Smile Politely

Cheap eats in Champaign: $10 restaurant meals

Beef bulgogi lunch special with white rice and a simple cabbage salad from San Maru in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

If you like overpriced food, go read something else. This is a round-up of deals. Lunch can be expensive, but I found six tasty meals for less than $10 that taste good and aren’t served by a chain restaurant. I’ve written about cheap eats in Champaign-Urbana before (check out my list from May 2023, 2022, and 2021), and this list adds even more options.

For Champaign restaurant meals that won’t break the bank, eat hot honey wings in Downtown Champaign, a monster burrito, a Korean lunch special, a trio of empanadas, a barbecue sandwich, and a meal that comes on two plates.

A burrito from Cactus Grill with honey chicken, orange rice, onions, tomato, lettuce, and cheese in a flour tortilla wrapped with tin foil in a white paper basket.
Alyssa Buckley

$9.38 Honey Chicken Burrito ︱ Cactus Grill

Last Monday at Cactus Grill, I ordered the honey chicken burrito ($9.38), which is on special Mondays and Saturdays. Contained in tin foil, the monster burrito filled the entire paper basket. Burritos here come with a choice of protein (honey chicken, chipotle chicken, chipotle steak, vegan tofu, fish, or veggies), rice (white or Spanish), beans (black or pinto), and freebies (lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, salsa, sour cream). I ordered mine with honey grilled chicken, Spanish rice, no beans, no sour cream. My burrito’s tortilla was warm, thin, and super soft, and the toppings tasted fresh. My favorite part was the chopped chicken. With a savory flavor and a little bit of sweet, the honey grilled chicken is totally unique to Cactus Grill. It doesn’t matter what it’s in — a burrito, taco, nachos, or quesadilla — that delicious honey grilled chicken always hits.

The fast casual restaurant has a cooler of soda and juice by the register. Though most people take food to go, there are seats for dine in. Cactus Grill’s windows have a nice view of Neil Street traffic and occasional trains — and the barstools are perfect for eavesdropping on what people like in their burritos. In the same plaza as Espresso Royale and Ye Olde Doughnut with the parking lot I hate, Cactus can be busy at lunchtime (especially on Thursdays for the most popular special: chicken quesadilla and chicken taco), but it’s worth the wait.

Cactus Grill
1405 S Neil St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Three empanadas from The Empanada House in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

$9 Trio of Empanadas ︱ The Empanadas House

We’ve got a few places to eat empanadas in C-U but only one biz in town called The Empanadas House. The Argentinian restaurant serves deep-fried empanadas in Campustown from lunch until midnight. Last week, I ordered three empanadas: chicken ($3), beef ($3), and barbecue pork ($3) for dine-in. Just by looking at them, I couldn’t tell which empanada was which, but it was clear after a bite. Packed with pulled chicken and a sparing amount of onions and peppers, the chicken empanada was simple, and I liked the flavors. The beef empanada had crumbled, oily beef with minced onions, and it tasted like a deep-fried ground beef taco. The barbecue pork had very saucy pulled pork; I wasn’t crazy about how dominating the sweet sauce was, but my husband said it was his favorite.

All three empanadas had a blistered, bubbled texture like a crab rangoon, and because the wrapper was so thick, it had a crunchy exterior and bready soft interior. The hot sauce was a nice dip for the chicken and beef empanadas, but the ranch was weak. There are ten empanadas options: chicken, barbecue chicken, beef, ham and cheese, Bombay hot, spinach and feta, barbecue pork, spicy beef, spicy chicken, and cheese cake. The restaurant shares space with Jurassic Grill restaurant on Green Street and also a food truck.

The Empanadas House
404 E Green St
11 a.m. to 11:45 p.m., daily

Two barbecue sandwiches from Lil Porgy's in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

$7.50 Barbecue Sandwich Meals ︱ Lil Porgy’s

On a barbecue date at Lil Porgy’s, I ordered a pork sandwich ($7.50), and my husband had the beef brisket sandwich ($7.50), both served on a soft, seeded buns. The barbecue pork sandwich was a little different than other versions in that the meat was sliced rather than pulled. The pork tasted smoky, and Li’l Porgy’s delicious, iconic sauce made these sandwiches taste so good. We both had the mixed (half hot sauce, half mild), and it had a wonderful kick. I really love the flavor of this sauce; there’s nothing else like it. I get the Li’l Porgy’s hype.

The fries were nothing special, but they were pretty tasty — and free with the sandwich. The small barbecue joint on Springfield Avenue has plenty of seating for dine in, and their menu board boasts some of the cheapest prices in town. These sandos aren’t just a lunch deal or a daily special; it’s always that price.

Li’l Porgy’s Bar-B-Q
1917 W Springfield Ave
11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily 

A #1 Breakfast Combo at Merry Ann's Diner in Champaign, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

$9.99 #1 Breakfast Combo ︱ Merry Ann’s Diner

After a late night, I ordered the #1 breakfast combination at Merry Ann’s Diner ($9.99). The combo had two eggs, hashbrowns, and a choice of sausage links, patties, bacon, or ham, and a side plate of toast. The diner makes eggs any way; I asked for mine fried, over easy, and they nailed it. The yolk gushed into the hashbrowns and glazed the bacon making a delicious brekkie mess. Two pieces of bread were slightly toasted and sliced on the diagonal for easy nibbling. The bacon strips were delicious, and the portion was too big for me to finish it all.

Merry Ann’s menu offers more than breakfast, and if I’m not getting eggs and bacon, I go for the $8 burger and fries. The diner’s classics are served hot and quick on real plates with real silverware. It’s my go-to when hungover because the servers aren’t chatty and pajamas are allowed. Unlimited coffee refills and carbs can fix most problems I think, and now that the diner is back to being open 24/7, we can eat a cheap meal any time of day.

Merry Ann’s Diner
1510 S Neil St
all 24 hours, daily

A basket of wings sauced with hot honey, fries, and a dinner roll.
Alyssa Buckley

$10 Hot Honey Wing Basket ︱ Neil St Blues

At Downtown Champaign’s Southern-cuisine restaurant, I ordered the Wednesday wing basket ($10). Neil St. Blues‘ lunch special had three jumbo fried chicken wings (naked or sauced) plus a choice of side and a dinner roll. I chose hot honey for my sauce, and not only were the wings tossed in sauce, it looked like the kitchen drizzled even more on top, too. With drums and flats attached, these chicken wings were big, battered, saucy wings that served a total flavor experience. The first wing tasted super spicy; the hot sauce stung all over my mouth. Spiciness lingering from the first wing, I could taste more of the juicy chicken on the second, but it was still a spicy bite. But the third wing flipped the balance; hot sauce flavor faded and sweet honey prevailed. The sauce was so sticky that napkins were useless, but thankfully, it was finger-licking good.

The meat easily came off the bones, and though the wings were doused in hot honey, the thick batter remained crunchy. I love Neil St. Blues’ fries; the potato sticks have a crispy, bumpy texture on the outside with soft pillowy potato inside. The fries tasted awesome with that hot honey drip, but the wing deal doesn’t have to come with fries. The special includes any of the Southern restaurant‘s sides including gumbo, collard greens, and a side of spaghetti, and it’s only available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays for dine in.

Neil St. Blues
301 N Neil St
T-Th 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A white plate with beef bulgogi, white rice, and a simple salad with an orange dressing on a black table at San Maru in Champaign.
Alyssa Buckley

$9.99 Meat and Rice Lunch Special ︱ San Maru

Everyday for lunch, San Maru has lunch specials, but not all of them cost under $10. I ordered the beef bulgogi and rice lunch special, which was listed under the $9.99 specials. But I realized when the check came, the beef had a $1 upcharge (chicken and pork are $9.99). The beef bulgogi at San Maru is amazing and definitely worth the dollar. Served with a big scoop of white rice, the thinly-sliced peppery beef bursted with great sweet and salty flavors. I loved the little char on the savory-sweet beef. Under the meat, there was slivers of cooked onion and a small serving of japchae glass noodles with a sesame nuttiness. The steamed rice was good, and the side salad of raw cabbage with an orange sour-sweet dressing was alright. Obviously not the draw of the plate, it gave a cold contrast to the hot elements of the plate.

When I was halfway through my plate, a server brought kimchi and pickled radish banchan on a small plate. I love the restaurant’s cool metal cups, and the fact that they serve chopsticks to every diner (and still ask if a fork is preferred). Dining in at San Maru is delicious, and so is the takeout.

San Maru
2504 Village Green Place
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. + 4 to 8:30 p.m.

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