Relishing the smell of spring in the air, I decided to take a trip to our local taste of the Caribbean to get into the season properly. Serving "Authentic Island Cuisine," Caribbean Grill is truly a world apart from other restaurants in the Champaign-Urbana area. Famous for their spicy jerk chicken, Caribbean Grill also serves other comfort food, such as meatballs and mac and cheese, but with a Caribbean flair. Other items on the menu are harder to find around our area, including but not limited to fried plantains, candied yams, and mango sweet tea.
I ordered the Tuesday special, the jerk chicken burrito, with sides of steamed cabbage and candied yams. Those who have read my previous reviews know I tend to make the mistake of eating the spiciest menu item first, so this time I decided to start with the least spicy item: the steamed cabbage (which was a free side with the daily special). The steamed cabbage wasn't the spiciest item I ordered, but it was very well-seasoned, so the heat built up unexpectedly after awhile. However, no amount of surprise spice and heat took away from the wonderful taste and texture of the steamed cabbage, which was still a bit crispy after the steaming process. I appreciated the melt-in-your-mouth carrot chunks and garlic cloves mixed in with the cabbage, as they really helped bring variety to an otherwise unassuming vegetable.
Eager to try something I knew couldn't possibly be spicy, I started in on the candied yams ($1.89 for a small side). Dark brown sauce covered the dark orange yams; one can't help but think of liquid brown sugar when looking at the candied yams. After a few bites, that comparison is very apt. The yams are islands of mild sweetness surrounded by vast pools of sugary sauce. Basically, candied yams should be on the dessert menu, although I'm not going to complain, as the serving size more than satisfied my sweet tooth. Order candied yams for your side if you want dessert, and it's hard to go wrong.
Primed for the main course after eating my vegetables and a surprise dessert, I unwrapped the Tuesday daily special: the jerk chicken burrito ($7.99) which, like all daily specials, are $1 off between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. I took a few bites without adding Jerk Sauce from the small container provided with the meal. Filled with rice, peas, sour cream, Colby-Jack cheese, lettuce, jerk chicken, and pico de gallo, the jerk chicken burrito impressed me. The chicken was tender, the cheese ample, and no ingredients overwhelmed the other in taste or amount. However, I was expecting the burrito to be a bit spicier, considering my past experiences with Caribbean Grill's jerk chicken. Not thinking too much of it, I added half of the rather small container of jerk sauce to the burrito. I then immediately realized where all the spice came from. With eyes watering, I finished the rest of the burrito and the jerk sauce. It was still amazing, though I recommend adding small amounts of jerk sauce to food or risk the consequences.
Wanting to try other areas of the menu, I went back for the jerk meatball meal ($6.99 as a lunch special), fried plantains (free side), and baked mac’n cheese ($1.89 for small side). The centerpiece of the meal, the jerk meatballs, perfectly complimented the beans and rice. The tender, slightly spicy meatballs were balanced by the starchy rice and beans. Meatballs at Caribbean Grill also come with a side of the jerk sauce for those looking for a bit more kick with their entrée. Remember, a little jerk sauce goes a long way, so don’t make the same mistake I did and dump it all on your food at once. Oh, and make sure to spread it out — something I definitely did not forget to do.
I was excited to try fried plantains, a rarity in our area. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, my fired plantains were quite the treat. Not nearly as sweet as banana, fried plantains are a wonderful bit of sweet that won’t overwhelm. Oh, and that wonderful smell of caramelized sugar doesn’t, hurt, either. I recommend a large side of fried plantains, as my small side was gone far too quickly.
Looking at the picture above and wondering if the baked mac and cheese tastes as good as it looks? Yes, it absolutely does taste the way you imagine it to. The mac and cheese is lightly seasoned with pepper, but not so much to overtake the cheesy base. The macaroni and cheese are perfectly proportioned so there’s enough cheese for each piece of macaroni, but not so much that the macaroni is drowning in cheese. Speaking of the cheese, Caribbean Grill somehow manages to bake their mac and cheese just long enough for some of the cheese to crisp up, but for none of it to burn. It was an absolutely wonderful texture and was helped even more by the absence of cheese sauce in this mac’n cheese iteration. I prefer my mac and cheese with visible strands of cheese sticking to my utensils, not dripping as cheese sauce does.
I had never had rum cake ($3.89) before, so I didn't know what to expect. Would it be dry or moist? Sickly sweet or a bit bland? Frosted or unfrosted? Well, I'm glad to report that the rum cake at Caribbean Grill is dense, fairly moist, and only mildly sweet. The outer portion of the cake, where the sauce had a chance to soak in, are the sweetest, but not much more than the interior of the cake. The pecans/walnuts crumbs on top break up the flavor and texture rather nicely. As someone who typically dislikes unfrosted cake, I finished my rum cake very pleased and hungry for more.
Comfortably full, I walked away impressed by Caribbean Grill's restaurant location. Only having experienced their food truck in the past, I wasn't sure how long I'd have to wait, or how expansive their menu would prove to be. I was pleased on both fronts. Those looking for the best times to head to Caribbean Grill should try to make it between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $1 off the daily dpecial, $2 off any jerk meal and a $0.99 signature drink (like the mango sweet tea) with the purchase of a daily dpecial or jerk meal. Next time, I've got my eyes on another slice of tasty rum cake with a side of fried plantains. Well, make that two sides of fried plantains.
2135 S. Neil St
M-Sa 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All photos by Matt Macomber
Read SP's previous review of Caribbean Grill here.