Intermezzo Café, located in the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, serves breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner on nights of selected performances. Everything about this eatery is easy, save for the decision-making process: the menu options are clear, the ordering is straightforward, and your food is prepared well and quickly.
I had lunch at Intermezzo last week. I usually avoid anything on or near campus during the week, as parking is a nightmare, and I genuinely fear the possibility of unwittingly perpetrating vehicular manslaughter. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to head out to the Urbana side of the University of Illinois campus. Lucky for me, KCPA is on the edge of campus, thus making it easy for eastbound travellers to avoid driving through campus. For westbound travellers — all you Urbana folk — getting to KCPA is easy peasy, lemon squeezy. The other brilliant thing about visiting Intermezzo for lunch is that there is generally an ample amount of metered parking around the monstrous building, and there is an underground parking garage (accessible from Oregon Street).
With my meter paid up, I entered the massive, dimly lit KCPA lobby and after adjusting to the lighting, located Intermezzo on the north side of the lobby. I passed by a sizeable group of people sitting in and around Stage 5 (a stage set up in the lobby for various events), and as I got closer to Intermezzo, realized I should turn around and claim a table. The seating directly in front of Intermezzo was completely occupied. I was surprised by this; I’m not sure why, but there were plenty of tables available near Stage 5, so I had no problem finding somewhere to plop.
I had entered the building through the west doors, and had a long enough walk to take notice of the variety of people sitting and eating. There were students of all sorts, some looked like undergrads, some like grads. There were grown-ups: campus professionals who were clearly not students, but instead University employees looking for a good lunch, or with colleagues working through lunch. It was a nice variety of people, and seemed to more genuinely reflect the diverse community we have in C-U.
When I (finally) made it to Intermezzo, I stopped to view the menu board, which prominently and clearly displayed the lunch options. This was located several steps away from the start of the line (of which there was none when I approached), thereby avoiding a cluster of indecisive people (usually me) clogging the way for those who know what they want.
There were a variety of acceptable lunch items on the menu, including black bean and veggies burgers, a wide variety of sandwiches, including a veggie sandwich, soups, salads, soup and salad combos, and daily specials. They also had some cakes and other sweet items. There were eight specials the day I visited; I was particularly excited about the tamales with red beans and rice and in pointing emphatically at the listing, ended up pushing the menu board, which I quickly learned is suspended from the ceiling and will swing back and forth if you push it. (To the other people trying to read the menu as I pressed my selection, my apologies.) So when you visit Intermezzo, you may want avoid the very millennial action of pushing your menu selection; it is not actually a screen, and you must order from real people.
Several people were behind the counter, ready and willing to take my order. I ordered the tamales special, which came with a fountain beverage. I thought about ordering the cakes — the red velvet looked awesome — but decided against it. By the time I got my soda and paid for my meal, ($7.34, with tax), my plate of tamales were ready at the pick up window.
The tamales were topped with a salsa verde, and served with red beans and rice on the side. The clear plate on which the food was served was a lovely aesthetic decision, and not only made the neutral, cream-toned tamales appear incredibly appealing, but also enhanced the contrast level of the foods on the plate. I took my plate and my soda to my seat, and went for it.
For those of you unfamiliar with tamales, or in need of brush up on a south-of-the-border dishes, tamales are made of masa, which literally means dough in Spanish, but is commonly used to refer to the corn- or hominy- based dough found in many Meso- or Latin American food applications. (Tortillas, for instance, can be made of corn flour.) This dough is stuffed with stuff ranging from vegetarian ingredients, to meat, to sweet dried fruits and sugar. The filling and dough are then wrapped in cornhusks, or plantain or banana leaves, and steamed until cooked to firm.
Red beans and rice, though, is not exactly a Meso- or Latin American dish, even though you’re bound to find some iteration of rice and beans in every cuisine. Around these parts, they’re typically associated with Cajun or Creole cooking—the food of New Orleans. The flavor profile for Cajun red beans and rice is similar to flavors you’d find in other Mexican or Latin American dishes, save for Andouille sausage. On paper, it was a weird mash up, these tamales and red beans and rice, but not an unfamiliar or strange combination of ingredients. I didn’t think about it too much.
The red beans and rice took up nearly half of my plate—the portion was more than needed and very generous. In fact, the entire plate was heaping, and I received more food than expected. There were two tamales — stuffed with panela cheese and roasted poblano peppers — buried underneath a high pile of salsa verde. The salsa contained some mild peppers and onions, green chilies, and pickled onions. There was plenty of it to be able to incorporate some into each bite, and I immediately spread the pile across the top surfaces of my tamales. The tamales were hot (in temperature), and upon biting into the soft, grainy dough, I met the soft, grainy texture of the panela cheese. Panela is a mild cheese, much like a paneer or mozzarella, all of which aren’t exactly the best for melty cheese dishes. The panela mimicked the texture of the masa: it was mild and creamy, a little gritty and grainy. It then became an ideal vehicle for the roasted poblano peppers and corn that were in the filling, and absorbed some of the smokiness of the roasted peppers. The few corn kernels that were mixed into the filling were whole, and provided a sweet crunch.
The salsa verde was incredibly mild and served a bit cold, which was fine, but did lower the temperature of the tamales just slightly. The components were left in large slices, and properly de-seeded, thank goodness. The tang of vinegar was a welcome acidic sharpness that cut through the dense, creaminess of the masa and the cheese. The sweet bite of raw, red onions also helped balance out flavors and textures, but didn’t overwhelm the dish.
The massive pile of red beans and rice were also hot (in temperature). It’s often a gamble with rice and bean dishes, as the simplicity of ingredients are deceptive in the level of difficulty required to cook them well. This combo of rice and beans was a little on the mushy side, but they weren’t waterlogged or cooked down to disgusting grit. The rice grains and beans maintained their integrity, and became just mushy enough to create a starchy glue that held it all together. This side dish was well seasoned, too, and not at all too salty. There were some nice flavors, but nothing spicy or overpowering.
I am, as some parents might say about their kid, a ‘good’ eater. (I believe as an adult it just means that one lacks some self-control.) Despite my usual ability to clean my plate, Intermezzo managed to serve me more food than I could handle. At $7.34, I feel like I definitely got my money’s worth. In fact, I was stuffed all afternoon and managed to make it to dinnertime without any snacks. That, my friends, is impressive.
I’d like to take this moment to remind myself (and you) of the definition of Intermezzo:
noun: intermezzo; plural noun: intermezzi; plural noun: intermezzos
1. a short connecting instrumental movement in an opera or other musical work.
I think each person is entitled to an intermission daily. Consider your lunch at Intermezzo the movement that connects your morning to your afternoon. If you’re in and around the U of I campus, take your intermezzo at Intermezzo. I’m quite sure you’ll be satisfied.
Intermezzo Café is located inside the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, 500 South Goodwin Avenue, Urbana. It’s open Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For additional photos, follow Jess on Twitter and Instagram @epicureanjess.