By Emily Harrington
I’ve been in touch over the last few years with the executive chef and owner of the Caribbean Grill brand, Mike Harden, to gather information on his truck for our food truck article. This connection led to an invitation for the soft opening of the brick-and-mortar Caribbean Grill over Memorial Day weekend.
Harden has distant relatives from the Caribbean, and he has embraced the culture and the food, he said.
“Food is one of the two great equalizers—with time being the other. No matter who we are, what we have or what we look like, we all get the same 24 hours in a day. We all have to eat to survive. It truly is humbling that people take time to seek out and choose Caribbean Grill for the very thing we all need to sustain life, and we as foodservice professionals choose to spend our time creating that source of energy. To me, that is extremely powerful, and it is not something that we take for granted at Caribbean Grill,” Harden explained.
The small restaurant lives in the Shoppes of Knollwood at 2135 S. Neil St. in Champaign. They’ve occupied the space for a few months, so the operation seemed to be running smoothly by the time of the soft opening. The space offers seats for 32. This occupancy includes outdoor seating at the entrance. High ceilings and warm colors invite you into the space. The walls are decorated with reclaimed wood pallets from the containers that held the new kitchen equipment. Other accent walls feature graffiti art displaying their tropical logo, and another wall with four pictures of ingredients that Harden displays proudly.
“These pictures feature the four main ingredients in our food: thyme, hot peppers, all spice berries and green onion. In some combination, these ingredients are in almost everything we make,” Harden said.
The ingredient pictures lead you to the cashier where you make your selection. The menu consists of Jamaican-inspired food. Jerk chicken, jerk meatballs and jerk portabello mushrooms are the constants—$9-$11. Other daily specials are rotated during the week. Try jerk fish, tacos, brown stew chicken, curry chicken or beef oxtails—$12 to $15. All meals come with a fried plantain and “rice and peas.” Their rice and peas are actually rice with beans. You can choose one or two sides. The sides range from fresh fruit to macaroni and cheese to candied yams. There are jerk chicken salads, vegetarian and gluten-free items available, too. Don’t forget to add a mango sweet tea, or you can add a piece of pineapple rum cake! The tea is $2.49 and a piece of cake is $3.69. Retail sauces and seasonings are also available for sale. You can recreate the Caribbean taste at home with Harden’s spiced creations.
My husband had the jerk chicken with macaroni and cheese. I had the jerk meatballs with macaroni and cheese and fruit. My husband is a meat-on-the-bone-so-spicy-you-sweat type guy. And he LOVED it. Like he wouldn’t stop talking about it. They even threw in the day’s special (ribs) so he could try it. I heard a lot of “this is fire.” And “this is the bomb” type talk. Adjectives I hadn’t heard since high school. He described it as tender and fall-of-the-bone good. My meatballs were moist and delicious. My favorite was the bed of rice and beans. So flavorful. The fried plantain is like a friend banana. It’s a sweet complement to the spice. We each had the salted caramel chocolate chip cookie—fresh and soft (cost a buck).
“We cook with love as an ingredient in all of our recipes, and I really believe it comes across in the food. We take our time to follow traditional methods, and we don’t take any shortcuts. People may not realize it, but some of our dishes take days to fully prepare and hours to actually cook,” Harden said.
The thing is with “jerk” is it is a combo of spices that add a ton of flavor and some definite heat. My husband was sweating, and I had to refill my water (at the convenient self-serve water station). (Even the macaroni and cheese side had a delicious bite to it.) So, if you like flavor and you like some heat—you’ll love the food. No matter what, you’ll love the efficient service, clean atmosphere and kind staff.
The portions were perfectly sized. The concept it fast casual. And, it was fast. Each meal is put in a carry-out arrangement—regardless if you choose to eat in our take out. When your number is called, you pick up at the cashier area. The food comes in sturdy containers—not flimsy Styrofoam. Even the napkins were like cloth and big. They were substantial enough to clean your hands after digging into a messy chicken leg. These are the details I could tell Harden cared about. The details that I think will make the eatery a success.
My only pleading suggestion—a menu for little ones. It would make it a lot easier to bring kids in if they offered blander options for a picky palette. Maybe that will come with time. Fingers crossed.
Regardless if you bring your babes (high chairs are available), try the restaurant out. There’s nothing like it in town, and it’s a welcome addition. They are officially open Tuesday, May 30. Their hours are Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are closed on Sundays.
There are many restaurants that come and go—50 percent I’ve heard go, but I’m confident the unique flavor Caribbean Grill brings to our area will give it staying power in our community.
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie. She left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job in communications so that she could be a 24/7 mom to two busy boys. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Emily usually finds herself engulfed in balls, blue and belly laughs.