Centennial was on tap during my visit.  I found it a bit harsh and vegetal, but like the idea of trying this type of thing commercially.  Sorry I missed the Citra version!  I also found the Double IPA to be a bit rough--I wonder if the water profile out there is hurting their hoppier beers.  Overall well worth a trip to visit, and I feel like they will continue to grow as a brewery over next couple of years. 

That evening Kelly fixed us an amazing dinner of apple and goat cheese topped salad and mushroom stuffed pork chops.  She set me to pairing beers with it, so I put some of our spoils from Friar Tuck to good use.  I decided on some great Belgian beers that I discovered on last year's trip to that wonderful country.  The Dupont Foret Organic Saison's fruity esters paired well with the light vinaigrette and apples in the salad, and Dupont Moinette Brune did wonders with the earthy mushrooms and pork.  This was a perfect end to a great day.

While some things stay the same in the Champaign-Urbana that I (at least partially) grew up in, a lot of things are changing.  Rather than just being a transient college town, it is becoming much more varied.  I'm very happy to see lots of options for my favorite hobbies (such as eating and drinking,) and was sad to head back to my real home in Waconia.  I had a great time with my family and seeing some of the old haunts...I'll be back!

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