As a child growing up in the 70s, going out to eat was a rare treat. It was a big damn deal. I mean, we dressed up to go out to dinner. If my mom were on this Earth today, she would be aghast I went to dinner last weekend in jeans and tennis shoes. Hell, I’ll go out in sweatpants if that is all I have clean.
I have fond memories of going out to the likes of The Paradise Inn, Town and Country, Jumer’s (when it was very well run by Peter Schnabel of Bayern Stube fame), and The Lamplighter (my mom’s favorite). Being a P. E. teacher at Champaign Central, my mom taught a bowling class. If you picked up a 7-10 split, your reward was dinner at The Lamplighter. She only had to pay up one time. I really wish I remembered who cashed in.
Of all the places we went, my favorite was The House of Chin in Campustown. I was fascinated with their fish tank of piranhas, and they had this huge buddha sculpture. The food was great. As with most kids, my gateway to Chinese food was sweet and sour chicken, but I soon ventured and expanded my selections. I also loved, loved, loved their hot tea.
I do find with age that I am more nostalgic and sentimental. It is why comfort food is a thing. Bringing the tastes and feelings from past to the present; it is quite magical. Sadly, I cannot go to The House of Chin as it doesn’t exist anymore. I can visit places that have a similar vibe and food quality.
This brings me to Rainbow Garden at Five Points in Urbana. Their food is great, but what I really love is their interior design, attention to detail, and personal service. It is modern but has a real throwback feel. I love getting settled into the booth and taking my sweet time savoring their food. So many places I feel rushed, but the pace of the meal here is nice and relaxed.
We started our dinner with the special house blended tea ($2.50/pot).
I love that the tea comes in a nice ceramic pot that keeps the tea hot, and you can pour refills throughout dinner as you choose. The teacups are old school and have Rainbow Garden’s logo on them which is a nice touch. The tea tasted fantastic and was a comforting warm up, especially in the middle of winter. This tea is so good I will order it in the middle of summer with a 110-degree heat index, but I also eat ice cream on a zero-degree day, so they cancel each other out.
Next up, we had pork egg rolls ($1.45 each). Every time I have egg rolls, it reminds me of a classmate of mine that worked at Moy’s Tea Garden in Downtown Champaign. Moy’s, like The House of Chin, is no longer. On Fridays after school, I would ask what time he would be going out to whatever trouble we could find. His answer was always the same; “I’ll be out when I’m done making the egg rolls.” “How many do you have to make?” I’d asked. “90-100,” he answered. “You have a machine that makes them, don’t you?” I inquired. “Nope, hand roll them one at a time.” It was a real eye opener to the time and care that it takes to make something that appears so simple.
Rainbow Garden egg rolls were wonderful. The filling was generous and tasty. They were fried to a perfect crisp on the outside, with a warm and savory center. The sweet and sour sauce was not necessary, but I typically put some on my egg roll.
My wife ordered cashew chicken with brown rice ($13.95). The chicken was flavorful and juicy. The sauce was out-of-this-world good and brought all the elements of the dish together. The vegetables were zucchini and carrots. The vegetables were cooked perfectly so they still had some crunch to them. What I loved most about this dish was how generous they were with the cashews. I realize the dish is called cashew chicken, but I have visited other places where the dish should have been called chicken with three cashews.
The cashews in Rainbow Garden’s dish were large, crunchy, and of course, had that great salty cashew flavor to compliment the tender chicken. My wife recommends having brown rice with this dish as it has a nuttier flavor and more chew than white rice which complemented the cashews.
Saving one of my mom’s favorite dishes for last, I ordered moo shu pork ($12.95). What is not to like about perfectly cooked pork and vegetables wrapped in a fluffy, warm pancake with a super good plum sauce? The serving size was generous, and I can always count on getting two meals out of it: a real bargain for $12.95.
Whenever I order moo shu pork, I try the plum sauce straight. Rainbow Garden’s plum sauce is one of the best I’ve tasted. It was dark, thick, and rich. This pork and vegetables were so good I could eat them on their own but adding the plum sauce and wrapping in a pancake turned the pork into a decadent pillow of goodness. The pancake also made this one of the easiest dishes to share, much to the delight of my wife. The restaurant gave plenty of pancakes so it was enough to share with two, even three people. Not sure I’d be that generous, but it is possible.
There was a time in my young adult life where I seemed to always be in a hurry. Chinese buffets started to proliferate, and I visited them frequently. They were a fast, economic way to eat. In a world that seems to always be in a hurry, do you yourself a favor and go to a nice old school sit down Chinese restaurant. Take your time. Order your hot tea and savor it while reading the menu before placing your food order. Order your appetizer and wait to order your entrée. Drink in the atmosphere and savor your meal with family and friends. Dress for dinner or go casual. Rainbow Garden in Urbana would be a great place to start.
202 E. University Ave
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su noon to 9 p.m.