When I went vegetarian over a decade ago, I re-discovered Mexican cuisine. As a broke college student, I didn’t know how to cook properly for myself, so my veggie dishes were bland, boring, or just turned into cereal. Going out for tacos became a welcome treat, and even though I think I’ve learned to cook by now, I still find myself choosing Mexican if I’m in charge of picking date night. Luckily, Champaign-Urbana has lots of restaurants with menus that accommodate the growing trend of dietary restrictions.
Everyone in my life knows that I love Mexican food. I served at my wedding! When we moved to town, Huaraches Moroleon was the top recommended spot. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t make it over until I started working on this article. Feel free to publicly shame me for taking this long.
They have a number of vegetarian options, but I wanted to stay simple and went with the vegetarian tacos dinner ($9.50): three corn tortillas packed with pinto beans, peppers, onions, zucchini, lettuce, and guacamole with beans and rice on the side. The corn tortillas held up to all of the ingredients, and though it’s a simple dish, the veggies are grilled just right and the fresh “salad” on top adds that crunch element. The rice on the side had citrus notes in it, which was unexpected, but the sides were left almost untouched because you have so many tacos. The star of the meal is their trio of salsas that come on the side and with the free chips. I love that tacos are a blank canvas — you can make them vegan (omit the cheese) and can smother each individual one in a salsa verde, smoky sauce, or kick it up with their spiciest sauce.
805 Philo Rd
M-Fr 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sa+Su 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Fiesta Cafe has an extensive list of vegetarian and vegan options on their menu. They were also the one place that did ask if I was “OK” with the cheese and sour cream. A hard part about visiting Fiesta can be picking what to order. I’ve been wanting to try their vegetarian fajitas ($9.95); I like the ability to build and sample as much as possible. The fajitas come out sizzling and with enough accoutrements to feed a small army. This truly is a meal for two: served with warm flour tortillas, rice and beans, and a hot pile of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. The veggies are cooked down enough, but still crisp, and you can start mixing up the salsa, pico, cheese, avocado, sour cream, and lettuce on the side to craft your own creations. Everything was fresh, though the salsa is on the sweeter side. If you’re looking for spice, you might have to ask for extra jalapeno or use a hot sauce to get to that level.
216 S First St
11 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily
El Patio first landed on my radar after a long, summer bike ride and their awesome margarita specials. I had not been back in awhile, and I forgot, the vegetarian selection is the most limiting of the restaurants in this. However their veggie fajita quesadilla ($8.50) with a side of rice and beans is a massive meal for one. A large, golden-brown flour mountain is delivered to your table, oozing white cheese with a buttery array of peppers, onions, broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower. The only way to manage this meal is to create a moat with the beans and rice to keep everything together and add a little extra with each bite. Your brain can trick you into thinking this is healthy because of the vast amount of veggies, but your happy heart and belly will enjoy every rich, flakey, warm bite.
2506 Village Green Pl
M-Th 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4:30 to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
My visit to El Toro was the sleeper hit on this list. I’ve been to the ones in Champaign-Urbana a number of times, and we had one in Bloomington-Normal, so I knew what to expect. Moving away from their vegetarian menu, I discovered a stuffed avocado dish ($8.95). Served with a side of rice and beans, you get an entire avocado, cut in half, grilled until warm, covered with black beans, pico de gallo, and cotija cheese. This meal is just delightful. It’s light. The avocado gets that perfect, ripe consistency from the grilling, and the pico brings a bright blend of heat, acid, and salt.
While there, they had a specialty menu item vegetarian tamales ($9). I don’t see this often, so I had to try. The steamed masa was prepared with care, and it was jam packed with cheese and a spicy pepper. I enjoyed the flavor combination, but was expecting a little more.
2561 W Springfield Ave
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily
I will forever love that Maize uses zucchini squash blossoms as their vegetarian substitute. It’s something different (which I’m always searching for), and the light, delicate flavor means more room for spice. Maize has a solid veggie-taco, but if you’re dining in, get the enchiladas en salsa verde ($12). Three corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and zucchini blossoms coated in a sweet, tangy green sauce. Maize’s rice is fluffy and flavorful, another vessel for the salsa verde. If you want to kick up the heat on these enchiladas, the two salsas paired on the side will do the trick. Like Huaraches, you can add a smoky, chipotle vibe to one enchilada and add a mild, peppery taste to another.
Maize at the Station
100 N Chestnut St
M-Sa 2 to 10 p.m.
Su 2 to 9 p.m.