“Not Panda,” is what the smiling employee at Home of Gourmet Chinese and Thai Restaurant replied when I asked how she would describe their style of cooking. “It’s homestyle cooking. It’s what we eat at home every day,” she added. If this is what she serves at home, I am very, very jealous.
I happened unto this fantastic little restaurant a couple years ago, as a student at the University. It is located a half of block from the Quad, and there is always a line of students at lunchtime. After passing by this bustling lunch spot a few times, I finally decided to give it a try. One bite of my first meal and it was obvious why there was always a line; my lunch absolutely blew away my expectations. They offer a huge variety of reasonably priced, made-to-order entrees for lunch and dinner, but the majority of their customers opt for quickly served meals from their buffet. I think Home of Gourmet’s lunch buffet is one of the best values in town.
A couple things to know about Home of Gourmet’s lunch buffet. First, it is incredibly efficient. When I say fast service, I mean it; during peak lunch hours, the staff moves people through the line with super speed, which makes this a very convenient place to grab a tasty lunch. I know, it’s on campus, though, and people always say, “I don’t go on campus; there’s no place to park.” Hogwash. I have made countless trips to the heart of campus just to get lunch from “Home.” I always find parking in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant, and there is a MTD hub a half a block away, with buses coming and going virtually by the minute. On my most recent trip, I parked right next to the restaurant and put a dime in the meter for 6 minutes of parking; I got my meal, talked for a minute with the friendly staff, and still made it back to my car with 2 minutes to spare. I cannot stress enough how quickly people are moved through the ever present line. It rarely takes more than 3 minutes to wait in line, order food, pay, and be on my way.
The second thing to know about Home is the lunch buffet in a steal of a deal. Customers are given the choice of either steamed white rice or Mai Fun rice noodles and two or three entrees. A two entree lunch costs $6.25; three entrees is only $6.95. There are always 10 different entrees to choose from, but items change frequently, and the buffet is rarely the same two days in a row.
The third thing to know about Home is you get a lot of food. Three entrees usually gives me enough food for two meals. To be clear, though, just because it’s enough food for two meals does not necessarily mean I choose to eat it in two sittings. I usually get to the point of no return where I decide there is not enough to save and it tastes too good to leave leftovers. Alas, restraint when food is concerned is not my strong suit. And even though the lunch weighs in at over 2 lbs. of food (yes, I weighed it, my last lunch was 2 lbs. 6 oz.), I never feel stuffed and bloated after eating. The dishes are light and fresh, not laden with oil like a lot of Chinese fast food meals.
When I decided to write about Home, I spoke with the staff and asked permission to take pictures. The employee told me to make sure to mention that the items change daily. This led me to a brilliant idea: I decided to eat there three times in one week and try to see what changed from day to day.
From my string of visits, recently and over the past years, I have noticed there seem to be some items which are almost always available, and some dishes which rotate frequently. Fortunately for me, they usually feature their breaded whitefish in spicy ginger garlic sauce. This is what continues to bring me back; I have tasted nothing like it before or since I started eating at Home. The whitefish is lightly battered and fried, then tossed in a very unique sauce. I have asked many times what is in the sauce, and I am either told it’s a “special sauce,” a “secret sauce,” or a “family recipe.” I can discern from multiple tastings that the sauce is made with garlic, ginger, and dried red chiles, but, beyond that, I am blissfully unaware of what goes into this amazingly unique dish. All I can say is the sharp garlic, sweet ginger, and spicy red chiles balance each other perfectly, but still allow the clean flavor of fresh fish to shine through. They always scoop enough of the delicious sauce to coat my rice, as well.
They often feature authentically prepared prawns, deep fried with the full shell in tact. These are very tasty, but a bit intimidating for some, as the head, tail and legs are not removed. Some customers eat them whole, others peel them apart and only eat the meat. I have tried and enjoyed them both ways; the shrimp flavor is always very sweet, delicate, and extremely fresh.
Home always offers a number of meat-free entrees, which is a huge bonus for me. They often serve a scrambled egg and tomato dish that is very popular with their regular clientele. On my first visit, they featured peeled hard boiled eggs in a thin, reddish-brown sauce. I don’t eat eggs, so I stayed away from them, but they looked very satisfying, and students’ eyes lit up as the dish was scooped into their styrofoam box (yes, meals are served in styrofoam boxes…probably my only critique, but, unfortunately, it is common with this type of meal). The buffet always offers two vegetable options, which regularly alternate between broccoli florets, white cabbage, garlic string beans, and Chinese cabbage. All are fantastic, but I really love the string beans, which are salty and garlicky and crunchy and delicious. The cabbage, which is my second favorite vegetable offering, is always perfectly cooked and spiced with those ubiquitous dried red chiles. The freshly cooked vegetables always pair nicely with the other entrees and the rice or noodles. The buffet almost always has a tofu entree, which is great for me, since I only eat fish and veggies. The tofu dish varies from day to day. Sometimes it is a soft tofu in a spicy, almost tomatoey sauce; other times it is a firm tofu, fried, served sauceless with sautéed mushrooms and carrots. It is always a simple, perfectly prepared dish, and, like all things at Home, it is very unique. On my recent visits, they featured the soft tofu, which I happily gobbled up each time. The sauce has a little bit of a kick to it, and the soft texture of the tofu blends nicely with the chewy rice and noodles.
For those who enjoy meat, there are always a number of tasty dishes from which to chose. There is usually a beef and potato stew, served in a thick brown gravy, or a meatball dish served in a similar gravy, and there is always at least one chicken dish. The chicken entrees switch between a crispy breaded breast meat without sauce, a sautéed thigh meat with jalapeños in a spicy light brown sauce, and a batter fried thigh meat in a rich, brown sauce. None of the dishes have catchy names, like most American Chinese restaurants. When I ask about a specific dish, I am usually told what the meat is, and sometimes it’s described as spicy, but that’s it. Personally, I like the fact that the dishes are simple and a bit of a mystery. I also like that I can see the prepared food already in the buffet table, and make my choice based on what looks most appetizing. Do not be discouraged by the unknown; everything at Home is traditionally made with expert care, and the buffet items are constantly replaced with fresh batches of food.
This is no cookie-cutter, food court style Chinese restaurant. This is the real deal: very affordable, family-style Chinese food prepared and served by a friendly, hardworking family. The dining area also reflects the family-style nature of the restaurant. There is one long table which is shared by hungry strangers, and a number of smaller tables. The lunch rush gets very busy, which prompts customers to ask to sit at an unoccupied seat with people they don’t know. No one seems to care who they sit with, as long as they get to enjoy this incredible bargain of a lunch while it’s piping hot. I asked the employee what percentage of students she thought were international students. She corrected me, “Chinese. Not international. About 90% Chinese students. We could use more people like you,” she said with a laugh. I smiled and told her I planned to spread the word.
Home of Gourmet is located at 604 East Daniel Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.