> Restaurant Review:. by The Culinary Dervish
Last Updated Feb 20 23:00
:: Thara Thai 02.28.04
Thara Thai may be the new kid on the block, but it is already poised with taste and elegance. With a menu that features more than seventy items, it sure is a promising addition to the culinary scene.

We were warmly greeted by one of the owner on a not so busy late Saturday afternoon. Thai Spring Rolls($3.95) looked alluring and familiar enough to get started. Fresh soft rice wrapper stuffed with noodle, bean sprout, cucumber, bean, lettuce, basil, and mint leaves were accompanied by some home made peanut sauce. The appetizer menu also featured Chicken Satay($5.50), Crab Rangoon($3.95) and dumpling filled with shrimp and crabmeat called "Shumai"($3.95).

The soup and salad section is worth looking into. It has interesting items such as "Neau Numtok"($6.95), medium charcoal broiled tender beef mixed with green onions and "Yum Pla Muk"($6.95) which translates into squid salad. If you are in a fruity mood, try "Som Tum"($5.95), the spicy papaya salad.

I decided to order the Chicken Panang Curry($6.95) after poking through the menu. I was enamored by the cocounut milk served with fresh lime leaves. The perfectly spiced curry arrived promptly and was served with white rice. My culinary partner ordered Shrimp Pad Thai($5.95) which was also delicious. The stir fried rice noodle dish was served with bean sprouts, tofu, egg and green onion.

Well, if you are still not impressed, let's glance over the special seafood section on the menu. These are the slightly priced(yet reasonable) items. The Seafood Pad Ped caught my attention. For $9.95 you are suppose to get mixture of shrimp, calamari, mussel and crab meat stir fried with roasted chili sauce and lemon grass. If you are not into meat or seafood, you don't have that much options. However, among the five purely vegetarian item, the Egg plant with Basil leaves($5.95) looked promising.

From 11-3pm they offer lunch special for $4.75, served with fried rice and egg roll. The only thing I didn't like was the Thai Iced Tea. It had a 'smokey' sweetened taste. However, I enjoyed rest of the meal.

Thara Thai opened its operation at the same spot recently vacated by Bayou Express(for review see below). I am pretty confident that it won't have the same fate as its predecsoor. With a killer menu and great service, it has promise to be the best Thai food place in town.

Thara Thai 912 1/2 Bloomington Road 378-1986.
Mon-Sat 11:00am-9:30PM. Sunday: Noon-9pm. Cash only at the time of the review.

:: Between the Buns at Farren's 02.20.04
An American epiphany, the Burger, from time immemorial have seduced mankind with thickness of meat and agitated the vegetarians with mouth watering flavors. You can also be allured by this delicious treat here in east central Illinois. The destination point is Farren's, downtown champaign.

With a barroom atmosphere Farren's menu features salads, sandwiches, and obviously burgers. I have been there numerous times over the years and never could order anything else. That is the reason I go there and other items are probably as good as the burgers, but I may never find out. The menu greets you with names like 'The Motherload'(mushrooms, bleu cheese), 'The Russell'(mushroom, bleu and jalapeno cheese), 'Green Chile Burger' and few other juicy cheeseburgers. For our harbivore friends they offer the 'Black Bean Burger', which I heard can beat the rear area of its meaty friends. The service was quick despite busy Friday evening hours and the food was outstanding. The grilled burger comes with leafy lettuce, a thick tomato slice and some onions. For an extra dollar you can order some crispy fries.

If you prefer thick, unpressed, non fast food burger, Farren's is the place to be. The price is reasonable and although it is a pub/eatery the atmosphere is different than a typical bar.

:: Upside Down at Milo's 02.05.04
A locally owned 'quaint' establsihment near Lincoln Square Mall, Milo's Restaurant, offers eclectic American experience. The menu features wild mushroom ravioli with pecan beurre blanc, shrimp cakes, apricot stuffed chicken breast and the "Upside Down" Pizza.

Cheese on the bottom, sauce on the top, the crust resembles a pie and it is served in a somewhat upside down fashion. A bowl is placed underneath the pizza and after it is served in the table the bowl is taken out by turning the pizza upside down. Well, I think that does a horrible job explaining this ordeal. If you are curious, don't waste time on reading my diatribe, just go there.

I ordered the rosemary, potato and chicken Pizza. It was a medium sized one for $9. If you are a Pizza aficionado, you will definitely be pleased. Potato on Pizza? Yes, I had the same thought. The taste is as unique as the combination. The piney, sweet taste of rosemary along with strachy potato makes you dream about a mediterranean island. Well, maybe not, but it a was good pizza. My friend tried a thin sliced one that came with goat cheese, pesto and something else that I can't recall now. I stole a slice and it was delicious.

Co-owned by twin sisters along with one of theirs significant other, Milo's is a must try place. The unique menu comes with a nice decor and great service. They like to change the menu seasonally, so you will always find something new.

:: Qdoba, Mexican Grill 01.09.04, 01.07.04
Qdoba, Mexican Grill, which operates more than 100 stores nationwide, is the newest restaurant in Green St. Qdoba's featured items are its Signature Burritos ($4.79 to $5.99). All the Burritos start with with a fairly large flour tortilla and cilantro lime rice. After that you can choose black or pinto beans, topped off with your choice of salsa and cheese or sour cream. The first time I went, I tried the Chicken Mole Burrito($5.49). The friendly staff at the counter allowed me to taste the sauce before ordering. Mole sauce is a dark brown Mexican sauce made from dry chiles, nuts, spices, vegetables, chocolate and seasoning. If you never had Mole sauce in a burrito before, I would suggest to try something else. The burrito was delighful. However the choclaty sweet spicy sauce and chicken combination is little unique. So if you are feeling adventerous, I would say go for it.

Couple days later, I tried something different -- a Grilled Chicken Quesadilla. It was flavorful as the burrito. The portion was more than enough. The price is reasonable. You don't pay much for a huge burrito, which stuffed me completely.

You order at the cafeteria-style counter, and get your own drink($1.29) refills. Although they were busy, I didn't had to wait more than 5 minutes in the line. The meals are assembled in front of you from ingredients that are made in-house.

Qdoba is definitely a casual place with plenty of seatings in both down and upstairs. I don't usually review chains, however as I enjoyed my gastronimic experience at this new Mexican joint, I thought I would write few lines about it. You definitely won't find any 'authentic' Mexican dishes. I even heard people use the term 'Yippe-Tex-Mex' for this sort of establishments. Regardless of their term, there are plenty of delicious items to choose from the menu, and the service beats Taco Hell.

:: Jerusalem, middle eastern cuisine 12.01.03
Jerusalem, located at the heart of campus, is the only purveyor of middle eastern food in chambana. I haven't been exposed to that many other middle eastern establishments, so my frame of reference as a fledgling restaurant critic is pretty narrow in this area. However, I have heard both negative and positive remarks about the place. Personally, this is not a place to die for, but when I am in the mood for something different, Jerusalem is definitely on my list.

Today, I tried the excellent beef and lamb shawarma sandwich served with french fries($5.92 with drink). Sauteed slices of meat come inside a thick pita in a convenient sandwich form, topped with tahini(sesame paste) sauce and tomatoes. If you are not careful, the overloaded pita can commence a messy situation with dripping sauce all over your hand. Just, handle the thing gently. The meat is actually prepared in a spit which is located vertically in front of an open flame. As the meat gets cooked it is turned. Then thin slices of cooked meat is cut and placed in the pocket of a pita bread.

The Iraqi owned place also serves baba ghanoush, falafel sandwich, dinner platter with rice, kaboobs and few other traditional dishes. The restaurant has a self-serve format with comfortable seatings and nonchalant atmosphere. Most of the time they keep their radio tuned to WEFT, which is cool.

:: Sunshine Grocery 09.27.03
Primarily a grocery store, located near Washington and Race in Urbana, Sunshine Grocery is also a purveyor of great tasting Asian food. I moved to a neighborhood close to the store and decided to check out the place. At first it seems like your typical Asian grocery store: fresh produce, frozen and canned foods, convenience foods, baked goods, candies and sometime it is bit of a mystery trip through aisles of unfamiliar items. With three dollars in my pocket (they don't take credit cards), I was about to leave the store. Then suddenly one of my sensory organs alerted me of a product known to mankind as "Egg Roll". I stopped, went back to counter to ask whether this delightful aroma is actually coming from the back of the store. And to my surprise, I discovered that not only egg rolls, they also have fried rice, soups and few other items on their "menu".

I decided to try two chicken egg rolls for $1 each(tax included!). It was crispy, fresh and overloaded with potatoes, vegetables and small pieces of chicken. I am yet to try the other items. The only problem is, you have to call ahead if you would like to taste the entrees. And the number is (217)-384-6668. According to the woman at the counter all I need to do is give her a call and she will make "anything'' I want. It seemed that everything is made fresh to order. I will post my findings as soon as I call her again in few days. They don't have seating arrangements inside the store. However, sometime they have tables and chairs outside when the weather is favorable.

:: Za's Italian Cafe 08.18.03
Za's Italian Cafe is one of the busiest place in Campus Town (Green and Wright) featuring great Pizza, Sandwiches and Pasta at very reasonable price. During lunch it gets little crowded with the student, faculty and university staff. However, most of the time the service is prompt despite the crowd. While the patron waits in the line, he/she can fill out a nice little order form.

There's no mistaking going with one of Za's regular or speciality pizza starting from $3.69. They also feature variety of sandwiches and pasta dishes. The pasta menu features more than half a dozen items, with choices of sauces. I ordered the excellent Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo($4.99), rich and creamy with a good flavor of Parmesan. All the pasta entrees are served with hot garlic bread(probably nonvegan). You can also order custom pasta with add-ins such as Artichokes, Fresh Garlic, Fresh Basil, Broccoli, Carrots, Mushrooms. Aside from pasta they also serve fresh roasted coffee and some good Gelato. If you want to go with Pizza, I recommend the Barbecue Chicken or the Hawaiian Pizza. As in Pasta, the Pizza menu is also extremely flexible.

Most of the seating is at very comfortable tables/chairs on the first floor. There are couches and board games on the second floor.

Za's Cafe stands apart for its menu and price. It is definitely a place to frequent.

:: Bombay Indian Grill 07.30.03
Bombay Indian Grill is the new Indian restaurant on Green Street, between 4th and 5th Streets. It is a fresh new alternative for Basmati, the only other Indian place in town. Unlike the latter, Bombay grill has some great dishes in their menu and very reasonably priced. However, only one major downside -- very poor service.

I already went there twice, once for lunch and then few days later for dinner. I almost had similar experiences. Both the times they were extremely busy. However the staffs were very slow and sometimes didn't seem to know what they were doing. I have heard complaints from others that some of the staff were rude. If I go next time I would try to avoid the busy lunch and dinner hour.

For dinner, I started with some vegetable Pakoras. It was freshly cooked, soft but crisp. The appetizer, drink and the main course almost arrived at the same time after some 30 minutes of wait. I also ordered some Mango Lassi(Mango+Yogurt drink). If you want to really taste the Mango Lassi, ask it without ice. It is already chilled, the ice cubes just ruin the taste.

I was served with 3 generous pieces of sizzling Tandoori Chicken($5.99). My friend ordered some Begun(Eggplant) Bharta which was served with Basmati rice and was very tasty. The chicken was well spiced and highly flavored. However, the table was bit small for all the plates and stuff.

They carry a great variety of vegetarian dishes along with chicken and lamb entrees and couple Biriyani dishes. Lunch specials come with Pakora, Naan and salad for $4-$6.

I enjoyed my meal despite poor service. If they want to compete with rest of the Green St. and attract non-Indian customers, they need to get some professional wait person soon.

:: Pie-Full Delight 07.19.03

Yesterday afternoon while wandering around, I was surprised to find Pie-Full Delight (located at 40 East Springfield, Champaign) open for business. I always meant to try that place but never find it open. After talking to the owner it seemed that they basically focus on catering, but try to keep the place open for lunch.

I was wholeheartedly greeted by the owner/cook. Although busy entertaining her grandchildren, she took the time to inform me about the daily specials.

The menu consists of sandwiches, soups, salads, stir frys, quiches and of course pies. I ordered the Chicken Mandarin Stir Fry with broccoli($8.25) and was promptly served with a sizzling dish. There were generous portions of juicy Chicken strips over rice with light seasoning. It probably didn't had any special sauces however it had few pieces of peeled and segmented tangerine. All the
entrees come with soup or salad and served with home made bread.
It would have been very ironic if I didn't try a piece of pie at Pie-Full Delight. Therefore, I ordered the creamy lemon cheese pie($2.99). I can just stop here and say that was the best piece of pie I had in my life. The texture and flavors of the crust with the dense richness of the cheese was absolutely a wonderful treat for my taste bud.

I will definitely go back (if I find it open again) to try the quiches and more pie.

:: Man Xiang Chinese Buffet 07.09.03

If you are really hungry and looking for variety in your Chinese menu, Man Xiang in Wright St. might be a good choice. You can take care of your Chinese urge for $5.99 all you can eat deal. It is probably one of the finest buffet in town.
Most of the times I've been there, I have found the buffet staying fresh because people were replacing depleted items frequently.

This afternoon, I tried vegetable fried rice, Beef with potato(curry style), Crab Rangoons, General's Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, Mixed Vegetable, Garlic Chicken and maybe couple more items that I don't recall now. Usually they have at least 15 items. I didn't try any soups this time, but I remember seeing few. Drinks and desserts are included. Desserts include cakes and fruit salads, nothing fancy.

The food while not premium quality is very enjoyable and reasonable priced. It is busy during lunch time, might have some trouble finding a table. And my fortune cookie reads "You will travel far and wide, both pleasure and business".

:: Lunch at the Y 07.02.03
There is a small cozy eatery at the local YMCA. As it is near my workplace, I frequent the Y for lunch with my colleagues or go solo. Solo I was the other day. However I had the pleasure of some good pad Thai, one of the best in this town. I know several folks that have regular cravings for that pad Thai from Y. Too bad they are just open for lunch. Here, I am talking about a generous serving of pad Thai noodles with ground Turkey, Shrimp, little lettuce on the top with some peanuts. A squeeze of lime over it all rounds out the flavors. They also serve mushroom pad Thai if you are not into Turkey and Shrimp. It can get bit crowded around lunch hour and they wrap things up around 3pm. The price is little over $4 and it was a stomach full for me.

:: Down in the Bayou 06.27.03

I paid a visit to the Bayou Express, located at 912 Bloomington Road near North Prospect. There menu says it all -- "It's a Great Little Place!".

I tried the delicious Shrimp Jambalaya($7.95). It was mild for me, but there was a good amount of colored peppers with onions, bay leaves and sweet tomatoes. It was served on steamed rice, but we were also given buttery sweet dinner rolls that I just devoured. I thought the overall portion was kind of small for the price.

They are few other interesting items in the menu such as Blackened Chicken sandwich, Crab Stuffed Mushrooms and Beer Battered Frog Legs($6.95)!! They also serve breakfast from 7-11am.

The decor is informal with a homely, rustic feel. I think the a/c was not functioning this evening, so it was bit muggy. Other than that, I enjoyed the meal immensely.

:: Golden Wok 02.07.03

The place formally known as Sing Ma now serves Thai and Chinese food in the disguise of Golden Wok. They are still getting their act together, so the service wasn't that good.

I went there with a friend this evening. My friend got Shrimp with Garlic Sauce($6.75) and I ordered the Almond Chicken($5.80). The shrimp was done really quick(~3 min) but unfortunately it wasn't warm enough. We requested to warm it up. Not sure what they have done with it, but few minutes later it came back being sizzling hot and I was also informed that they don't have almonds. I decided to go with cashew. I liked it a lot. It was loaded with mushroom, carrots, onions but I wasn't satisfied with the proportion of chicken in it. I tried the shrimp dish, didn't like it. My friend thought it was bit dry, not enough garlic sauce.

The menu had typical Chinese and Thai dishes. I was curious about the almond chicken. They also have some ho fun, pad Thai and noodle dishes. Yes, the curry chicken is there also. I will have to try that sometime. The place is bit pricey than Sing Ma. I guess they need few weeks to settle down. I would give it another try in a week or so.


:: The last day of Sing Ma 01.29.03

Today was the last day of Sing Ma -- a Singporean-Malaysian place. I was a huge fan of their Chicken Curry. It was spicy dish, cooked with Indian spices, served with steamed rice. Every time I go there the owner(Mr. Chin), an elderly Singaporean person, greets me as "Tambi". I believe that is Tamil for little brother. I mentioned to him in several occasions that, I am not familiar with that that language. He also had few other interesting words in his limited Tamil vocabulary that he often used with me. But he kept greeting me as Tambi. Even the last day when I went there he did so. Although I didn't correct him this time. :)

[..] cmi.consumer.gourmand

:: :.

This page will feature reviews of restaurants around Champaign-Urbana Illinois. I hope you will find it entertaining and/or useful. I enjoy eating out and trying different places. Basically in this page I will talk about my experiences in various food dispensary around Champaign-Urbana or anywhere else in the world I happened to be.

Send your comments to
mislam at uiuc dot edu


All Content © 2003 Sharif Islam