Sure, there are plenty of great campustown restaurants on Green Street, but you have heard about Y Thai? If you’re in the know, it’s not news that the old brick building on the corner of Wright and Chalmers is the University YMCA. Not a “swim & gym” YMCA, mind you, but a full-fledged social justice Y that houses awesome student organizations — oh, and a Thai restaurant appropriately called “Y Thai.”
Full disclosure: I work at the Y (but was a loyal fan years beforehand). I’ll do my best to give an impartial review. But the perks of yours truly reviewing this campus institution includes, but is not limited to, my seven years of proud Y Thai eating experience.
If you’ve never walked in the Y before, expect to be first greeted by a student worker or our receptionist, Carol, at the front desk. You’ll be confused because you thought you’d find a fitness facility but instead see on your left a large room with the latest Art @ the Y exhibit hanging. (Current exhibit is called Hooded Truths, and is itself worth a visit.)
You’ll be directed to the little nook where Y Thai sits in all its unpretentious glory. Behind a simple counter sits eight steaming Thai and Chinese (yes, the American kind) entrees, along with two heaping piles of shrimp or tofu pad thai and a giant kettle of white rice.
As you can probably guess, there are no culinary triumphs happening at 1001 S. Wright Street. Y Thai isn’t here so you can boast about the latest Asian fusion pursuit: it’s just a small lunch haunt run by a local family. They dish out comfort food that is big on taste, low on price, and do so quickly, so you can get on to your next meeting or class.
Disclaimers aside, let’s talk some food.
Secret #1: Mix and Match.
You can order the pad thai. You can order the red curry. Or you can eat all the things. Call it hungry student logic, but when I was an undergrad here I once asked if I could please heap some piles of more food on top of my food. Thus was born the pad thai with red curry on top.
The pad thai is a simple take on the classic: nothing too crazy, just some flat noodles stir-fried with a slightly sweet peanut sauce, nice chunks of tofu (or shrimp), and a hint of chili powder. It won’t blow you away on its own, but if you like pad thai it’ll put a smile on your face. Make sure to order it with a lime and peanuts, and lettuce if you are into that sort of thing (veggies and I are taking a break). If you like it spicier, there’s a condiment cart in the hallway with chili powder, green chili sauce, and more. Go crazy.
Because the pad thai flavor isn’t overpowering, it sits nicely as a base for the red curry (its name still confuses me because it looks yellow). The warm curry broth, which is slightly sweet itself, has notes of basil and chili and blends perfectly onto peanutty noodles, which soak up a little of the broth by the time you take your seat and begin devouring.
To my consistent delight, the generous chicken portions taste hearty and tender. Thanks to being dark meat, they happily have a robust chicken flavor. Crunchy bamboo shoots from the curry add a nice texture to the otherwise soft dish, and the pad thai’s tofu or shrimp give a welcome variety of items to grab with your chopsticks.
Secret #2: Ordered Noodles? Ask for Rice Anyway.
If you’re a hungry lady like I am, you can also ask for some rice on your plate. If you’re a hungry dude, that’s fine, too. The rice soaks up more of that glorious broth, and if you’re a rice lover, you’ll be pleased with its fluffy texture.
To review, I order by asking, “Can I have some tofu pad thai and a little rice, with the red chicken curry on top? And I’ll just have peanuts and lime, no lettuce please!” The good manners add an extra dimension of flavor, because you can now stuff your face while admiring how great of a person you are.
Secret Three: But Wait, There’s More!
If pad thai or curry isn’t your thing, give one of their other rotating dishes a try. You can typically count on the green beans and tofu dish waiting for you behind the counter, along with chicken basil, general tso’s chicken, and more.
If you’re a vegetarian, you can’t go wrong with eggplant and tofu or green beans and tofu. Their crunchy green beans are coated in soy sauce goodness and satisfy as a side to meaty chunks of tofu. Try it on top of the tofu pad thai and rejoice in a filling meatless meal with no salad in sight.
With your hefty plate in hand, find a seat in the exhibit room you passed on your way in. Free ice water is available in the hallway, but they offer a variety of drinks, including tea. Be an environmental pro and ask for no tray to save the dishwater.
There you go. You can now hold your head high in your next conversation that inevitably devolves into talking about food (or is that just me?) and say although Green Street restaurants are great and stuff, you haven’t experienced campus life until you gorge on Y Thai.
Y Thai is located at 1001 S. Wright Street, Champaign, and is open Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
All photos by Emily Cross.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Y Thai was a Taiwanese restaurant.