He was born in Malaysia and raised in France, but Shai Mauth might have finally found a home in Champaign-Urbana since opening his new Vietnamese restaurant, Xinh Xinh (pronounced Sin Sin) Cafe. Located in the strip mall that accompanies the Schnucks in Urbana, this two-week-old restaurant won't likely stay a secret for long. Mauth has used his diverse past to help create something unique in an otherwise bland shopping center.
The previous tenant in this space, Wing Stop, decked the place out in a tin-shack motif, something to help give customers the impression that they were somewhere other than where they actually were. The interior hasn't changed much, save for a few deliberate Oriental choices to ease the consumer into the restaurant. But the menu is worlds apart, and might have just taken the crown for best Vietnamese food in downstate Illinois.
A weekend without the wife is a rare one. Most times, if a visit to the in-laws in Chicago is on the books, I gladly accompany. But this particular weekend, I was given tickets to the game to watch my injured Boilermakers get their ass handed to them by a very good-yet-inconsistent Illini team. The absence of my wife allowed for ample time to settle in at the new cafe and order a smattering of menu items. I also had Smile Politely editor and personality extraordinaire, Joel Gillespie, along with me. We were greeted by Mauth, who seated us and gave us our menus with a smile.
As it happens, Mauth (pictured left) didn't really expect to end up in our community; but after the housing market crashed, he moved here to be closer to his family. He spent his formative years in California, and eventually made his way east to Arizona to start up a restaurant with friends. He finally settled in C-U and opened up Xinh Xinh.
There's nothing fancy about the menu: multi-colored paper with stock fonts and bamboo imaging define its backdrop. But what's on the menu is impressive. As to be expected, Xinh Xinh features a few different types of Pho, a traditional Vietnamese beef-based soup that is not pronounced the way you would assume. Instead, Pho rhymes with the short version of the word "the." Yes. Say it. It's awkward. But my lord, it's delicious when made properly. Here, it's done very, very well.
The bowl is large at the low price of $6.75. And for a buck more, you can have a few different types of beef. These tender cuts nicely accompany the Thai basil leaves, long coriander, green onions, bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime. I had the Pho Tai Nam (picture below), which features thinly sliced ribeye steak and a well-done brisket. Both were excellent and not very fatty at all. Most Pho soups feature fatty cuts of meat, so this was a welcome and surprising change of pace.
Joel and I also decided to go with the vegetable egg rolls (pictured below), since there are only two items on the menu that will appeal to vegetarians (the other is the tofu sandwich). These were brought out promptly and with four to an order were a very good value at $3.50. They were fried well, but not for too long. The cabbage and carrot were still crisp, yet the insides were piping hot.
Vietnamese sandwiches are something that, before Xinh Xinh, you could not find in C-U. They are sort of like a hoagie, served on a baguette with a large variety of meat (a selection of pork, chicken, or beef) and pickled daikon, carrots, cucumber, onions, cilantro, jalapeno peppers, soy sauce, and a homemade mayonaise. Joel ordered the Fried Tofu Veggie sandwich (pictured below) and it came out overflowing with ingredients. At $4.50, you might not find a bigger or more delicious veggie sandwich on this side of town. The bread was soft still, but with a nice crust on the outside.
I ordered the Grilled Beef Steak, after being told that the BBQ Pork, the Shredded Pork, and the Charbroiled Grilled Beef were all 86ed for the evening. (Shai explained that he is still finding a balance on his menu.) My sandwich, too, was delicious.
"Tonight was the busiest night yet," he told us as he gestured to the full house. The restaurant only seats 35 people, but it feels larger than it is. "Once I learn about what customers want, I'll be able to know a bit more about what to have well-stocked all the time. It's a learning process."
To drink, I ordered a Lime Soda (pictured right), which is freshly squeezed lime mixed with cane sugar and club soda, served over ice. It's what you wish a Sprite tasted like each time you open one. At $2.25, though, it's a luxury that I won't always be able to afford.
Xinh Xinh is currently open Monday to Saturday, and closed on Sundays. Since Shai works all day, every day, he reserves Sunday for himself. The restaurant consumes who he is right now, and he is OK with that.
"It's a work in progress," he tells us. "We are looking to have more fun in here eventually, too. We'll look into a liquor license eventually, and might even bring in karaoke on weekends as well."
Asked what the name means, he smiled and told us, "it means, like, pretty. It's what you'd call a girl. I also liked the way it sounded phonetically. It's repetitive, and hopefully it will stick in people's heads."
After eating there once, I have no doubt that it will. This was a serious meal for two. We ate like wolves and had more than enough to take home for another meal. The total bill was under $28. In these hard economic times, there is little to mistake: Xinh Xinh Cafe is a welcome addition to the seemingly endless list of bland choices in the C-U dining market.
Xinh Xinh Cafe is located 200 N. Vine St. in Urbana, Ill.