Sometimes I wish we could perpetually live in a state of fall. Not only does it include the best holiday ever — Halloween — but the colors of the leaves, the smell of harvest, the food (chili and Oktoberfest beer, Amiright?!) all trigger fond memories of years past. Luckily, here in Champaign-Urbana, we have one of the best places to enjoy all things fall: Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch.
I love Curtis Orchard, and because so many other people love it too, the crowds can get sizeable. This is probably my only “con” for this place. Everything else — the scrumptious eats, insanely pleasant staff, and lively adventures one can have at Curtis Orchard — fully embraces the motto, “food, family, fun.” If you want to avoid the crowds try arriving earlier in the morning on the weekends or during a weekday, as they are open 7 days a week when in season. And because they have so many things going on while also having such a great website, I won’t try to list everything here. Go check it out for yourself.
My husband and I decided to stop by on a Saturday morning and check out The Flying Monkey Café for lunch (the Wizard of Oz theme runs throughout). I’ve had many a doughnut and sips of apple cider, but realized I had never eaten at the café. Their menu has a small handful of classics, like pulled pork and chili dogs, that all come with two sides, and all the sweet treats they’re known for, such as fresh baked pies, pumpkin bars and ice cream. While the lunch menu isn’t available until 11 a.m. they are still open before then serving up sweet treats for breakfast. You can see the inner workings of the kitchen and the trays upon trays of cinnamon-sugar apple crisp doughnuts were a sight to behold.
A warm doughnut (.99) and apple fritter ($1.59) were calling our names. Since it was a rather brisk morning we opted for a pumpkin spice latte as well ($2.49), though you can never go wrong with their award winning apple cider: hot, cold or slushed, it’s all good. When you order your doughnut, fritter or slice of pie, be sure to look right behind you for the microwave as the best way to enjoy any of these is if they’re warmed slightly. They’ve made it easy for their guests by posting the time required for each one to be warmed to perfection. So far it was fairly calm and quiet. There were a few families gathered at tables sharing apple cider from a gallon jug and a package of fresh made doughnuts.
We sat at one of the booths to devour our goodies before we started walking around. Their bakery products are made fresh on-site every day. The doughnut is so light and fluffy for a cake doughnut. There’s a glazed and a cinnamon-sugar version of their apple crisp doughnuts. I’ve only ever had the cinnamon-sugar kind and I like that it isn’t overly sweet. And the apple fritter, my goodness, is there anything better than a warm apple fritter? I ended up stealing a few more bites than my husband would have liked. It’s soft, sweet, perfectly glazed and the perfect combination of cinnamon and apple. The pumpkin spice latte was good too. It’s essentially like gas station latte (not in a bad way, I myself don’t mind gas station coffee/cappuccino), there’s a little machine that dispenses the latte and they add a pumpkin spice flavoring. It’s very sweet, but all in all, tasty.
Wanting to indulge in more but knowing we needed to save room for lunch, we headed outside, latte in hand, to meander around. There were goats being fed, ponies being ridden, little munchkins sliding down a giant inflatable slide. Luckily they have an activities map posted online and there on-site. If you want to get to the pumpkins and apple picking you have to go inside through the general store and out the back door. There are oodles of decorative gourds, squash and mini pumpkins just outside the doors. Also outside under the giant Chief Kesis statue (you can’t miss it!) are giant pumpkins galore. Be sure to grab a Radio Flyer wagon and load up. Pumpkins are $0.42/lb, and they’ll weigh them inside the store. Unfortunately we don’t buy many pumpkins anymore because of the insane squirrels in our neighborhood that never cease to descend upon and devour as soon as we set them out. (Anyone have any tips to keep them at bay?)
Alas, it was finally lunchtime and we headed inside to the café where there was already a small line forming. They have everything set up cafeteria style so the line moves pretty quickly. I had my heart set on a chili dog but once I approached the counter I saw a sign for the chili mac special that day. I ordered a cup as opposed to the bowl ($6.99 vs $7.99) and chose two sides (au gratin potatoes and cornbread). My husband ordered Italian beef ($9.99) and chose his two sides (cornbread and mac 'n cheese). At first, we thought the prices seemed pretty steep but there are two sides included and the portions are fair. Plus it is, as their sign states, “country cookin’ done right.”
The chili mac was probably some of the best I’ve had. Not only is their chili pretty famous on its own, but the mac 'n cheese is done well too. I love a bean-heavy chili and it wasn’t too spicy either. There’s great flavor and nice chunks of tomatoes and beef. The mac 'n cheese used classic elbow macaroni and was the perfect thick and creamy consistency. There’s butter and their award winning honey up on the counter before you get to the register so don’t forget to slather your thick slice of cornbread as you’re moving through the line. The honey is divine but the cornbread wasn’t as sweet on its own like I expected. It was also a bit crumbly. The potatoes in the gratin were cooked perfectly though it could’ve used more salt as it wasn’t overly flavorful, but there was plenty of cheese and creaminess.
The café boasts using their own spice blend for the Italian beef and whatever it is, it’s working. Very flavorful, the meat was cooked well — sometimes if it’s overcooked it can turn to mush. It was moist but not so juicy that it turns the bun to a soggy mess. A very big sandwich with great flavor, I can see why it’s a local favorite. As much as I wanted to try some ice cream or maybe a pumpkin bar, we were both stuffed. We decided to use it as another excuse to get back out there before the season end. The Flying Monkey Café menu is listed on the website.
As our only take-away, we decided to go the healthy route and grab a bag of honey crisp apples. You can choose to pick apples yourself or choose from a wide variety (again check the website to see what varieties are currently in season) and size already bagged in the general store. Our 3 lb. bag cost $8.99. I can’t wait to gobble them up and go back for more…..maybe grab some kettle corn next time too! Grand total was $35.46. You have until October 29th to enjoy the café and December 20th for everything else they have to offer. It's the perfect time to grab some gifts for the holidays too!
Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch is located at 3902 South Duncan Road and open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 pm. (July 20 —October 31); Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (November 1 — December 20).
All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.