What are the best healthy options if you want to go out to eat in Champaign-Urbana? Generally, it is harder to stay healthy at a sit-down restaurant with their decadent dishes, bread bowls, and irresistible dessert menus, so what healthy options do we have of the grab-n’-go variety? Enter: Cactus Grill.
Cactus Grill is one of those favorite, locally-owned and operated spots that is frequented by locals and students alike. While their business model is nothing new, their quality-to-price ratio is hard to beat; plus, their choose-your-own-adventure way of ordering allows you to craft fairly healthy meals if you wish.
Located right off of Neil Street in the very busy Stadium Business Plaza that houses an Espresso Royale and Subway, you will find Cactus Grill. If you are familiar with Chipotle or Panchero, then you will have a good idea of what Cactus Grill has to offer: a contemporary take on fast food that can offer fast food done in a fairly healthy way.
They offer a myriad of Mexican food options including burritos, burrito bowls, quesadillas, tacos (flour or corn), taco salads, and loaded nachos. Once you decide on your dish, you start by choosing your protein option. They have your classics like chipotle chicken and steak, plus your vegan, vegetarians, and pescatarian options: vegan tofu, veggies, spinach, beans, or fish. The real show stopper, though, is their deliciously tangy and sweet, honey chicken. They advertise it as “world famous” and, after trying it, I get it.
Now that you have your base, it’s time to load up your meal. You start by picking your rice: Spanish rice or cilantro-lime. Next, add some fiber with home-cooked beans: black or pinto. You are free to pick your toppings ranging from crunchy romaine lettuce, shredded cheese, finely chopped tomatoes, and raw onion. Top it off with your choice of sauces include sweet red tomato salsa, tart green tomatillo salsa, sour cream, or chipotle sauce (similar to Subway’s chipotle sauce, if you are familiar). They called one of the salsas “hot” and the other “mild”, but I could not tell which was which. While they both have distinct and delicious flavor profiles, they have a very similar, mild heat. If you prefer your meals spicier, they do have Sriracha available.
Cactus Grill’s defining feature is their daily special menu for an unbelievable value at $5.80:
- Monday and Saturday: chicken burrito (savory chipotle or sweet honey)
- Tuesday: 3 chicken tacos
- Wednesday: chipotle steak burrito
- Thursday: chicken quesadilla & 1 chicken taco
- Friday: fish, tofu, or veggie burrito
It was a hard choice, but ultimately I decided to order a honey chicken burrito because I had heard nothing but good things. The chicken was prepared in the style of honey chicken from a Chinese buffet, but I ended up really enjoying the sweet, smoky taste. It was a new take on a basic chicken burrito. As a bonus, the chicken burrito was the special of the day (Mondays and Saturdays) and was a real steal at $5.80 (normally $7.30 + $0.50 for steak). I opted for the cilantro-lime rice and black beans, lettuce, tomato, and onions. I skipped the dairy (cheese and sour cream), but I have no doubt it would have only enhanced the experience. The burrito was huge and stuffed to the brim. It was exactly what I wanted: The perfect ratio of meat, rice and beans, and toppings. To keep the lunch healthy, I would not suggest eating the whole thing in one sitting. The other half made a delicious lunch the next day.
I also wanted to try the chipotle steak quesadilla grilled crisp with a mix of cheddar and monterey jack cheese. Once again, I was legitimately shocked by the portion size. The huge quesadilla is served cut it into four sizeable slices for an astounding value of $5.80 every day. The quesadilla comes with your choice of two dips: tomato salsa (red), tomatillo salsa (green), sour cream, or guacamole. To keep it healthy, I opted for the salsa pair. While I did like the quesadilla, it is not wildly different from what you can make at home. In this instance, however, the convenience and size greatly outweighed the very minimal cost.
Despite my best efforts, the guacamole was calling my name. I added an order of homemade chips and guac for $3.50. The guacamole was definitely homemade, full of chunks of avocado, tomato, and onion. The chip to guac ratio was a little one-sided with a huge bag of freshly fried chips and a surprisingly small container of guacamole. However, the chips are delicious on their own, so no harm, no foul. In total, my bill was about $16.50 and, for the amount of food I got, that was more than reasonable.
While, overall, I am a fan of Cactus Grill’s offerings, one turn off is the parking situation. This tiny lot is nearly always packed tight. Exiting with my food, the car next to me was so close I could barely open my door. However, do not let a full lot deter you; just park in the adjacent lot at the Hilton Garden Inn and walk over. Alternatively, skip the parking situation altogether and stay home and have Cactus Grill delivered right to your front door with Grubhub. There is no minimum ordering amount and a reasonable $2.99 delivery fee. In my opinion, the delivery option is one of the areas where Cactus Grill has other similar restaurants beat.
In short, I would definitely recommend Cactus Grill for a quick, affordable, and (potentially) health conscience meal option. Still unsure? Take a look at the daily specials menu and plan your first trip soon because really, for those prices, what do you have to lose?
1405 S Neil St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Photos by Madeline Trimble