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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 02:56 am

Food, glorious food

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BEST ASIAN FOOD
BEST SUSHI
BEST MARTINI NAME
BEST PLACE FOR A FIRST DATE

Osaka
1665 Wabash Ave., 726-8037

Osaka sure does a lot of things right. First things first, let’s start with the cocktails. We are traditionalists. As such, we believe that martinis should contain only gin or vodka, with perhaps a hint of vermouth and an olive garnish. Period. Others, however, feel differently, as evidenced by the outpouring – pun intended – of support for the Osaka-tini, an elixir that breaks every rule, starting with the champagne flute in which it is served. Next, some sushi before we order dinner proper, and Osaka delivers with a fine and varied selection. We suggest a triumvirate of tuna – maguro, hamachi and albacore – plus the Eel Lover roll. With Japanese and Thai dishes both on the menu, why not order both varieties and share? There’s nothing like octopus salad to cool down the fire in Panang curry, served with your choice of chicken, beef, tofu or shrimp. With all this going on, it should be obvious why Osaka is the best place for a first date, when folks are just getting to know each other. From tempura to sushi to fried rice to pad Thai, there is going to be something on the menu you can both enjoy, and sitting around the hibachi while a chef prepares your meal before your eyes is a great way to break the ice and stay entertained.
Runners-up martini (tie): Chocolatini at Ross Isaac, Naughty Schoolgirl at JP Kelly’s
Runner-up Asian food: Magic Kitchen
Runner-up sushi: Hunan
Runner-up first date: Washington Park


BEST BARBECUE
Smokey Bones Bar and Fire Grill
2660 South Dirksen Parkway, 528-6410

In the ongoing battle for best BBQ, only 44 votes separate the first and second place winners. But in the end, just like the last three years, Smokey Bones reigns supreme in this BOS category. It’s easy to see why. The smoked beef brisket is marinated 24 hours before it’s slowly smoked for six hours. The ribs are rubbed and marinated before being hickory-smoked for four hours. True BBQ connoisseurs should definitely have their ribs with one of the restaurant’s three fire-grill flavors – original, Memphis dry rub or brown sugar. One dish absolutely worth mentioning is its new BBQ chicken flatbread, featuring a crisp flatbread brushed with BBQ sauce, and topped with shredded grilled chicken breast, diced red onions, and Asiago cheese. It is spectacular!

Hickory River Smokehouse, the runner-up, is big on taste. What makes this restaurant unique is that its beef brisket, pork shoulder, turkey breast and pork loin are rubbed with Hickory River’s signature blend of spices. All of its meats are infused with hickory wood and smoked in the establishment’s slow-cook BBQ pit. Our personal favorite is the spicy polish sausage, served on a toasted bun and swimming in barbecue sauce.
Runner-up: Hickory River Smokehouse

BEST BREAD/PASTRIES
Panera Bread
3019 South Dirksen Parkway, 529-6200
3101 White Oaks Drive, 726-5070

Panera offers approximately sixteen types of bread, nine varieties of bagels, and six kinds of muffins. But they don’t stop there. Panera Bread also has a wide variety of brownies, cookies, scones and coffee cakes. With so much to choose from, Panera is a clear winner of the best bakery/ bread category. One Sunday before heading to church, we decided to take a quick trip to Panera to test our voters’ selection. Well, our eyes (and stomach) got the better of us and we decided to try a couple – pecan bread (pastry dough twisted and braided and doused with butter and ground pecans and coated with a light syrup) and pecan roll, filled with cinnamon and sugar, and topped with caramel and pecans. OMG! We thought that we’d skipped church and gone straight to heaven. As we gathered our belongings and prepared to leave, Panera’s Cobblestone Roll (cinnamon raisin bread with chunks of apples and topped with streusel and white icing) caught our eye. We decided to snag one for the following day, though temptation got the better of us and we devoured it later that night. Heaven surely has a Panera Bread, but why wait?

BEST BUFFET
Golden Corral
1038 Lejune Drive, 585-6830

For the last several years, the Golden Corral has wowed us with its supersized salad bar, grilled sirloin, meat-carving station, delicious spread of meat, Mexican and Chinese food stations, freshly made rolls and breads, and fabulous array of cakes, pies, cobblers, cookies and ice cream. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, the restaurant has dazzled voters with its new seared seafood station, which no doubt led the Golden Corral to once again gain the honor of best buffet. Believe us when we say if you haven’t frequented Golden Corral in a while, the seafood station, with grilled shrimps, tilapia and crab cakes, combined with your choice of pasta and sauce, is well worth a visit. Don’t forget about the restaurant’s weekend brunch, with made-to-order omelets, bacon, sausage, French toast, waffles, pastries and more, on Saturdays and Sundays until 11 a.m.

BEST BURGER
Krekel’s Custard and Hamburgers
2121 North Grand Ave., 525-4592.

We all know there are tons of places in Springfield where one can get a good burger, but as in years past, voters say that Krekel’s Custard and Hamburgers serves the best burgers in town. Krekel’s burgers are unique in that they are cooked on a sizzling flat top grill until the edges are crispy, then served on a toasted bun. Since the burgers, made to order with fresh ground beef, are a bit thin, we recommend a double, or perhaps a triple burger. Just as tasty as the burgers are the prices, which begin at $1.65 for a single to $3.95 for a triple cheeseburger.

BEST CHILI
Joe Rogers’ “The Den” Chili Parlor
820 S. Ninth St., 522-3722

On any given day, the line at Joe Rogers’ Chili Parlor stretches out onto the parking lot. Having stood in that line a time or two, we were not surprised to see that the restaurant, also known as “The Den,” won the best chili category by a landslide. In fact, Joe’s received more votes than the second and third place winners combined. What makes Joe Rogers special is the fact that the meat and beans are cooked separately, allowing diners to customize their chili to suit their taste. Not only can diners select the degree of spiciness (mild, hot, medium hot or firebrand), they also choose the amount of meat, beans and oil, if any at all. While we prefer medium hot, with extra meat and beans and a tamale, we encourage you to experiment a bit and come up with your own concoction. If you’re feeling daring, we challenge you to try a bowl of Joe’s firebrand. Should you succeed in finishing it, your name will be placed on the restaurant’s wall with other brave souls.

BEST CHINESE
Hunan’s Chinese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
1101 Wabash Ave., 793-0999

It didn’t take us long to figure out why BOS voters couldn’t decided whether China Star or Hunan’s Chinese Restaurant and Sushi Bar has the best Chinese food in town. Diners tell us that Hunan’s offers some of the finest sushi in Springfield. In fact, during a recent visit, everywhere we looked nearly all of the diners were indulging (or overindulging) in the Asian delicacy. Though the sushi looked gorgeous enough to feature in a food magazine, we opted instead for the Hunan Deluxe dinner for two, which included egg rolls and crab Rangoon, sizzling rice soup, Mongolian beef, and Cashew China. This scrumptious meal was very filling, and even served as lunch for the following day. A visit will not be complete without a serving of Hunan’s dynamite dessert roll, which features sweet potatoes and cream cheese. We found them to be so tasty that we ate the roll and placed another order to go.

BEST CHINESE
China Star
1899 Sangamon Ave., 789-0800

With more than a dozen Chinese restaurants located in the capital city, BOS voters couldn’t decide which restaurant is the best, resulting in a tie for this category. So we decided to try them both. China Star’s online menu reads: “Excellent Food and Amazing Prices.” Not one to take a restaurant’s word, we immediately headed to China Star to see if it lives up to its claims. Serving Cantonese, Szechuan, and Hunan dishes, we decided to order one of each. We ordered orange beef (Hunan) and Kung Poa (Szechuan), and Happy Family (Cantonese), a dish with lobster, shrimp, scallops, crab, beef, chicken, pork and veggies. The food was absolutely delicious. And the prices? Well, “amazing” may be a slight exaggeration, but they are very affordable. In the end, we left with a stuffed belly, a carryout that lasted several days, and a smile.

BEST COFFEE SHOP
Starbucks
3200 East Clear Lake Avenue, 525-7759
2003 West Monroe  St., 793-2193
731 Adlai Stevenson Drive, 753-2978
3412 Freedom Drive, 787-0764
3445 Freedom Drive, 546-5003
700 East Adams  St., 789-1530

Their motto: “One person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.” Their mission: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit.” With drive-through lines well beyond the parking lot at most Starbucks in the a.m., it’s safe to say that the coffee shop has definitely won the hearts of Springfield’s coffee lovers. One might think that they would be satisfied with its wide array of coffees, including a variety of in-store, instant, and whole bean packaged coffee brewed at home. But since winning best coffee last year, the coffee shop has added its new Salted Caramel Mocha Frappucino. Now, we were already huge fans of Starbucks Caramel Frappucino, so we were eager to give the new drink a try. Though skeptical about the salt, it was merely around the rim of the cup, much like a margarita, and did not keep us from enjoying the sweet, chocolaty drink.

BEST CUPCAKES
Café Moxo
411 East Adams St., 788-8084.

We are astonished at the number of nominees for best cupcake – more than two dozen. With so many making the list, we’d love to try a cupcake or two from each of the nominees, but neither wallet nor waistline can afford it. So, we decided to give the first and second place winners a try. First up, Café Moxo – this year’s winner. As we entered the café, we were excited to see the list of approximately 25 cupcake flavors, including root beer float, peppermint swirl, chocolate malt, key lime, red velvet, strawberry shortcake, furry friends, I do, and pucker up. Of these, we soon learned, only about five different cupcakes are made daily. (Beyond the “daily special,” the café needs a 48-hour advanced notice.)

Disappointment quickly turned to jubilance once we tasted the s’mores cupcake, a chocolate cake smothered with marshmallow buttercream and topped with graham cracker and chocolate. We quickly gobbled it down and decided to try another. How can we properly assess the cupcakes by just trying one? So, we opted for the Hostess with the Mostest, a chocolate cupcake filled with marshmellow buttercream and topped with chocolate. It was just as delicious. Other popular flavors include the PB & J (white cake filled with raspberry jam and topped with peanut buttercream and jam) and caramel apple (apple flavored cake topped with buttercream and drizzled with Ghiradelli caramel).

On to the second place winner – Mrs. Kiddy’s Cakes, which has 35 flavors. We’ve gone to Mrs. Kiddy’s cupcakes more than a dozen times since the doors opened a couple of years ago. But in the interest of our survey, we decided to pay them another visit. This time, we sampled the cotton candy cupcake. Though we enjoyed it, Mrs. Kiddy’s red velvet, carrot, and lemon cupcakes are still our favorites. Although we didn’t get a chance to try them, voters say that Specialty Cakes, who earned the third place honors, is also worth a try.
Runner-up: Mrs. Kiddy’s Cakes


BEST DESSERTS
Incredibly Delicious
925 South Seventh St., 528-8548

On a trip to Incredibly Delicious, the winner of this year’s best dessert category, we committed at least two of the seven deadly sins – greed and gluttony. But what do you expect when you’re surrounded by cases of scrumptious cakes, tasty tarts, amazing cheesecakes and yummy cookies and brownies?

After we lustfully stared at the delicious goodies (make that three sins), we settled on a mixed berry tart, raspberry croissant, chocolate mousse, mocha walnut and dried cherry cookies, and a brownie macaroon. We gobbled a couple of the goodies and made arrangements to take the others home for later. To say that they were incredibly delicious is an understatement. As we prepared to leave, we took one last look at the spread of desserts and couldn’t leave without a slice of flourless chocolate cake with ganache. This chocolaty treat is sinful. Incredibly Delicious has a variety of treats, including seven types of cookies, three tarts, four coffee cakes and much more. They also have eight cake flavors, with a choice of eight buttercream frostings and 18 cake fillings. So go ahead. Indulge. And ask for forgiveness later.

BEST GYROS
Gyros Stop
2907 South MacArthur Blvd., 698-6463

One might say that Gyros Stop is on a roll, for BOS voters once again selected the restaurant as the spot for the best gyros in Springfield. While we’ve stopped in for a gyro on numerous occasions, this time we decided to try something different and ordered a small gyro salad – a popular choice for many area residents – and a gyro horseshoe. We couldn’t have been happier with our selection. The salad was packed with traditional lamb and topped with cucumber sauce and a tasty Greek dressing. The gyro horseshoe also had tons of lamb topped with, of course, cheese, fries, cucumber sauce and tomatoes. This horseshoe turned out to be quite a meal. If you’re going to try one, we suggest you either bring a friend (unless you’re extremely hungry, chances are you won’t be able to finish it alone) or get the cheese on the side and eat the rest later, otherwise the leftovers will be a soggy mess.

BEST KIDS’ MENU
O’Charley’s
4241 Conestoga, 787-2809

How many times have you gone to a restaurant with your children? The food is great. The portions are generous. And the ambiance is nice and relaxing. But uh oh, there’s nothing around to keep your little ones entertained as you wait for your meal. They’re not interested in sharing the entree that you’re dying to sink your teeth in. And the portions are a bit large for your tykes to take on. Our voters say you can avoid such issues by dining at O’Charley’s, which pays special attention to your children by offering a nice children’s menu that includes several brunch entrees, and seven lunch and dinner meals to choose from. Plus, O’Charley’s has an activity booklet to keep your children occupied until their meals arrive.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD
BEST MARGARITA

Xochimilco
2941 W. Iles Ave., 546-3116
210 Northfield Dr., 544-9206
6901 Preston Dr., 483-1066

This is getting old. Year after year, the Mexican restaurant with the unpronounceable name (so-she-milco) wins, usually in more than one category. This time around, it was no contest. Xochimilco won best Mexican food and best margarita by nearly two-to-one over runner-up La Fiesta, which placed second in both categories. One sip of a Xochimilco margarita and you’ll know why. The blended version is incredibly smooth, mixed to the point where the ice becomes one with the liquor, with no chunks or even granular bits of frozen water. Neither too sweet nor too sour, these margaritas are just right, with the slightest aftertaste of smoke – the perfect counterweight to a hot, humid summer day. The food is equally terrific. For those who have a tough time deciding, try the fiesta fajitas that feature steak, chicken, shrimp, chorizo and mushrooms. Good as they are, you’ll be bringing leftovers home unless you have help or a humongous appetite.
Runner-up: La Fiesta

BEST PIZZA
Gabatoni’s
300 East Laurel, 528-9629
3219 Lake Plaza Drive, 529-5030

History repeats itself with the Best of Springfield, for voters have once again selected Gabatoni’s as the best pizza in the capital city. With nearly 60 years of experience serving up delicious pizza pies, it’s clear that we can’t get enough. Most diners opt for Gabatoni’s cheesy thin crust pizzas, but we decided to deviate from the norm and order a deep pan chicken alfredo. Upon initially hearing the ingredients – chicken topping and white sauce (we added green pepper, onion, mushroom) we were a bit hesitant. But once we laid our eyes on this bubbly white concoction, our stomach began to dance and soon the pizza was history. Though we loved the deep pan pizza, we must concur with most of Gabatoni’s customers. There’s nothing better than a Gabatoni’s thin crust.

BEST SALAD
Olive Garden
2991 South Veterans Pkwy, 793-0318

With only two salads on the menu, our survey proves that you don’t need a wide variety of salads to be declared the best. Though Olive Garden has long since offered diners its garden salad, with fresh iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and house dressing, it was the recently added grilled chicken salad, with romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons and Caesar dressing, that has us going back for more. Yes, Olive Garden continues to offer its all-you-can-eat soup, salad and breadsticks daily until 4 p.m. Unfortunately, the grilled chicken salad is not included in the deal. Nevertheless you will find that it is worth every penny.

BEST SEAFOOD
Chesapeake Seafood House
3045 East Clear Lake Ave., 522-5220

Judging by its name, one might think that the Chesapeake Seafood House is located near the water on the east cost. But one visit to the restaurant, housed in an 1850s mansion, and you will thank your lucky stars that we have such delectable seafood in our own backyard. We decided to begin with the shrimp de jonghe, which included eight large shrimp topped with a mixture of garlic butter, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. This scrumptious dish was, hands down, the best shrimp appetizer we have ever tasted. Since this was our first visit for dinner, we decided to try a couple of entrees – raspberry salmon, and the bay platter, with broiled orange roughy, sea scallops and jumbo shrimp. Both dishes are incredible. Though the food, depending on what you order, can be a bit pricey (appetizers range from $5.99-$8.99, while entrees are $7.99-$25.99) the food is well worth the trip.

BEST SOUL FOOD
Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue
1121 South Grand Ave., 522-0386

There’s something about Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue that makes BOS voters feel good deep down in their soul. Perhaps it’s the 100-year-old sauce recipe passed down from generation to generation. But whether you choose ribs, beef, pork, chicken or hot link sandwich, you can believe that it will have you licking your fingers and looking around for more. Now, we’re told that Clay’s is a place where “friends and families meet”; however, we couldn’t seem to take our mind off of our scrumptious rib sandwich long enough to enjoy the company of other diners. We recommend you try Clay’s $6 daily lunch specials, featuring beef, pork, or rib tips and your choice of baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad or a combination plate with tips and beef or pork, plus a side. But we will issue a warning. Clay’s sauce is so good that you just might want to order your meal drenched in it, which doesn’t always bode well for your clothing.

BEST SOUP
The Feed Store
516 East Adams St., 528-3355  

Last year, after The Feed Store won top honors in the best soup category, we stopped in to try a bowl. With seven cream, four broth, one seafood, and four chilled soups, we decided to mix the Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese – the restaurant’s best seller – and cream of broccoli. The result was a very tasty bowl of soup. Like many of our voters, we fell in love with The Feed Store during our initial visit, but we were dying to try the chilled strawberry soup. Unfortunately at that time, strawberries were not in season, so we were out of luck. Once we approached the strawberry season, we called a couple of times to see if they had the soup, but hung up disappointed. Finally, we heard, “Yes, we have strawberry soup.” We couldn’t get there fast enough. Strawberry soup – made with fresh pureed strawberries, simmered in red wine cinnamon, and lemon, finished with whip and sour cream – is now our new favorite soup. We conclude that The Feed Store is more than deserving of this year’s best soup honor.

BEST STEAK
Alexander’s Steakhouse
620 North Bruns, 814-0638

Since opening its doors, Alexander’s Steakhouse hasn’t changed its menu. But why should they? After all, BOS voters have ruled time and time again that you can’t find a better steak in town. What other restaurant allows you to select your own steak from the meat case, and, if you choose, prepare it on the restaurant’s giant grill? Our personal favorite is the teriyaki sirloin and the Santa Maria, which is rubbed with a special seasoning. If you’re one who is watching your pennies, take advantage of the early bird special. Though only two of Alexander’s steaks are included on the early bird menu – top sirloin and Santa Maria top sirloin – you’re sure to love them just as much as we do. For an added treat, try the sauteed mushrooms served in a sizzling hot cast iron skillet.

BEST SUBS
BEST FAST, CHEAP LUNCH

Head West Sub Stop
3311 Robbins Road, 726-9202
2432 Denver Dr., 744-7990
Sixth and Capitol, 789-9101
1124 W. Jefferson, 793-9101
1281 Toronto Rd., 585-7990
7032 Kings Mills Court, Chatham, 670-0111

Ten years in and Head West Sub Stop is still on top, this year taking two Best of Springfield accolades – best fast, cheap lunch and best subs. While the awards keep multiplying, so too do the shops themselves – in September owners Matt and Grace Bluhm opened their sixth shop, this one in Chatham. What’s the secret? Fresh, quality ingredients and about 50 amazing employees, Matt Bluhm says. “We have a really good Head West family. It keeps things running. … It’s crazy. We started off just my wife, myself and her brother.”
Fast, cheap lunch runner-up: Chadito’s Mexican American Grill

BEST VEGETARIAN
Holy Land Diner
107 W. Cook St., 547-5786

In a day and age when many of us are watching our waistlines, Holy Land Diner, winner of our best vegetarian category, is a great place to kick back and enjoy a healthy meal. Holy Land, which features authentic Greek and Lebanese dishes, offers approximately a dozen vegetarian dishes, including its popular vegetarian shish kabob with fresh marinated and grilled veggies; hummus, made with crushed garbonzo beans with a sesame seed sauce; baba ghannouge, baked eggplant with sesame seed sauce; foule – crushed and boiled fava beans with lemon juice. Falafel and stuffed grape leaves are also served. We suggest you visit the diner on Saturday evenings for vegetarian buffet. Just how healthy are Holy Land dishes? Springfield’s Prairie Heart Institute has declared the dishes heart healthy.

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