Smile Politely

Natural Gourmet heats up lunch

Natural Gourmet is unassuming. It’s tucked away in a strip mall off of Neil Street, hidden behind the monstrous Biaggi’s building. This natural food store’s deli is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; normal store hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The deli offers a variety of lunch items, including their version of a classic lunch box: a sandwich, chips, fruit, and a cookie. If it only came in a plastic lunchbox featuring some 80s cartoon character, it would be perfect. The lunchbox seems fine and all, but if I’m on a lunch hunt, I’m usually not too interested in a sandwich and a cookie. I want something I can’t make as easily (or well) at home, and Natural Gourmet does Thai food well.

The deli is at the back of the store, across from the bulk items. It’s a little strange at the back of the store; you’re within steps of the employees only-backroom area. The ordering window on your right is small. The wall to the left is covered in local healthy-health conscious-yoga-new age flyers and materials. There is a small two-top table for in-house dining. It’s a little awkward, so I’ve never had lunch there. The menu is perched about the ordering window, which means when the lovely deli person asks if they can help you, you’re caught in a gawking, squinty-eyed upward neck stretch (unless you’re a tall person).

In addition to the regular ole Amurrican lunch choices, Natural Gourmet offers several Thai options. These are the items that customers seek out; I’m almost certain that anyone you ask about Natural Gourmet’s lunch will refer to their Thai selections. I’ve had a few different ones, and the one thing that runs consistently through their Thai lunches is heat.

Let me be clear about this: their Thai foods are spicy. If you are someone who orders your Thai food at a zero, you are probably not going to be pleased with the heat levels in these lunches. If, on the other hand, you order your Thai food at a four or five, you may be pleased that you’ll be able to taste your lunch instead of having your taste buds burned to uselessness.

One of my favorites is the basil beef entrée ($6.99). Ground beef was cooked with Thai basil and chilis and served over a bed of jasmine rice. It was also served with a few pieces of lettuce, which were definitely not substantial enough to be called a salad. These leaves do come in handy, though, when you need a little break from the heat. They act as a nice little palate cleanser. For an extra dollar, I also received a hard-boiled egg.

The beef wasn’t anything special—it seemed like generic, run-of-the-mill grocery store ground beef. The flavors, though, were intense and specific. The spice of hot chilis was undeniable. As soon as I opened the lid, the smell of spiciness hit me in the face. I was then met with the smell of basil, which was pungent and provided a nice floral herbiness to the otherwise spicy-smelling beef. The jasmine rice underneath was sweet and well cooked. The rice wasn’t flavored, which provided a nice respite from the spicy beef. The egg was overcooked, and as you can see in the photo, the yolk was dry and crumbly. In my opinion, the egg is unnecessary, so save your dollar. The food was served piping hot, and even after collecting the food, paying at the register, and driving to my eating location, the food was still hot and fresh and awesome.

On this visit, I also ordered the Thai noodle soup with beef ($7.99). I should point out that I ordered these items to go, which proved to be less than brilliant when trying to eat soup without the stability of a table. The deli folks packaged everything separately: I had a container of broth, a container of noodles, beef, and soup stuff, and a bag of delicates including spinach and bean sprouts. I decided to pour the broth over the rice noodles and sliced beef, and after eating some, had enough room to stir in the spinach and sprouts. The broth was incredible. It was unctuous and rich, spicy, sweet, and salty. The balance of flavors was careful; there was a tangy vinegar finish to the broth, too. The spiciness of the broth was built into the broth—that is, it didn’t taste like chili flakes or spicy seasoning was added at the end. It tasted more like hot chili peppers were used in the initial broth making and had time to infuse flavors and heat into the liquid. None of the broth notes were overpowering, and thus eating it was a delightful and robust experience. The rice noodles were nicely cooked and helped to smooth out the flavors of the broth, and wrap around the soup stuffs and strips of beef. Fried garlic chips were also part of the soup fixings, and they provided a slightly bitter garlic crunch (until they became too soggy from the broth).

The worst part of the soup was the beef, actually. It was basically sliced deli meat, and was not particularly good, but also wasn’t horrible. It was just there, and really only provided a bit of difference in texture. I found its presence to be irrelevant, which was disappointing and annoying, because I paid more for beef. I would have preferred strips of steak. Next time, I’ll try the soup with tofu.

In addition to the lunch offerings, you can also pick up individual bags of Terra chips and other little snackies. There are bottles of seltzer, water, stevia-sweetened sodas, and, of course, kombucha. If you’re grabbing a quick lunch on the go, you’ll have a decent amount of options from which to choose.

The lunches at Natural Gourmet are really good, and more importantly, consistent in taste and quality. Once you’ve had an item, you can know what to expect on your next visit: your food will be flavorful and spicy. I’ve only had one beef basil lunch that wasn’t super spicy, and that was because the chili peppers weren’t all that spicy. If you’re not into the heat, be sure to ask about less spicy options; everyone is super friendly and helpful. The food is undeniably fresh, and clearly handmade. It’s comforting in a home-cooked way, but done with the care and consideration of a restaurant. This is no fast food joint, and you can expect to wait about five to eight minutes for your food, depending on what and how much you order. For the record, it’s totally worth the wait. Lunches are also a little expensive, so this might be a once a week or every ten days if you’re on a budget.

Natural Gourmet doesn’t have any web presence, so it’s difficult to stay up to date on things. From what I can tell, their website hasn’t been updated in just about two years, which means the menu items and prices are inaccurate. They also don’t have a Facebook page, which means that if you’re at all interested in what they have to offer, or simply finding out some more information, you’ll have to go there.

In a forest of South Neil Street fast food, Natural Gourmet offers up fresh, healthy food quickly and well. If you’re sick of brown bagging it, or of eating Arby’s and Taco Bell, drive a bit further down the road and spice up your weekly lunch routine.

Natural Gourmet is located at 2225 South Neil Street,
Champaign. They’re open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The deli is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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