Carried away: Great local takeout and where to enjoy it outside

La Mexicana at Muddy Creek Preserve — Zak Neumann/Little Village

During the lockdown portion of the COVID-19 pandemic, our family took the opportunity to dive much deeper into two of our interests: exploring nature and eating takeout. The marriage of these two activities can go wrong easily—a soggy, sloppy sandwich in a poorly balanced Styrofoam container spilling onto your jeans in the great outdoors can bum out even the most rugged of us. After a fair bit of trial and error, here are some recommended pairings of local takeout and prime eatin’ spots for your picnicking pleasure.

What to eat

Oasis Falafel

206 N Linn St, Iowa City
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Call ahead to Oasis Falafel and put in an order for pick up. There is a sauciness and a gloopy-ness to their food that you may not think would lend itself to takeout, but there are secrets. If you get a sandwich, sub out the Mediterranean salad for the less juicy tabouleh to preserve the integrity of the pita as it bounces in its foil package on the hike. Get the juicy stuff on the side—the combination of tahini and hot sauce is imperative but best saved for application immediately before consumption. A bag of fries ages like fine wine in those paper bags.

Where to go

Frytown Conservation Area

2198 Angle Rd SW, Kalona

Head south on Gilbert Street and west out of Iowa City along Highway 1. About halfway to Kalona keep your eye out for Frytown Nature Preserve on the west side of the road. Head down the main path, up and over the hills. Frytown is a great spot in the spring for wildflowers such as wild geranium and trillium, as well as tree frogs and snakes. If you stay on the wide main path (impeccably maintained by your friends at Johnson County Conservation), you will come to an old bridge over the creek. This will be an excellent spot to unwrap your sandwiches, dip your fries in the lingering detritus and enjoy the swaying branches of the big maples hanging overhead.

La Mexicana at Muddy Creek Preserve — Zak Neumann/Little Village

What to eat

La Mexicana Grocery y Taqueria

1701 2nd St, Coralville

Located off of the strip just before the turn-off to Coral Ridge Mall, La Mexicana Grocery y Taqueria is a stellar new choice for anyone looking for good Mexican food. You can make the straightforward decision and go with burritos or quesadillas—always strong travelers—or you can get a bit wild and get some birria or sopes! Make sure to try all of their excellent salsas and grab some Sidral Mundet from the cooler to wash it all down. While you’re waiting for your food, wander the aisles of the grocery and you’ll realize that you’ve been buying ingredients for Mexican food in the wrong places; La Mexicana’s king.

Where to go

Muddy Creek Preserve

2806 Muddy Creek Ln, Coralville

A nature preserve tucked behind a housing development? O, Coralville! The good people at Bur Oak Land Trust maintain a 40-acre property by the name of Muddy Creek Preserve, but you have to travel through the maze of culs-de-sacs to find it. Once there, you can throw your backpack full of food from La Mexicana over your shoulder and hike above or into the steep ravines of the area. Don’t be surprised if you flush out a group of wild turkeys while you’re there. Find a spot high on the bluff and pick your view to enjoy: the huge oak trees and creek to one side, or the trampoline-filled backyards of the tract homes on the other.

Maggie’s Farm Pizza — Zak Neumann/Little Village

What to eat

Maggie’s Farm Wood-Fired Pizza

1308 Melrose Ave, Iowa City
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Let’s give a big shoutout to Maggie’s Farm for providing a straightforward, no-contact pick-up option throughout the pandemic. You pull up in the back parking lot, walk up to the door, and grab your pizza from a rack in the entryway. Granted the infrastructure that happened to be in place made this a clear option, but it was disheartening to see how many places seemed to put so little thought into this throughout the pandemic. On top of their praiseworthy set-up, their pizzas are exactly what you want in a wood-fired pie: a chewy crust that doesn’t get bogged down with stuff. The lemon dressing on their salads deserves a chef’s kiss as well.

Where to go

Redbird Farms Wildlife Management Area

Black Diamond Rd, Oxford

Carrying a pizza box waiter-style through the woods doesn’t seem like the easiest option, but if you head west out of town to Redbird Farms Wildlife Area, you’ll find easy paths with quick access to a couple small ponds that make excellent picnic spots. After your light, satisfying meal from Maggie’s, you’ll have the opportunity to traipse through the underbrush in the woods. If you get there at the right time in the spring, there are masses of trout lily and bloodroot that are worth the trip alone.

Antejitos Carmen, Columbus Junction — Frankie Schneckloth/Little Village

What to eat

Antejitos Carmen

207 Main St, Columbus Junction
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If you’re looking to go a little further afield, another excellent Mexican place lies just 30 minutes south of Iowa City in Columbus Junction. You can find Antejitos Carmen on the main drag. This beloved Los Angeles institution moved to the Midwest and brought their incredible SoCal Mexican stylings with them. The chicken al ajillo is highly recommended, and the inclusion of cactus in many items is a welcome touch. The crown jewel of this place is the dry salsa—a spicy, garlicky blend that imparts a totally unique flavor to their food. As an added bonus, it doesn’t leak so it is an excellent takeout option!

Where to go

Chinkapin Bluffs

Recreation Area
14198 R Ave, Columbus Junction

Take an order from Antejitos just outside of town to Chinkapin Bluffs Recreation Area. This Louisa County Conservation area provides beautiful views of the Iowa River just downstream of its confluence with the Cedar. Off the main parking area there are plenty of tables and a nice little platform overlooking the Iowa River that is filled with the almost sickly sweet smell of honeysuckle at the right time of year. To balance the sweetness, douse your meal with plenty of the dry salsa.

What to eat


921 Blairs Ferry Rd NE #150, Cedar Rapids
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I was pleased to discover this Mumbai street food-style Indian restaurant in Cedar Rapids recently! Their menu offers a slew of intriguing options, but some are better suited to travel than others. Their wraps and sandwiches are especially excellent. Although I’m normally not a fan of portmanteaus on menus, I can say that I wholeheartedly recommend the Currito—housemade paratha bread filled with your choice of chicken, paneer or vegetable curry and toppings. If you don’t mind finding a spot to sit when you get to the Ennis Preserve, the Curry Noodles are worth it. They’re dressed with a buttery masala sauce, but offer a more interesting treat for the palate.

J. Harold Ennis Preserve, Mt Vernon — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Where to go

J. Harold Ennis Preserve

565 Cedar River Rd, Mt Vernon

The J. Harold Ennis Preserve is located between Solon and Mt Vernon, right across the Cedar River from the more oft-trod Palisades-Kepler State Park. It offers a trail up into the woods, then a steep drop to the rocky cliffs along the river. The derecho did a number on this place, but the kind folks at Linn County Conservation have done a nice job making it accessible again. On a winter trip, our family was treated to an extended visit with a fox who, rather than outright disappearing like many of their kind, walked along a ridge opposite to us for nearly a half hour. Thanks, fox!

Will Kapp is the author of 20 Places to Hike within 50 Miles of Iowa City, a hiking guide that attempts to challenge the assumption that anything outside of town is a CAFO or a cornfield. Find remaining copies at White Rabbit and Prairie Lights while they last.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.