Our world-renowned University attracts some of the brightest minds from all parts of the globe. Along with this influx of brilliant international students and faculty comes a variety of amazing cuisine. Consequently, we are lucky to have here in Champaign-Urbana a dearth of delicious international restaurants to choose from, especially in the campus area. A great example of this is 168 Lai-Lai Wok. Located smack-dab in the center of campus, on the northeast corner of Fourth and Green Street, Lai-Lai Wok is an ideal spot for students, faculty, and local residents alike to sample from a huge variety of traditional Chinese dishes, as well as a number of more familiar American Chinese specialties.
Upon entering the restaurant, diners are greeted with a huge menu board written entirely in Chinese. Don't be intimidated if you can't decipher it; take a look at one of the laminated hand-held menus and you will find English and Chinese descriptions of almost 700 different items. There are actually two menus, one labeled "Chinese Menu" for those familiar with the language and true Chinese cooking, and another untitled menu on the back, with dishes typically found in American Chinese restaurants. The bulk of the items offered are what I would consider to be traditional Chinese preparations, featuring ingredients somewhat unfamiliar to me, such as pig-ear, beef shank, chunk fish, hollow vegetable, tripe, beef tendon, and intestine...it's a far cry from General Tso's chicken and crab rangoon, to be sure. But don't you fret my not-so-adventurous friend, there is also an entire section of very affordable dishes more commonly found in American Chinese restaurants.
Since the size and content of the menu is a bit overwhelming, I decided to sample both a dine-in meal and a carry-out meal, on different occasions. For my carry-out meal, I chose two vegetarian dishes from the American Chinese menu, which were offered in both small and large sizes. I opted for two small sized entrées. Each dish was served alongside a generous portion of perfectly steamed white rice, in a two-compartment styrofoam box, filled to the brim. Even though I didn't eat my meal until 20 minutes after I left, the dishes were both steaming hot when I opened them. This is because everything at Lai-Lai is prepared to-order, and the freshness of the ingredients and the expertise with which the items are prepared is apparent in every bite. Each vegetable was perfectly cooked, at once firm and tender.
The first dish I chose, tofu with mixed vegetables ($5.99 small, $9.99 large), came loaded with fresh broccoli, carrots, zucchini, baby corn, celery, and mushrooms, coated in a gloriously light, yet intricately flavored brown sauce. Even though the chef packed a ton of veggies into this savory dish, he still managed to find room for an abundance of large rectangular pieces of pan-fried tofu. This was a fantastic meal, all by itself, but I paired it with an order of green beans with garlic sauce, because I couldn't make up my mind. The "small" order of sweet and garlicky string beans, also generously piled high in the container, was certainly a bargain for $5.99. I found the tender-crisp texture of the beans to be exquisite, and the garlic sauce very tasty, if not a bit too sweet. Easy adjustment, though; I added some Sriracha to them and they were FIRE! Next time, I will ask the chef to prepare them spicy, and I'm sure I won't be disappointed. Both of these items were listed under the aptly named "Fresh Vegetables" section of the American Chinese menu, and they made good on their name. I have certainly been served some rather unsightly mushrooms or limp broccoli from other local Chinese restaurants, but these "Fresh Vegetables" did not disappoint one bit.
For my dine-in experience, I met a friend for lunch on a lazy, Presidents' Day afternoon. We were greeted from behind the counter by two college-aged workers who shared the serving responsibilities for the day. We were shown to the spacious dining room and allowed to pick a table. The dining area was cozy and casual, with a great view of the hustle and bustle of Green Street. Sunlight poured in from the many windows and made for a very relaxing atmosphere. The impeccably clean self-serve ice water and hot tea station was a welcome sight. Although Lai-Lai is a full service restaurant, it maintains a fast-casual approach, which fits well in the campus area.
We started our meal with a battery of appetizers, some vegetarian for me and some with meat for my friend. I really enjoyed the house-made vegetable egg rolls ($1.20 for 3). The deep-fried spring rolls were light and not at all greasy, and the still-crunchy veggies bursted with flavor. I will definitely be ordering these again. My friend was equally impressed with his cup of egg drop soup ($1.65). The soup was loaded with paper-thin ribbons of delicately cooked scrambled eggs, which he said absolutely melted in his mouth. I didn't try it, but the golden shimmer from the chicken broth looked very satisfying, and the soup was served scaldingly hot, as it should be. My friend also raved about the steamed dumplings ($4.50 for 8). The hand-made dumplings were light and airy, filled with ginger and garlic-seasoned ground pork. I don't eat meat, but, upon my friend's insistence, I sampled a meatless piece of the dumpling dipped in the ginger soy sauce, and it was absolutely fantastic. My friend said he would definitely make a special trip to campus just for these dumplings. We also shared an order of the cold sesame noodles ($5.99), which were, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment. The noodles themselves were delicious, and perfectly prepared, but the dish lacked any real sesame flavor; topped with sesame seeds and green onions, it looked quite appetizing, but tasted mostly like peanut butter. I would have preferred a drizzle of sesame oil or perhaps a sharp note from some rice wine vinegar, for a deeper, more complex flavor.
I washed down my appetizers with several mugs full of delicious, self-serve, hot tea, and my friend opted for a couple cold cans of Sprite. After making quick work of the appetizers, we chose our entrées. I ordered a vegetarian dish called Eggplant Tofu Zucchini from the "Special" section of the "Chinese Menu." My friend decided on the popular American Chinese staple, Hunan Beef ($6.99 small, $12.99 large). Our meals arrived quickly, with steam pouring from them, and they looked outstanding. My eggplant dish was a blend of stir-fried purple Chinese eggplant, zucchini, large pieces of pan-fried tofu, and a host of other vegetables. The entree was served in a small casserole dish, to hold the abundance of spectacular broth-like sauce. The sweet eggplant exploded in my mouth and its flavor permeated every bite. The broth was a complex blend of delicate, savory flavors like nothing I've had before. Simply delicious. My friend was happy with his Hunan Beef, as well. Like all the dishes I've seen from Lai-Lai, all of the vegetables in his dish were vibrant and amazingly fresh. He said the beef was extremely tender and the sauce was spot-on.
With so many good Chinese restaurants in the area, it may be difficuly for Lai-Lai to stand out. What separates it from the pack is its commitment to traditional preparations. Although many of the American Chinese recipes did not originate in China, they are are still prepared with the same attention to detail and focus on freshness as their Chinese counterparts. It is also refreshing to find a clean, open, and spacious seating area which can accomodate both casual dining and more formal meals, in the heart of Campustown. I plan to return to try out some of the more Chinese dishes, perhaps with a larger group, so we can all sample the many wonderful and unique ingredients they offer.
Upon leaving, I asked our server the meaning of the number "168" on the restaurant's sign. He told me the number, when spoken in Chinese, sounds a lot like another word, which is considered lucky. I asked what the word was and he pronounced it, thought for a long second, and then translated it. "It means there will be good luck in the future, up the road, a good future," he said. I feel very fortunate to have discovered 168 Lai-Lai Wok, and I have no doubt my future visits will bring me good fortune.
Lai-Lai Wok is located at 402 East Green, Champaign, and open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.