These are the moments that I love my job. I’ve spent the last few days in Urbana-Champaign, a college town (or two) near Chicago that I had never visited before and about which I had no particular expectations. As it turned out, the conference was excellent and the organisers turned out to be genuinely awesome people that I want to kidnap and bring home with me so that I can admire their fashion, drink their cocktails and dance until the small hours. Conferences don’t have enough dance parties in my view, and the ChamBana crowd know how to have a good time. But what about the food?, you ask. I ate in some pretty decent upscale restaurants but the real highlight was my day off, when I wandered out to Maize, a tiny Mexican gem in the midst of ugly student apartments and parking lots. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you let me loose in the United States, I will find good Mexican food. It’s what I do here.
I think we can all agree that Maize doesn’t look like much, but if you can peer in the windows, the place was hopping. The tiny interior has just two bars for seating and the staff were working full out when I arrived at a little after noon. Despite a queue that would have frazzled many a server, the staff were genuinely friendly and found me a spot within minutes. The menu has lots of Americanised Mexican favourites, and indeed most orders I heard were for burritos and “American style tacos” with cheese. But Maize also features a whole range of Mexico city antojitos, including tlacoyos, huaraches, and sopes. I went for the tlacoyo al pastor, a fat oval masa cake topped with seasoned pork, beans, thick crema, cilantro and what I think was a mixture of cotija and queso de Oaxaca cheeses. The masa was fresh and savoury – like pizza or pie, a really good masa cake is as much about the base as the topping. But I have to say, the garlicky, roasty pork was freaking delicious, and balanced perfectly with what seems visually to be an excess of cheese and crema. Also, did I mention it was $3.50? Bliss, utter bliss.
I was leaving the next day, but by fortuitous chance, someone mentioned to me that there were zero lunch options in the local airport. Hmm. Time to fit in one more visit before the flight? You betcha. Enjoying my last bask in the beautiful fall sunshine, I spent this morning walking back over to Maize to explore a little more of the menu. In the name of research, right? This time I had to have a taco (not “American style” thank you very much). I went for carne asada, which came properly smothered in cilantro and chopped onion. It was correct – maybe not as magical as the tlacoyo, but every bit as good as I’ve had in Los Angeles.
Also visible in these pictures, the excellent salsas that come with everything: one a bit spicy and creamy, which I enjoyed, but suspected to be commercial, and the other a boring looking but actually wonderful tomato and tomatillo salsa; thin but vibrant in flavour, like a tomato water, and with a fresh serrano edge. Of course, I also had horchata and Jarritos because, shut up, I cannot reisist Mexican soft drinks. I also had a zucchini flower quesadilla, which they serve grilled rather than fried. The cheese still makes it a bit heavy, but I adore zucchini flower and this one was generously stuffed.
As I fly home to the UK, I’ll be bringing with me some great memories of Champaign-Urbana, as well as dreaming of tlacoyos in Brighton. Right now, I’m in O’Hare airport for what feels like seventeen hours, but look, I was just here…
Maize, 60 East Green St, Champaign, IL, 61820