I eat a mostly vegan diet and I live in Urbana, so it goes without saying that I shop at Common Ground Food Co-op. I usually stop in before work for steel cut oatmeal, freshly-brewed free trade coffee, and an occasional sweet treat baked fresh from Pekara Bakery; I also do a good deal of shopping there for produce and specialty food items. They make fantastic hummus and they have a very convenient salad bar. Until recently, though, I had never tried the offerings from the deli. Big mistake. I've been missing out.

Since I don't eat meat or cheese, I have passed over the pizza slices because they are not vegan. Common Ground uses local meats, veggies, and cheeses, though, and offers gluten-free pizza slices, which makes the deli a great stop for a quick bite anytime before 8 p.m.

On a whim I finally asked one of the employees if the deli offers vegan cheese for the pizza. He was extremely friendly and helpful, and he informed me that they do in fact make whole vegan pizzas to order, but they do not offer it by the slice. Perfect! I invited a friend to meet me for dinner and we decided to give the deli a try.

The deli employees were extremely helpful, allowing us time to navigate the menu and make our selections. I had a few questions about whether certain ingredients were vegan or not and they answered them without the annoyed sneer I often get from other places; in fact, when they couldn't answer one of my inquiries about the potato, crimini, and taragon soup, they picked up the phone and called someone in the store to make certain it was vegan.

After a few pressure-free minutes perusing the menu, we decided to order a whole seitan Rueben pizza, made with Daiya brand vegan "mozzarella" and house made seitan ($13.49), which we paired with peach iced tea and a couple salads from the deli cooler. The freshly prepared pizza crust was crispy on the outside and delightfully chewy on the inside, a perfect base for this artisan pizza. The vegan cheese and house made vegan thousand island dressing were creamy and very satisfying, and they played well off the tangy sauerkraut. We both wished they had gone a little heavier on the kraut, but that's a personal preference (next time I'll ask for a little extra and I'm sure they'll accommodate). As spot-on as the crust was, the real star of this pizza was the house made seitan, which made its way into every bite of this wonderful pizza; it was thinly sliced and perfectly spiced, a great alternative to the usual pork products that adorn most pizzas.

We chose two types of slaw (both vegan) to accompany our meal: Asian sesame coleslaw; and orange, fennel, and carrot slaw. The two items paired nicely with our pizza. The Asian sesame coleslaw had a perfect balance between the acidity of the vinegar and the sweetness from organic cane sugar. The black sesame seeds were a nutty compliment to the sesame oil. The cabbage was crunchy and very fresh; I will definitely get this salad again. The orange, fennel, and carrot slaw was a bit too citrus-flavored as the sharp, almost bitter orange overwhelmed the fennel's delicate anise flavor. The finely shredded carrots were a little soggy and perfunctory. This salad could use a sweet note and perhaps a larger sized grated carrot.

We also decided to try one of the BYO (build your own) sandwiches: hummus, avocado, tomato, baby spinach and cucumber on Pekara baked multigrain bread ($6.99). As sandwiches go, this was a quality offering, made with fresh, mostly local ingredients, but it lacked the uniqueness and creative touch of the pizza. Since this was a "BYO" sandwich, the onus for the lack of inspiration fell on us, as we chose its ingredients; next time I think I will try a more unique combination. But the ingredients were all very fresh and high quality, not the usual tasteless tomatoes and limp spinach found at many restaurants. One critique: the sandwich was served a la carte with nothing on the side; I would have liked a crunchy pickle spear along with it. That said, it was a very good sandwich served on fantastic, locally baked bread, and the house made hummus was exceptional. For the price, this sandwich is a great alternative to local sandwich chains, and it was made by attentive staff in virtually no time at all.

I also bought a small cup of the potato, crimini, and taragon soup ($2.99). This soup was fantastic; I can see why it is offered every day. The broth is delicate and full of mushroom flavor, without being salty like many restaurant soups. The potatoes retained their shape until they hit my mouth and instantly dissolved, leaving a hearty, starchy taste. The barley added a nice texture and helped thicken the soup to a perfect consistency.

The deli offers three daily soups, at least one of which is always vegan. One very helpful thing about Common Ground is they list food allergies and ingredients on almost everything, clearly labeling vegan and gluten-free items for shoppers' convenience. 

I had to remind myself that this soup was a self-serve offering from a grocery store salad bar, because it was far superior to many soups I've had at local restaurants. In fact, the entire meal exceeded expectations, surpassing the quality and inspiration of many "sit-down" establishments. Common Ground's deli proved to be an excellent option to traditional dining out, offering top-notch, affordable food in a friendly convenient atmosphere. Sure, it's not a "real" restaurant, complete with servers and bartenders, but it is a cozy place to grab a great meal.

We chose to take a window seat at a counter located inside in the front of the store. There are also tables in front of the store for diners wishing to enjoy the fresh air, and a few tables just outside the door leading into Lincoln Square Mall.

In a town saturated with restaurants, it's easy to overlook a local gem like Common Ground. After all, it's a grocery store, right? Sure, it is, but it's also a socially conscious community gathering place, which offers classes and a local forum for any and all food-related issues. The ready-to-eat items are all made with fresh ingredients, locally produced whenever possible. The staff is always pleasant and attentive and the money spent at Common Ground goes towards perpetuating an important local establishment with an exceptional business model. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous, there are high quality products waiting for you. The deli has hormone-free deli meats for their sandwiches and the store has locally raised meats and locally produced cheeses. They also offer a great selection of wine beer.

Do yourself (and our community) a favor and make Common Ground one of your stops for a quick, casual meal. You will be pleasantly surprised by the convenience, variety and quality offered, and you'll feel good about spending your money in a local business with great social and environmental principles.

Common Ground Food Co-op is located at 300 S Broadway Ave, Urbana, connected to Lincoln Square Mall. The store is open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The deli is open 7 a.m.

All photos by Jim Singer.