Tastes Like Home to Me

A recent transplant from the East Coast offers a personal tour of regional comfort food.

by Andrew Ngui with Maeve Rigney
Local dishes from around Peoria
Photos courtesy of Andrew Ngui

Good food is more than the taste of something delicious; it is the creation of nostalgic moments with loved ones and friends. These are vitally important memories that fill up the emotional bank accounts in our hearts—especially now, as we experience isolation due to the global pandemic. 

A recent transplant from the East Coast, I crave the taste of familiar foods, the sense of belonging in places I know and have come to love. The discovery of comfort food, made with care and love in the Greater Peoria region, has helped me feel more at home in the city. 

Having lived here for just over a year, I have visited a number of markets, restaurants and other food places. I learn so much from speaking with the owners about their stories, their passion in serving their communities through food. As unassuming as Peoria is, I continue to delight in the incredible diversity of food choices we have here in the region. I hope that you will enjoy reading about (and tasting) these delectable experiences as well. 

Fried Chicken
Fried ChickenAnyone can fry chicken, but few can deliver on both the crispness and full flavor of a plate of well-season fried chicken. In taste-testing across the region, I have found three places that are arguably the best local places for fried chicken.

  • On Peoria’s East Bluff, Amir’s Foods at N. Wisconsin & E. Frye takes the top spot. They are my open secret, my go-to place for fried chicken within the city. They cook to order, so be sure to call ahead as it takes 20 minutes to deep-fry them from scratch. 
  • Rick’s Crispy Chicken is conveniently located about 10 miles north on Galena Road in Mossville. This is definitely the place to hit up especially when coming back from a visit up north or Chicago. During my most recent experience, I was pleasantly surprised that their drive-thru was quick and effortless.
  • At the top of the hill on West Main Street coming up from the Medical District, Harold’s Chicken Shack #41 consistently serves up quality fried chicken to hungry students and residents burning the midnight oil.

The Original Wonderdog
On one of my early excursions across the river into East Peoria, I stumbled upon the legendary Wonderdog, a well-known favorite among Peoria natives, where the hot dog is smothered in a cumin-infused meat sauce. Beware of this restaurant’s siren song, it is nearly impossible for you to order just one. 

Fresh Seafood (in the Midwest!)
In spite of our Midwestern location, I was happy to discover how our region is home to a number of seafood shops and fish markets. Dixon’s Seafood has two locations on both sides of the river. I recommend that you head to the flagship retail store in East Peoria, where they serve an incredible variety of fresh items from the sea, including oysters, crab, lobsters and other specialty seafood from across the U.S. and Canada. 

Artisanal bread on the riverfront

Artisanal Bread on the Riverfront
While the region has historically been home to a thriving and vibrant arts scene, it is now even more so… with food art! Crossing back over to Peoria’s riverfront, Ardor Bread and Provisions delicately styles their breads and provisions at their premier boulangerie on Water Street. They regularly sell out of baguettes and delicious baked goods by lunchtime, so it’s best to go early and avoid the lines. 

Peoria Riverfront Market
Equally not to be missed in the summer is the Peoria Riverfront Market on Saturday mornings. They have vendors coming in from across central Illinois to sell their freshest produce, foods, snacks and even specialty mushrooms. Bloom Shroomery is one of our region’s startup farmers. They’re cultivating the next generation of fungi—a savory experience to discover. If they’re sold out at the market, their mushrooms can also be found at Sous Chef, a specialty food store in the Warehouse District. While you’re there, you may want to cross the street and explore Casa de Arte, a Mexican restaurant that is also an art gallery. 

Taste Bud Cartwheels
Ever since arriving in Peoria, my taste buds have been turning cartwheels whenever I visit the North Valley. My order is inevitably the same: tamales and tacos at Panaderia Ortiz Bakery. In the summer, the Spring Market, located a stone’s throw away at the intersection of Spring and Monroe, also sells authentic Mexican foods and produce on Saturdays.

Local dishes from around Peoria

Blink and You’ll Miss It…
Masala Cafe
is a small but well-known food establishment serving some of the best Indian fare locally. The authentic flavors of biryani, vegetable and meat curries percolate and draw one’s senses to the all-you-can-eat buffet. A veritable smorgasbord, these most incredible flavor profiles capture your senses in one fell swoop. The cafe is located centrally along N. Knoxville at E. Briarwood Ct. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it while driving by!

Sweets and Treats
When thinking of sweets and treats, sugar-laden desserts come to mind. What was astonishing to discover was that Palarte Mexican Ice Cream does not add sugar to their uniquely flavored frozen desserts. Inconspicuously located at Metro Centre, you’ll definitely want to check out their low-carb and keto ice cream offerings. 

Craft drinks

Craft Brews and Drinks
For the size of our small city, it is impressive to learn about the number of craft breweries, bars and distilleries offering handcrafted beverages that compete on a national level. Crafted DIY Studio and Bar is one such location in the Warehouse District on SW Adams. Among their must-have drinks are the authentic old fashioneds, mojitos and smoky palomas.

There is so much more of Greater Peoria’s food and dining scene to discover! You can join me on my food adventures on Instagram at @andrewnguiPM

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