Smile Politely

Cravings is worth the trip to Campustown

Sliced chicken in chili oil in a red bowl at Cravings Restaurant.
Sliced chicken in chili oil at Cravings. Photo by Mindy Basi

Cravings, at 603 South Wright Street, Champaign, is clearly a favorite for U of I students, and it quickly became a favorite of ours, too, after our delicious dinner at the restaurant. We don’t venture to the heart of Campustown too often, but it is definitely worth a trip to eat at Cravings restaurant.

Outside of Cravings restaurant in Campustown.
Mindy Basi

Be prepared to stand in a line to order. The restaurant was packed with students the evening we were there, with hardly an open table. The kitchen was quick though, and had hot dishes coming out non-stop.

Two menus one green and one orange for Cravings restaurant.
Mindy Basi

There were two menus to order food from: what the restaurant refers to as an American-Chinese menu (yellow menu) and a Chinese menu (green menu). Both were extensive.

We ordered from the Chinese menu, but if diners are fans of iconic American-Chinese dishes – General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, Kung Pao beef, pepper steak, or soup – the restaurant has plenty of choices. The authentic menu included dishes such as tofu stir-fried black fungus, homestyle pork maw, salted fish, three-cup chicken, intestines, and curry selections. Diners can choose from Japanese, Thai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai style flavors.

The express dinner selections at Cravings.
Express dinner at Cravings. Photo by Mindy Basi

The restaurant also offered already prepared food in warming pans at the counter for those in a hurry. Patrons could build an order from a selection of meats, vegetables, and sauces starting at $9.99. It sold out while we were there.

The dining room of Cravings restaurant.
Mindy Basi

The staff behind the counter were exceptionally friendly, explaining the menu system and generally trying to be helpful. They were busy but not brusque, and responded quickly to requests. Orders came out lightning fast. The staff seemed to genuinely care about their customers: our counter server expressed concern that we might have ordered too much food (we did get four selections). He wasn’t mistaken; the portions were very generous, and one entree could serve two people easily. We noticed that many of the patrons were sharing dishes. We felt the restaurant offered amazing value for the cost of each dish.

Tea and water were free of charge. The styrofoam water cups provided were of a smaller size, so thirsty diners might need refills. Served from a self-serve urn, complimentary jasmine tea was hot and had good body but seemed to be pre-sweetened, which neither of us enjoyed, but for those who like sweeter drinks, the tea might just hit the spot.

For the dine-in experience, seating choices included basic booths and tables. Don’t expect any fancy tableware or frills: it was orange cafeteria trays and styrofoam or plastic containers for most entrees, even to eat in. Disposable chopsticks were provided at the table, with silverware available at a self-service station where diners could find complimentary fortune cookies. For fans of hot sauce, the restaurant provided a bottle of Sriracha sauce tableside. 

The dumplings at Cravings beside a plastic cup of soy sauce.
Dumplings at Cravings. Photo by Mindy Basi

To start our meal, we tried the fried dumplings ($6.99), ten to an order, which were crispy and served hot. They had a nice crunch to them, and the pork and vegetable filling had good flavor. They came with tasty dumpling sauce for dipping.

An order of beef with oyster sauce at Cravings.
Beef with oyster sauce at Cravings. Photo by Mindy Basi

I ordered the beef with oyster sauce ($12.99). It was a very large portion of very tender beef slices in a tasty brown sauce topped with green onion on a bed of sliced Chinese cabbage. The sauce was smooth, not too thick or thin, and the flavor didn’t overwhelm the beef. There was some complexity to the sauce that made it interesting to eat, with nice umami flavors. The Chinese cabbage and green onions were a nice addition and gave another dimension to the taste profile. The accompanying rice was fluffy and had a good mouth feel, tender but not too soft. I enjoyed my selection.

In a red bowl, sliced chicken with red peppers and green onions is in a dark spicy sauce.
Sliced chicken in chili oil at Cravings. Photo by Mindy Basi

My husband is the kind of person who enjoys eating spicy dishes, and seems to have no limit to how much spice he can eat, so he gravitated to the sliced chicken with chili oil sauce ($13.99). I warn anyone dining at Cravings to pay attention to the red chili pepper icon next to the menu items because they are serious about spicy. If you appreciate spicy food like my husband does, go for it. His dish was marvelous. At first I was too timid to try it, being mouth-burning-spice averse, but it looked beautiful served in a large bowl filled to the brim with tender white chicken meat, green onion slices, and whole red Chinese peppers bathing in a lovely bright red sauce shimmering with chili oil. My husband was impressed with the combination of flavors, which included garlic and other spices that really worked together. He commented the dish had the tingle on the tongue that good Szechuan peppers give the eater, which he appreciated. Eventually he convinced me to take a tiny bite of chicken, which was delicious but that little bite had me reaching for the water. Even though he had to pause a couple of times to recover from the heat of the peppers, he enjoyed the taste and experience thoroughly. He was already planning to return to get it again. The authentic Chinese menu offered a choice of proteins made with the chili oil sauce for those who prefer something besides chicken.

We tried one other dish which is not pictured: the home style stir-fried tofu ($12.99). Large squares of fried tofu served with crispy carrot, green bell pepper, bok choy and hearts of palm a savory white sauce. The whole dish had kind of a comfort food feeling about it, a satisfying combination that was well executed, but I did not get a usable picture of this dish, unfortunately.

My husband and I were pleased with the quality and portions of all our dinner selections. The food was well done, tasty, and enjoyable. The staff seemed accessible and engaged in serving their customers, which made for a homey atmosphere even though the restaurant was busy. We were happy with our choices and noticed that other dishes coming out of the kitchen looked equally appetizing. The portions could satisfy even the hungriest of patrons. We plan to return and try more of what Cravings has to offer — or my husband may just get the chili oil chicken again!

Order online and see the menu here.

Cravings restaurant
603 South Wright St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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