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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 11:21 pm

2006 Best of Springfield

Eating & Drinking

By Mike Manning
Hickory River Smokehouse
2343 N. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-528-2271

The second link in what could become a chain of flavorful franchises around the state, Hickory River, born in Urbana, bills itself as a member of the “authentic Texas” denomination of the barbecue religion. Knowing a thing or two about Texas barbecue, we’d have to agree that it’s pretty darned good. This restaurant fits into the cost-and-convenience notch somewhere above our no-frills favorite, PT’s, and the higher-overhead versions, such as Corky’s and Smokey Bones. At Hickory River, you go through a cafeteria line with the traditional pie trap at the end, fill your own drink glass, then seat yourself among the businessmen and the Bubbas in the spacious dining room. There’s a smokehouse out back and — for added authenticity — Big R just down the road a piece.
Runner-up: Smokey Bones

Joe Rogers’ Original Recipe Chili Parlor/ The Den
820 S. Ninth St., 217-522-3722

Since its opening in 1945, the Den has earned a near-cult following that has continued since Marianne Rogers bought it from her mother in 1973, after the death of Joe Rogers, the founder and Marianne’s father. Diners rave about the satisfying custom-crafted gumbo. Beans and meat are cooked separately. Customers may order chili with or without beans, “heat,” and onions. “We have mild [up to] the bracing JR Special,” Rogers says. “If they ask for a regular bowl of chili, that’s a medium, with beans.” Rogers says business tends to surge when the temperature goes down; when there’s an Illini game on, people order quarts of chili to take home. The Den’s popularity hasn’t changed, but some things have: “When I took over, the price of a bowl of chili was 65 cents,” Rogers says. “Today, with tax, it’s $4.15.” Rogers credits the friendly family atmosphere to longtime loyal customers who knew her parents. “With some customers it’s like a country club — if they don’t come in one week, I send them a bill anyway,” she quips.
Runner-up: Steak ’n Shake

D’Arcy’s Pint
661 W. Stanford, 217-492-8800

D’Arcy’s, a local Irish-style tavern, last year moved to a bigger location on Stanford Avenue. Been to D’Arcy’s lately? Just as in the days when it was located at the Town & Country Mall, you still have to wait to be seated. It’s just that popular. And Springfield appreciates the signature lineup of horseshoes. If you’ve just arrived from, say, outer space, a ’shoe is an open-face sandwich covered with french fries and slathered in cheese sauce. The Supreme Shoe — a favorite, we’re guessing, at the Prairie Heart Institute — comes with seasoned ground beef, spicy cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, bacon, scallions, and a side of hot sauce, all for $6.75.
Runner-up: Dublin Pub

Charlie Parker’s
700 North St., 217-241-2104

You know that old saying about how to achieve success in business? Doesn’t it go something like “Location, location, location”? Well, whoever established Charlie Parker’s disregarded that axiom. It’s a Quonset hut, OK, plopped down on a little street about five blocks long that’s called North, even though it’s on the south side of town, and runs east to west. Got that? It’s not the kind of place you would ever just stumble upon, unless you were looking for a welding-supply store or running from the cops — who are, by the way, usually hanging out at Charlie Parker’s. The fact that this little out-of-the-way joint didn’t just survive but thrived should give you some hint about the über-yumminess of the food. Oh man. It’s just your usual diner fare — pancakes and omelets for breakfast, burgers and sandwiches for lunch, with a different special every weekday — but the Charlie Parker version of each is simply masterful. Go try it. Take your mama. You’ll be glad you did.
Runner-up: D & J Café

Pease’s Candy Shops
State and Laurel, 217-523-3721; 1871 E. Sangamon Ave., 217-528-2810; 2501 W. Wabash Ave., 217-726-5473; 3417 Freedom Dr., 217-793-9868; Sixth and Washington streets, 217-241-3091

Founded by Martin A. “Noonie” Pease Jr. in 1930, Pease’s has been co-owned for the past several years by Doug Anderson and longtime employee Rob Flesher. “We’re selling more dark chocolate all the time because of the antioxidants,” Flesher says. “Whenever there’s a newspaper article extolling the health benefits, we pick up a few new customers.” Most dark chocolate is sold in boxes of assorted chocolates. Sales of nuts run a close second. “We’re not selling as many nuts as we did 10 years ago, and I don’t know why, because those are also healthy,” Flesher says. Customers can watch caramels, caramel apples, and fudge being made from the showcase windows of the downtown store, located at Sixth and Washington, but most of Pease’s candy is manufactured in Industrial Park South.
Runner-up: Del’s Popcorn Shop

Little Saigon
1531 W. Wabash Ave., 217-726-9633

The day Little Saigon opened for business, there were a few kinks in the operation. The soup was a bit tepid, the servers overly gregarious, and the menu too overwhelming. We know all this because we were there — and we’ve been back at least once a week ever since. That’s how much we love Little Saigon. Apparently we aren’t the only ones; nothing has ever become a Springfield institution in such a short span of time — at least nothing that can’t trace its lineage back through five generations of Sacred Heart-Griffin alumi. Little Saigon has become so popular so fast, it’s difficult to fathom that it hasn’t always been there. The kinks got worked out quickly — the soup is always perfect, the servers are like old friends, and we’ve got the lunch menu memorized. Where did we eat before Little Saigon? Nobody knows. Nobody cares.
Runner-up: Bella Milano

Gallina’s Pizza
3133 S. Dirksen Parkway, 217-529-0649; 432 E. Monroe St., 217-522-5271; 505 N. Seventh St., Riverton, 217-629-8743

This ain’t a one-baseball-team town, and the same holds true for capital-city pizza joints. For a city the size of Springfield, competition among pizzerias is quite stiff, but Illinois Times readers consistently single out Gallina’s as one of the best pie places around, with good reason. Owner Vito Randazzo, a native of Sicily and owner of the Dirksen Parkway location, uses all fresh ingredients, including his dough, which he prepares throughout the day. Randazzo, who just celebrated his 50th birthday, last week told us that he’s pondered retirement, but he plans to be here for quite a while. Too bad for his competition.
Runner-up: Gabatoni’s

113 N. Sixth St., 217-744-3644

When measuring the value of a hot-dog stand, a good indication of its quality lies in the construction of the traditional Chicago-style dog. The superior encased meat needs the following fixings to meet the Windy City criteria, no scrimping: poppyseed bun, neon-green deli relish, yellow mustard, onion, tomato, dill pickle, celery salt, and sport peppers. Wienerdog fits the bill and fills the bun. The downtown Springfield locale uses the best dogs in the biz, Vienna Beef, the creator of the legendary all-beef Chicago staple. Owners Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton took a chance on encased meat three years ago when they opened up their current store at what would become a dream location, adjacent to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Sink your teeth into the Seers Dog, a throwback to the Cheez Whiz-filled treat Springfieldians get all misty-eyed over when recalling the Sears store of yore. The boys offer a Chicago-dog combo for $5. Can’t beat that.
Runner-up: Cozy Dog

1700 S. MacArthur Blvd., 217-528-3131; 1925 W. Monroe St., 217-787-3031

Under two owners, Glenn Yanow on MacArthur and Jack Handy on Monroe, Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream and Yogurt stores remain the people’s choice — although a new contender downtown came in a very close second. “It’s been a very good year for ice cream,” Yanow says. “When things are tough, the family may not go out for dinner, but they will come here.” The Springfield stores have taken on a new look inside and out, part of a national upgrade program, and the flavors-of-the-month promotions continue. In September, they’re Oatmeal Cookie Crunch and Makin’ Cookies: chocolate-chip cookies, mini chocolate chips, cookie-dough ribbon, and buttery brown-sugar ice cream in a vanilla base. “Some of the new flavors are hits, but some we can’t give away,” Yanow says. Some, including Here Come De Fudge, inspired decades ago by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, are oldies but goodies and return to the lineup every few years. Springfield’s two Baskin-Robbinses are variations on the theme: Hours are not the same, and the Fairhills Mall store includes hot coffee-based beverages and the Tornado, which mimics a competitor’s extreme-weather-titled blend of ice cream and a little of everything found in a candy shop.
Runner-up: Cold Stone Creamery

700 E. Adams, 217-789-1530; 3200 E. Clear Lake, 217-525-7759; 3412 Freedom Dr., 217-787-0764; 2003 W. Monroe St., 217-793-2193

If caffeine is your addiction of choice, you’ve probably heard of Starbucks. The McDonald’s of coffeehouses is everywhere. With four locations in the capital city, including a spot inside Barnes & Noble, you should never be without a fix. Whether it’s a quick shot of espresso, a frothy cappuccino, or a Frappuccino you prefer, swing through the drive-up and leave with a flavorsome albeit pricey drink that always tastes the same. When it comes to coffee, that’s a good thing. Our second-place winner, Trout Lily Café, puts the “house” in “coffeehouse.” The snug little downtown nook feels like home, but much cooler. Owner Kate Hawkes, who opened the place six years ago, offers yummy quiche baked fresh, sandwiches and soups, and a few traveling troubadours who play lunchtime concerts on the regular. One of Hawkes’ many tricks that keep her customers salivating for an iced Joe is the popular coffee ice cubes. It’s the little things . . .
Runner-up: Trout Lily Café

Ruby Tuesday
2501 W. Wabash Ave., 217-698-4030

Ruby Tuesday, located on the southeast side of White Oaks Mall, next to Macy’s, came to Springfield about 10 years ago. The feeling throughout the downlit environs is upscale, and with that focus come benefits. Manager Mike Sosman explains that the salad bar is part of the restaurant’s growing “focus on fresh. Everything comes in fresh now, including all salad bar items. None of our meats are frozen. Many items which were not prepared in-house earlier are today, including our salads, go straight to the guest instead of direct to a truck. We did away with the Jell-O, pickles, pudding, and olives and added fresh vegetables, nutmeats, and fruits.” For those seeking protein, Sosman notes, the bar includes bacon, ham, and edamame (green soybeans). If salads are not your scene, try the Ruby burgers, made with ribeye, tenderloin, and sirloin. “Our burgers look like the pictures you see,” he says. Blue Moon Beer is on tap. Ruby Tuesday remains open an hour after the mall closes.
Runner-up: Ryan’s Family Steak House

Sammy’s Sports Bar
217 S. Fifth St., 217-789-9803

Sammy’s Sports Bar is a popular Sunday hangout for fans in central Illinois to go support their, um, Pittsburgh Steelers? Last year, we found the same held true for Buster’s, a winner in 2005 and this year’s second-place finisher. In fact, a Pittsburgh newspaper lists both establishments as “Steelers bars” on its Web site. No one really knows how to explain Springfield’s adoration of the boys from the Steel City. “We’re packed when the Steelers play,” a waitress told a patron one recent Sunday. The small crowd that’s gathered to cheer on the St. Louis Rams is unusually large, she reported.
Runner-up: Buster’s Sports Bar & Grill

Sammy’s Sports Bar
217 S. Fifth St., 217-789-9803

If you’ve lived anyplace where a White Castle restaurant is located, chances are you became addicted to the Lilliputian sandwiches. Sadly, however, the Columbus, Ohio-based chain hasn’t seen fit to plop down a White Castle, which proudly calls itself Home of the Belly Bomber, here in the capital city. To that end, Sammy’s has answered the prayers of those who crave the bite-size burgers topped with pickles, cheese, and lots of onions with Sammy’s Sliders (“slider” is another nickname given to WC burgers), which are available on the appetizer menu. For those who don’t crave White Castle, all the typical bar fare such as nachos, chicken tenders, and seasoned fries are also available.
Runner-up: D’Arcy’s Pint

Buffet City
1774 W. Wabash Ave., 217-787-8299

Springfield loves a buffet, so much so that we’d give the capital city a new nickname — except for the fact we already have a Buffet City, and this buffet city, located in Jerome, just happens to be the readers’ favorite again this year. The all-you-can-eatery serves between 400 and 500 customers a day with a selection of more than 150 items. Known for its Asian food, Buffet City also has a sushi bar and a Mongolian grill. Savvy customers avoid the quick-filling fare, such as meat and potatoes, other starches, and fried foods, and concentrate instead on the snow crab and raw and steamed seafood that’s a rock-bottom bargain.
Runner-up: Ryan’s Family Steak House

Magic Kitchen
4112 Peoria Rd., 217-525-2271

Magic Kitchen has been winning this category for so long, it was probably Abe Lincoln’s preferred place to eat. But this year, the ol’ favorite faced some stiff competition from the new kid in town, Little Saigon. We figured it might be a close race. After all, Little Saigon has many special touches Magic Kitchen lacks — a convenient location open for lunch and dinner daily (Magic is open only five nights per week), a liquor license (Magic has a BYOB policy), plus a tasteful cantaloupe-and-honeydew hued décor (Magic has the brownish color scheme of a basement rumpus room). But then you remember Magic Kitchen’s summer rolls and, well, they’re magical. As are the fish cakes. And everything else on the menu. And then you begin to understand why Magic Kitchen got almost three times as many votes as Saigon.
Runner-up: Little Saigon

Steak ’n Shake
3186 S. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-529-5823; 2465 N. Dirksen Pkwy., 217-492-5925; 1580 W. Wabash Ave., 217-787-0392; 4211 Conestoga Dr., 217-698-9439

Order a burger at a typical fast-food joint and just try to get a good look at the goobers in the back making your meal. Now go to Steak ’n Shake: The dude making your sandwich is working at a grill right in front of you, hence the company’s slogan: “In sight, it must be right.” Because they make ’em when you order, it takes a little longer, but, say our readers, who overwhelmingly picked the quick-seared, served-on-a-toasted-bun Steakburger as their favorite burger, the wait is worth it. Steak ’n Shake, founded in 1934 in Normal, Ill., now has locations in 19 states, mostly in the Midwest and South. One day, we predict, it’ll have the whole country in one big ol’ Takhomasak.
Runner-up: Krekel’s Custard

Holy Land Diner
518 E. Adams St., 217-544-5786

Last fall, in our comprehensive online review of local buffets, we gave Holy Land Diner a three-and-a-half-plate rating, putting this little downtown institution in the same league as some of Springfield’s biggest and finest restaurants. Consider: This eastern-Mediterranean-themed restaurant serves assemble-your-own gyros, baklava, tabbouleh, hummus, and a wide array of vegetarian dishes — not the usual fare at Springfield restaurants. And on Saturdays, the buffet is all vegetarian. No wonder it’s a “Healthy Living Restaurant Member” of the Prairie Heart Institute. Holy Land, owned by Jamal and Afaf Rashmawy, marks its 10th anniversary this year. If we’re lucky, it’ll be around forever.
Runner-up: Subway

Incredibly Delicious
925 S. Seventh St., 217-528-8548

Incredibly Delicious lists its bakery specialties as follows: all-butter homemade croissants, all-butter brioche, poppyseed rolls, and coffeecakes. That doesn’t really cover it for the French-style cafe. Anything owner Patrick Groth extracts from his ovens is going to be mouthwatering. If your sweet tooth doesn’t lead you to the historical Weber House, where Incredibly Delicious occupies the first floor, then the fresh-baked breads will. Groth cooks his wholesome loaves from scratch daily and provides such yummy flavors as kalamata-olive bread, country French, and multigrain. Take a trip to the historic home and sit on the veranda, munching on a raspberry croissant. Life doesn’t get much sweeter.
Runner-up: Panera

801 E. Monroe, 217-544-2523

You don’t have to wear a pinky ring to enter Saputo’s, but if you do you’ll fit right in. See, many places can replicate Italian cuisine, but Saputo’s actually feels Italian. There’s a chain of eateries with the slogan, “When you’re here, you’re family!” — but every time we’ve dined there, it’s felt more like “If you’re here, you’re a yuppie.” Saputo’s, on the other hand, feels so familiar, you’re afraid some old lady is gonna come over and pinch your cheek. A long, beautiful bar dominates the front section, which leads to a series of dimly lit rooms with Naugahyde-sheathed tables crowded close together. Everybody seems to know one other, and half of those present are making shady deals. The Godfather soundtrack playing in the background almost seems redundant.
Runner-up: Olive Garden

Friar Tuck Beverage
2930 Constitution Dr., 217-698-1116

We don’t really know whether the fat friar from English folklore imbibed often, but it’s safe to say that if the old priest were looking for a frothy brew, he would have the good sense to head over to his namesake liquor store and pick up a sixer. Friar Tuck Beverage makes plenty of room for Midwestern microbrew offerings, stocks up on international beers, and houses a multitude of world-class wines. The seven-year-old liquor superstore has all the necessary hard liquors to get you tipsy, including tiny hotel-style bottles of your favorites. The real treat in the west-side store is the wall o’ beer, which invites brew connoisseurs to build their own six-pack from a bevy of brands for $7.99. Go Friar, go.
Runner-up: Famous Liquors

3210 Northfield Dr., 217-544-9206; 2941 W. Iles Ave., 217-546-3116; 6901 Preston Dr., 217-483-1006

Google Xochimilco (so-she-MIL-co) and you’ll find only a Detroit eatery for the first seven pages or so. Springfield diners know better. For the fourth year in a row, the restaurant with the name that gringos consider the hardest to pronounce in Sangamon County finished numero uno. Luis Mendoza, manager of the West Iles location, says that the fast service during lunch is key to his success. “Behind the restaurant are many offices, and these people have only 40 minutes to eat,” Mendoza says. “Our quick service keeps them coming back. I try to talk with our customers as much as possible, and we are fast to make the customer happy if they aren’t.” Daily lunch and dinner specials and combination samplers for newcomers are always a sure bet.
Runner-up: Los Agaves

Food Fantasies
1512 W. Wabash Ave., 217-793-8009

Bless your hearts. You wanted to give Food Fantasies some award, and we didn’t have a category for “best place to buy tofu” or “best selection of gluten-free foods” or “best-smelling grocery store” or “best hope for mankind.” So instead you voted for Food Fantasies in this category, which is fine. You see, Food Fantasies stocks stuff you can’t get anywhere else: pickled ginger, dried sea vegetables, Jerusalem-artichoke pasta, Dr. Praeger’s broccoli pancakes — yum! Is that gourmet or ethnic? Aw, it doesn’t matter. Food Fantasies deserves a gold star.
Runner-up: World Market

Boyd’s New Generation Restaurant
1831 E. South Grand Ave., 217-544-9866

Fill your belly with tastes of home at Boyd’s New Generation, an east-side institution and Springfield’s overwhelming choice for Best Soul Food. It’s no surprise to us that you picked the heavenly lunchtime hub for your comfort-food craving; it’s one of our favorites, too. Whether you’re hankering for some meatloaf with gravy or a piping-hot bowl of jambalaya, Boyd’s piles it on. Did we mention the sides? Mac ’n’ cheese, buttered potatoes, and collard greens sit behind the glass case on any given day, ready to accompany your main dish and a thick piece of cornbread to be delivered to your table. If you can’t swing by the South Grand Avenue location during your lunch hour, grab an order to carry out or stop in on Friday, when Boyd’s stays open into the evening. Don’t forget to save room for the dessert.
Runner-up: Clay’s Popeye’s Bar-B-Q

Head West Sub Stop
1124 W. Jefferson St., 217-793-9101; 530 E. Capitol Ave., 217-789-9101

Owners Grace and Matt Bluhm did it again: Illinois Times readers picked Head West as the top purveyor of sub sandwiches in all of Springpatch. The hearty sandwiches, piled high with meat, cheese, and condiments, are served with humor and an upbeat attitude. In a burg that’s home to plenty of worthy competitors, winning three years in a row is quite an accomplishment. By the way, did we mention the free delivery?
Runner-up: Monty’s Submarines

Incredibly Delicious
925 S. Seventh St., 217-528-8548

Lunch is really just a formality when you’re visiting Incredibly Delicious. The yummy light fare of soups, salads, quiches, and sandwiches is a precursor to the taste-bud pleasers that make the bakery’s moniker ring true: the desserts. Whether you choose a small treat of colorful marzipan or plan on really blowing your diet with the flourless chocolate cake, passing on the sweet stuff isn’t much of an option. Owner Patrick Groth studied at the French Culinary Institute and spent some time in France before returning to his old stomping grounds to spread a little culinary love at his French-style dessert mecca. Try a creamy slice of citrus cheesecake or nibble on a mixed-berry tart. You really can’t go wrong at this Springfield gem.
Runner-up: Baker’s Square

D & J Café
915 W. Laurel St., 217-753-1708

First clue: There was only one available parking spot when we arrived on a recent Sunday morning. Second clue: There were only a couple of empty tables and seats at the counter. Clearly D & J Café is popular with the breakfast crowd — on Sunday and every day. It probably helps that breakfast is always served. Steak & eggs, with a 5-ounce sirloin, goes for $7.25, but we opted for the breakfast horseshoe, a $6.75 pile of greasy goodness that could clog an elephant’s arteries. Not only do you get a choice of sausage, ham, and bacon, you can also choose either the cheese sauce or the homemade gravy — or both. Go with the gravy and live a little longer. The décor here is simple, the service is attentive and friendly (seems you can’t take two gulps before a waitress tops off your cup o’ joe), and the new smoking ban should do wonders for the atmosphere.
Runner-up: International House of Pancakes

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