Upon entering El Progreso on Bloomington Road in Champaign, one might be taken aback by the lack of air conditioning, but once you venture further inside you will discover that this establishment is actually a hidden gem. The staff behind the counter greet you, and along with the friendly clientele, you quickly feel like welcomed family.
The register is immediately to your right, trimmed with bins of candy and treats. Beyond the register on the west wall is the deli section. The deli is manned by a gentleman with a warm smile, ready to help you with your selection, his thick hands slicing and wrapping meat with expert skill. Wrapping around the perimeter of the store, passing a section of wall displaying every type of dried chile, the produce section is tucked into the back wall. The cozy display offers a beautiful selection of fresh tomatillos, chiles, avocados, and other niche market produce, all of which are reasonably priced.
The freezers on the east wall have an expansive selection of ready-to-cook and hard-to-find items, but what caught my eyes were the large assortment of individually wrapped frozen popsicles. Mango, lime, and vanilla with raisins all looked incredibly tasty during this hot day.
Walking along the aisles, it is hard not to begin filling a shopping basket. Cartons of exotic fruit juices and nectars are available for sangria or desserts. Canned and dried beans line the shelves in excess variety and bags of rice are available along with some specialty Asian items.
The deli is the true heart of the operation, as everything is made on-site. The counter features fresh chorizo for prices comparable to name-brand, grocery store chorizo. Large racks of pork ribs were featured for $2.99 per pound, and ready-to-cook carne al pastor was also $2.99 per pound. If you are looking to pick up carne asada, the deli will slice it and run it through their tenderizer for you. The deli also carries real lard, another hard-to-find item.
I was first introduced to El Progreso by my friends Antonio and Dani Almaraz who frequented the store in search of authentic Mexican supplies. Dani frequently cooks the cuisine of Antonio’s native Mexico, and has found El Progreso to be a wonderful resource for her shopping needs.
Dani has had a difficult time finding banana leaves, “I tried looking in some of the Asian markets, but they didn’t carry them.”* She uses the leaves for wrapping tamales or cooking fish. In addition to the banana leaves (found in the freezer section), El Progreso also carries dried corn husks for thosewho prefer to use those instead.
What often can detour people from a specialty store are the prices, but El Progreso has many incredible values. Dried packages of peppers are available for under $2 per two ounces, and the fresh produce looked lovely and is priced less than most chain grocers. One end cap carries a multitude of ground and whole spice packets. Dani frequently purchases her cinnamon sticks here as they are softer to grind and offer a welcome subtle variance in flavor.
On the weekends El Progreso features cooked carnitas and barbacoa (a traditional Mexican barbeque) in addition to nopales mixed with cheese and pico de gallo. For those interested in cooking their own nopales, cactus leaves are available all week long in the produce section. Also available on the weekends are fresh red and green salsas.
On the exterior of the building, signage advertising a tienda, or taco restaurant, gives the impression one is coming soon. Unfortunately, the presence of a taco restaurant was tried and disbanded a short time ago, but the essence and quality still remains in the deli section of El Progreso.
I highly recommend El Progresso as not only a wonderful shop to add flair and authenticity to your Mexican cooking, but as a welcome resource as a local butcher and spice purveyor.
El Progreso is loacted at 1001 West Bloomington Road, Champaign, and 510 North Cunningham, Urbana. They are open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
*Editor's note: Banana leaves are also available at World Harvest, 519 East University Avenue, Champaign.