The first time I attempted to eat at Golden Harbor I ended up leaving without having eaten. There was a huge line, the restaurant was packed, and the menu — in Chinese, no less — took up the entire wall. Overwhelming was an understatement. (It was right after it opened, so it was super busy.) When I mustered up the courage (and group of friends) to return, it was thankfully a bit less busy and I realized that my anxiety about ordering was unnecessary, because the process is straightforward, once you know what you’re doing. And the menu is available in a book form.

I’ve met many people who eat at Golden Harbor regularly, but I’ve also met a significant amount of people who haven’t been or who haven’t even heard of the place. So for those of you who are familiar, enjoy these photos. For those of you who haven’t been yet, take note and move Golden Harbor to the top of your “Restaurants to Visit” list. 

Let me cut to the chase: Golden Harbor is the best Chinese food in the area. That’s not to say that there aren’t some other good options in town. Golden Harbor’s food has been consistently good and I’m always stuffed. The menu is incredibly extensive; you could easily spend months of your life attempting to try every single thing on the menu. Additionally, Golden Harbor is an ideal restaurant for typically difficult dining parties:

  • Large groups are preferred.
  • Children are welcome. (As long as your child stays in her or his seat, the admittedly loud-ish restaurant will drown out her or his outbursts.)
  • Loud people. (As long as your friend stays in her or his seat, the admittedly loud-ish restaurant will drown out her or his outbursts.)
  • There menu items for everyone: vegetarians, omnivores, gluten-intolerants, sauce-haters. 

signature crispy tofu, $11.99

Golden Harbor’s recently updated website describes the restaurant quite succinctly:

Some Chinese restaurants are so Americanized, it feels like their claims to Asian cuisine are meant to be taken ironically. But that’s not the case at Golden Harbor. Everything about the restaurant, from the décor to the food found on the hand-written menus feels authentic.

It’s true that in many restaurants across the US, many traditional Chinese dishes have been tweaked to be more appealing to an “American” palate (read: salty, sweet, fried); the dishes I’ve had at Golden Harbor seem to perhaps be truer to traditional recipes. But traditional or not, all of the dishes I’ve had are well balanced in flavor, perfectly salted, and ripe with bold and interesting ingredients.

shrimp dumplings, $5.50

If you’ve never been to Golden Harbor, here’s a guide for navigating the ordering process:

1. Call some friends. The food is served family-style, and the best thing about eating at the restaurant is sharing a variety of dishes with people you like.

2. When you walk in, grab a couple of menus (there is the entire menu, and also an abbreviated “American” menu), a pen, and an ordering pad. These are on a table as you enter the restaurant.

3. Find a table, preferably with a lazy Susan. It’s just more fun to swirl it around when you need to refill your plate.

4. Sift through the nine-page menu for food you want to eat. It’s organized by ingredient (pork, duck, chicken, fish, tofu, etc). Most items have brief descriptions and spicy items are marked appropriately. Choose at least one entrée per person, write the menu item number on your pad.

5. Tear off your paper with your order. Return all other items to the table.

6. Take your ordering sheet up to the counter. Quickly flip through the additional menu items hanging on a ring near the register (most of which start with the letter B) and tack on your last minute additions.

7. Give your paper to the person at the register. You’ll be charged $1 per person for a table cleaning fee. You will not leave a tip. If you’re paying cash, you get a bit of a discount. You can split the bill as many ways as you’d like, but you can only charge FIVE different credit cards per order.

8. Pay your monies, and take the numbered card the cashier hands you back to your table. Place the numbered card on the little rack.

Water and tea are complementary, and you’ll find glasses and tea kettles toward the back of the restaurant. An expediter will bring plates, napkins, fortune cookies, and chopsticks to your table. Forks, knives, and spoons are available near the tea kettles. As far as I’m concerned, there is no shame in using a fork: it makes shoveling food into the mouth faster and easier. White rice and/or fried rice are provided — you don’t need to order these with the rest of your entrées. However, white rice is the default, so if you want fried rice, be sure to ask for it when you order your food (they’ll bring both). When the food arrives, eat and enjoy. You do not need to bus your own table.

crispy eggplant, prepared like signature tofu, $12.50

stir fry noodles with vegetables, $8.99

I’ve been to Golden Harbor countless times, and each time I go I try very hard to order something new. Despite the insanely large menu, this is actually pretty difficult because I’ve found some delicious things on the menu and I just want to eat them over and over again. The rice is always perfectly cooked. The fried rice contains egg and some soy sauce, but isn’t laden with other ingredients — it’s simple and delightful. Some of my favorite items on the menu include the signature crispy tofu (I order it spicy), crispy basil chicken (I prefer it to the beef), taro buns (on the menu at the register, number B4), and green beans with fresh garlic. I’m quite obsessed with the taro buns; they’re filled with taro paste. Taro is a tropical root with a subtle nutty flavor akin to coconut. It’s light purple in color, so the buns are this lovely lavender color, and the paste is a bit darker. They are slightly chewy, and the paste is thick and delicious, and I find them to be completely enjoyable.

steamed taro buns, $5.50 

pan fried noodles with vegetables, $11.99

I’ve only had one dish I couldn’t eat: tan tan noodles. The tan tan noodles are just noodles in a very, very spicy chili paste sauce. I love spicy food, but I couldn’t eat these. They were too spicy for me. A friend with a higher tolerance to internal blistering finished them off.

On one occasion I dined with someone who didn’t want any sauce on her or his food, and luckily, there is a section of the menu entitled “The Dry Desert,” and all of those items are served sauceless. Nine-page extensive menu, for the win.

crispy basil chicken, $13.50

I always tend toward tangy-spicy, so I’m drawn to anything that is labeled spicy basil. The crispy basil chicken is perfectly fried; the chicken remains moist and delicious. The sauce is spicy, especially if you get a piece of jalapeño, but the garlic and ginger balance out the heat with tang and potent flavors. It’s a really well balanced dish that excites the taste buds.

sesame chicken, $11.99

The American menu contains things you’re probably most familiar with (like General Tso’s chicken, which is quite good), and if you’re not really into Chinese food, or you’re testing the waters, this is a good place to start. The broccoli and beef is delicious. The broccoli is cooked perfectly and the sauce is flavorful, but not over powering. The beef is thinly sliced and tender. The sesame chicken (pictured) is perfectly crispy without being oily, and slightly sweet, but not saccharine. The sauce is thick, but isn’t syrupy. The sesame seeds not only look pretty, but also add a little texture.

Speaking of sesame, the sesame balls (B1, menu near the register), are delicious little dessert bites filled with a slightly sweet paste. These are a must-order when I’m there.

sesame balls, $5.50

There are so many things on the menu that you’re bound to find something that you like. I encourage you to grab a few friends and visit the restaurant. Prices are a little bit higher than your run-of-the-mill take out, but the quality and quantity of food is well worth it. Most dishes are about $12 to $15, and obviously the more ways you split it, the cheaper it is.

Golden Harbor is located at 505 South Neil Street (intersection of Healey and Neil), Champaign, and is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and from 3-4:30 p.m. daily.

All photos by Jessica Hammie.