Smile Politely

Midweek Caribbean

One of the few things I dislike about living in Central Illinois is the lack of a true variety of restaurants. Sure, we have some good Mexican places, a good Chinese food place, Thai food, and now Middle Eastern food, but it has taken some time for these things to take root. I often miss having access to the flavors of the south — the way south, that is. I’m a sucker for anything Caribbean, and it’s often hard to access those flavors unless I make those foods.

At last summer’s Taste of C-U event, I sampled some food from Caribbean Grill. I was pretty impressed with most of the food, but since it’s a catering company without a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant space, I pretty much forgot about it. It does have a take-out window at The Refinery on John Street in Champaign. It’s only open from 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Why Wednesdays? I don’t really know, but I’m very glad that it’s open.

The Refinery is a gym and special events venue on West John Street in Champaign. I won’t indulge my curiosity regarding the combination of a gym and a special events venue, but suffice to say that their entertaining spaces are lovely. Caribbean Grill occupies a very small room within the lobby area; it’s basically an oversized closet. While attending an event at The Refinery a while back, I passed the door, but since it was closed thought that it must open to a juice-bar/kitchenette/cafeteria something-or-other. When I got there last Wednesday, I was pretty surprised by the size of the space and the efficiency with which employees utilized it.

With take-out only options, I chose to stop by around 11:30 a.m., grab some food, and come home and devour it. I arrived a few minutes early — around 11:24, actually — and was totally surprised by the line of people already waiting, which distracted me from the muscle man leaving the gym with his bag of food through the same door I was entering. I was nearly road kill. (He was big.) I got in line behind three other people. I wasn’t the only person to be excited about Caribbean Grill lunch, but I was certainly quieter about it than a woman ahead of me. She was super excited as she ordered her food, super excited as she received her food, and then as she was waiting for her friend, decided she needed to have what her friend was having, too, and got back in line to order more food. That’s pretty serious.

The line didn’t move all that quickly, but it seemed to be because of people ordering slowly and indecisively than from slow service. When I was close enough to catch a glimpse of the closet, noticed that there were three people working to fill the orders. I knew exactly what I wanted when I got to the front of the line: I ordered, I paid ($13.76), and by the time I finished signing the iPad equipped with a Square reader, my bag of food was being handed to me. The line behind me was long, and I was glad I arrived early. I can’t speak to the line length for the duration of the two hours it’s open, but I’d recommend going early. (They’re open until sold out.) Car door to car door, it took me 20 minutes to make it through the line, but it was totally worth it.

The regular menu entrées include jerk chicken ($6.99), BBQ jerk meatballs ($6.99), and a weekly special ($7.99; special have included beef oxtails, curry chicken, brown stew chicken, and jerk fish). Sides are macaroni and cheese, steamed cabbage, rice and peas, and fried plantains (small, $1.29; large, $2.29). Also available are spicy beef patties, BBQ jerk meatballs (6), and jerk chicken (3) for $3.29 each. Pineapple rum cake ($3.29) is the dessert option, and you can wash it all down with island fruit punch or mango sweet tea ($1.99 each). (I tried the fruit punch at last summer’s Taste event, and I’d say skip the punch.)

Last Wednesday the special was curry chicken, which I ordered. It was served with rice and peas (or white rice), a slice of white bread, and one piece of fried plantain. I also ordered a spicy beef patty and a small side of fried plantains. Everything was nicely packaged and I took my bag home.

The first thing I noticed was that the food was still piping hot when I unpacked it. It was at least ten minutes between the time I left Caribbean Grill and the time I unpacked it, so I was a bit surprised—but completely pleased—that it was still so hot. 

I went for the chicken first. It was a beautiful curry-colored yellow ochre, flecked with bright red peppers. The chicken was served with a side of rice and peas. The rice was a dirty brown color — as in dirty, spiced rice. The peas were kidney beans, and were spiced, too. The side dish was incredibly earthy, with strong notes of clove and all spice. It was spicy in a spiced way, that is, not hot, but rather seasoned. I would guess that the spices used for the jerk chicken were also used to flavor the rice. The rice and beans were both well cooked, retaining integrity without being too mushy or too hard.

The curry chicken was comprised of the dark meat: thighs and legs.  The skin was left attached, which allowed for the chicken to be fall-off-the-bone tender and moist. The curry was flavorful and pungent. It was earthy and well balanced, not too sweet or too spicy. There were some potatoes mixed in with the chicken, too, and they were delicious. The soft, fluffy texture of the potatoes paired nicely with the tender chicken meat, and the potato flesh absorbed the flavors of the curry. This chicken was so delicious I couldn’t stop eating it. Together with the rice, this was the best thing I ate in weeks.

I managed to pull myself away from the chicken for a minute to give the beef patty a try. I was a bit skeptical when I saw the perfectly rectangular yellow pastry pocket. It almost looked too perfect, in a way. A cut down the middle revealed a relatively thin filling of beef and aromatic veggies in a thick sauce; I could make out some peppers and onions. The grain of the ground beef was small and was the most undesirable aspect of the patty. The texture of the insides was just a bit too liquidy; I wanted a bit more in the way of substantial components. The flavor of the components quickly erased my dislike of the texture. The pastry was flaky and savory. It wasn’t too thick, thus allowing for an appropriate and desirable ratio of crust to filling. The smell of peppers and onions and earthy spices quickly filled my nose, and as I bit into the patty, my tongue quickly recognized peppers, onions, beef, and heat. The filling was spicy enough to wake me up, but didn’t leave me in need of a glass of milk. However, I really, really enjoy spicy food, so if you’re not into spiciness, you might want to sit this one out.

Please pardon this tangential introduction to the plantains. I am a glutton for plantains. I love them. I’ll eat them any which they can be made, green or yellow, sweet or savory, it makes no difference to me. If you’re not familiar with plantains, they are pretty much big ass bananas. You may have heard of them referred to as plátanos; you may have also heard of tostones, maduros or plantain chips, or had them at Radio Maria or Escobar’s. You can’t eat them raw as you would a banana, so they need to be cooked in some way. Yellow or black plantains are sweet, softer in texture, and can be used in sweet applications. Green plantains are much starchier, harder, and not so sweet. They are often found in savory applications, kind of like a potato. Caribbean Grill’s fried plantains are the best I’ve had in this town. 

When I ordered the small side of fried plantains I was exhibiting restraint (it comes in a large, too). The small came with four pieces of deliciousness. These sweet plantains were fried to golden perfection and were still hot when I finally got to them (after digging into the chicken and the beef patty). They were sweet plantains, and the frying process created this delicious caramelized chewy edge, while leaving the inside of the plantain fluffy and sweet and much like a banana in texture. These were awesome. When you go to Caribbean Grill, please order a side of them. You will not regret it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got my take-out from Caribbean Grill, but whatever expectations I had were exceeded. There are still a few things on the menu I’d like to try (macaroni and cheese and pineapple rum cake, for example), and with weekly specials like brown stew chicken and beef oxtails, I’m pretty sure Caribbean Grill will be my regular Wednesday lunch thing. I encourage you to get your lunch there today between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Today’s special is Jerk Fish (Tilapia), and I’m sure it won’t disappoint.

Caribbean Grill’s Lunch to Go at The Refinery is located at 2302 W John Street, Champaign (parking and entrance in the back). It’s open Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. If you’re interested in having Caribbean Grill cater your next event, check out the catering menu. Cash, Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover accepted.

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