Fast food doesn't have to be unhealthy. Local restaurant owner, Rick Lau, proves this every week, Monday through Saturday at Cactus Grill, where he has been the hard-working leader of this well-run, locally owned, fast-food gem since February 2009. The restaurant's slogan, "Faster than fast food...Healthier than fast food" is correct on all accounts, as the very reasonably priced meals are made quickly with freshly prepared proteins, vegetables, and sauces.
Cactus Grill offers made-to-order Southwestern style burritos and bowls, taco salads served in crunchy flour tortilla bowls, corn and flour tacos, loaded nachos, and quesadillas prepared in an assembly-line manner. Customers simply choose which item they would like and the employee creates it right in front of them. The same fast-casual burrito concept has been successfully streamlined by some national chains, but, personally, I prefer the variety and quality of the food offered at Cactus Grill to its bigger, more renown competitors. Craving the spicy salsa, I decided to take my (very picky) teenage son along with me to try to get him to eat something that I liked, for a change.
There are are a number of reasons I choose Cactus Grill over its competitors. For starters, they have a great location: conveniently located just off campus on the west side of Neil street in the bustling mini strip mall that also houses a Subway and an Espresso Royale. I also really like that they are locally owned, and the owner, Rick, is always there, working alongside his employees. But most of all, I like the food. Everything at Cactus Grill is always fresh and the flavors are unique. I especially like the tofu, which is the best in town, in my opinion. I don't eat meat, so this is a huge factor for me. They also give a very generous serving of these perfectly seasoned, fried tofu cubes with each order. On this recent visit, Rick recognized me, asked if I was having tofu, then told the cooks to prepare a fresh batch. He did not want to serve what he had on the steam table. After frying up some nice sized cubes of tofu and lightly tossing them in a zesty chipotle sauce, the cook replaced the steam table pan with fresh tofu and discarded the old stuff. The couple minutes I had to wait was unusual, as they are always busy and well-prepared to service customers very quickly, but I didn't mind the short wait for the freshly made tofu one bit. I ordered a burrito bowl ($7.05), and chose to forgo the warm flour tortilla which they offer on the side.
When building my burrito bowl, I was given the choice of slow cooked beans and rice: either black or pinto beans, and lime cilantro, or Spanish rice. I choose both of each. After filling the bowl with rice and beans, the cook mounded chunks of the freshly prepared tofu on top then quickly moved to the veggies. I choose all of them. I appreciate that the romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and white onions are always hand-chopped and prepared fresh in-house, as opposed to being pre-cut, bagged, and processed from who-knows-where. I skipped the cheese and sour cream, but asked for plenty of both of the delicious house-made salsas, hot and mild.
My son ordered a chicken quesadilla, which is a bargain for $4.95. Cactus Grill offers two styles of chicken: honey grilled and chicken chipotle. Besides tofu and the two types of chicken, they also feature steak chipotle, breaded fish filets, and "just the veggies," which is grilled bell peppers and onions. The large, golden brown, grilled quesadilla came cut into four wedges and was served with a choice of two sides (sour cream, guacamole, hot or mild salsa). My finicky son loved the quesadilla; he devoured it, saying the chicken was very moist and full of flavor. Stuffed with just the right amount of cheddar and jack cheese and freshly grilled chicken, the quesadilla was a very satisfying and affordable meal.
We also ordered some freshly made chips and guacamole ($3.40). The lightly salted chips are made in small batches throughout the day and kept under a heat lamp, so they are always crispy and delicious. The guacamole is filled with chunks of crunchy onions and fresh tomatoes, and seasoned with only a hint of cilantro. Perfect. We washed our meals down with glass bottles of Sprecher Rootbeer and Jarritos Mandarin soda from the self-serve beverage cooler. The meal was satisfying, fresh, and affordable. We both left with our bellies full and smiles on our faces.
If you're looking for decor and ambiance, then you might be a bit disappointed, but the place is not without its charm. It's always clean and welcoming, and the corrugated steel and kitschy signs make for a pleasant backdrop. Although there are no tables, customers can sit on stools at a counter looking out the front window, which is what we did on our visit. Sure, it would be nice to have some tables and chairs, but Cactus Grill is not a place to hang out and drink margaritas; it's a well-run, quick and healthy option to the usual fast food fare. If you are in a hurry and want something healthy and substantial, stop on in. For a real bargain, choose the $5.45 daily special; no matter what you order, you will be served great food very quickly. Can't make it to that side of town? They are also delivery specialists offering online ordering through all the local platforms.
Cactus Grill is located at 1405 S Neil St, Champaign, and is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.