Food is an important part of any culture, but it is especially integral to Thai culture. A common greeting in Thailand is, “Gin kao reuyang?”, which means, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Because it is considered a great offense to the rice goddess, Phosop, to throw away leftover food, Thai people take great pride in preparing each meal; their cuisine emphasizes balance of flavors and artistic presentation in order to be pleasing to all senses. Thai food is meant to be enjoyed visually and aromatically as much as it is enjoyed by the tastebuds, and it is meant to be social. Food and conversation are supposed to be shared during mealtime.
All too often in our culture, we see people eating alone in their cars, speeding down the road, cramming sandwiches into their mouths while they talk on their cellphones. For a break from this frenzied, antisocial cultural trend, I highly recommend sitting down with friends or family and enjoying a beautifully presented, healthy, well-prepared Thai meal. Fortunately, there are quite a few great choices in the Champaign-Urbana community. I have three Thai restaurants from which I regularly choose. My most recent trip was to Golden Wok Restaurant and, as always, I left feeling happy, relaxed, and satisfied.
From the outside, the restaurant doesn’t look very impressive. It is small and hidden, tucked away between two recently built apartment buildings on the south side of University Avenue, but there is always ample parking, and it surprisingly seats about 60 to 70 people. The atmosphere is clean and comfortable, with various knick-knacks displayed throughout. The staff is incredibly friendly and accommodating. Guests are always greeted with a smile and offered tips on how to best navigate their eclectic menu, which features dishes inspired from traditional Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Singaporean cuisine. A fresh glass of ice water is served upon ordering, and guests are told to take a seat while their food is prepared. Food is always brought to the table, an added bit of service which I really appreciate. When the food arrives, it is beautifully presented and steaming hot. For this reason, I almost exclusively eat my Golden Wok meals in-house, although they do a significant amount of carry-out and delivery business.
For my most recent visit, I shared two dishes with a friend. We split a very generous sized lunch portion tofu pad Thai ($6.95), and tofu with vegetables ($9.25), a chef’s specialty item which is displayed on the menu board, but not printed on the menu. Pad Thai is the restaurant’s most popular dish, and one bite is all it takes to understand why. The subtle blend of tamarind and garlic mixes perfectly with the unctuous fish sauce. Green onions, bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, scrambled eggs, and shredded carrots adorn the rice noodles, joined by a satisfying amount of flash-fried, bite sized chunks of medium-firm tofu. I ordered mine with a blend of additional vegetables, which adds broccoli, carrot slices, mushrooms, and pea pods to the mix. For $6.95, this is an unbelievable meal.
But Thai food is best enjoyed when shared, so I paired my pad Thai with another vegetarian favorite, tofu with vegetables, and I gladly shared both dishes with my friend. When I ordered my meal, the gregarious employee asked me my spice level preference. I asked for, “spicy, but don’t kill me,” and it was perfect. There was just the right amount of heat to accentuate the fresh, natural flavors of the ingredients without overpowering them. The delicate brown sauce coated the tofu and vegetables perfectly, without being too thick, and its flavor was light and garlicky. There are daily specials offered Monday through Friday, ranging from fried rice to pho, for only $7.49. I have heard rave reviews about the pho and I have enjoyed the delicious vegetable fried rice many times. They also offer a wide range of Thai soups, salads, and curries. Fried rice can be substituted for steamed white rice with any dish, and shrimp can be substituted or added, all for only $1.
The best way to describe chef-owner Micke Keodara’s culinary creations at Golden Wok is perfectly balanced. Dynamic flavors and elegant presentation are expertly married in each dish. In fact, the whole dining experience has a sense of balance to it. Although the food is prepared very fast, it is definitely not typical “fast food.” There is plenty of comfortable seating, so guests can enjoy their conversation without feeling cramped. Food is ordered at the counter and paid for in advance, in a fast-casual model, but meals are brought to the table, adding the relaxing touch of having a traditional server without the hassle of constantly being bothered. There is a tip jar next to the cash register, but gratuity is not expected, so there is a nice balance between convenience and class; meals are reasonably priced, but the experience doesn’t feel cheap. When guests dine inside the restaurant, meals are served on nicely decorated plates. Each table has a stack of napkins, a bottle of a sweet soy flavored house sauce, and a bottle of Sriracha, everything guests need to enjoy their meal.
At Golden Wok, the focus is on the food, but effort has been made to make the whole dining experience simple, comfortable, and convenient, without sacrificing the charm and elegance that comes with a well-prepared, beautifully presented Thai meal. If you are a fan of good Thai or Chinese food, and haven’t tried Golden Wok, I highly recommend you add it your rotation. Whether it’s for a relaxing lunch, a convenient carry-out option, or a speedy, friendly delivery, you will not be disappointed.
Golden Wok Thai-Chinese Restaurant is located at 405 East University Avenue, Champaign, and open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 8:30 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.