In 1869, workers connected the eastern and western segments of the First Continental Railroad with the famed golden spike you read about in grade school. The railroad companies relied mostly on Irish and Chinese immigrants to supply the labor for the project. When railroad work trailed off, we can assume the Irish workers opened up a bunch of bars and Benningan’s franchises, while the Chinese gave us another important staple of modern civilization — Chinese food! Chinese food is incredibly important to American culture. You can expect to find a Chinese restaurant in about any town big enough to support a McDonalds. And here in C-U, where we have a university with a famously large Asian population, we are rich with ethnic restaurants. This is the first in a series that will attempt to review every Chinese restaurant in our community, if I can eat (and write about) Chinese food faster than the restaurants can turn over.
To be sure, I realize I am writing about American Chinese food, not authentic Chinese food. It doesn’t matter that what we commonly call Chinese food is different from what the actual Chinese call food. American Chinese is its own genre with its own expectations and standards. It’s greasy. Its prices change from visit to visit. It comes in the delightful, roughly cubical box that pops out of the bag and says, “I hope you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” It’s like urban comfort food.
This adventure begins at 168 Lai Lai Wok at 402 E. Green Street. The restaurant is fairly established, especially by campus town standards. Its reputation is solid and its online reviews are nearly at rock star status. The location and ambiance are great, and you have a sense of ascending a little as you enter the lobby and the dining room, which floats just above street level. Our table had a great view facing southwest toward the intersection of Fourth and Green. The adjacent high rise and the heavy foot traffic increase the urban quality of the dining experience.
We were quickly seated and in a friendly manner. There were two women seating all the guests and taking all their orders, resulting in what I would call not-quite-full-service. The hot tea is delicious and free … and self-serve. The server/hostess was very nice, but obviously not accustomed to having to play 20 questions with diners about the menu.
I gave up trying to get a walk-through and found a rice dish I thought I could get excited about — Sausage Fried Rice — not exactly standard, but why shouldn’t it be? My lovely date chose the Three Delight Noodle Soup. The three delights turned out to be chicken, shrimp, and beef accompanied by an equally delightful bouquet of rough-cut zucchini, carrots, green onion, and (one of my favorites) bok choy. Button mushrooms rounded out the dish and imparted an earthy quality to the other ingredients, which were served in an egg-drop-style soup of incredible proportion. It really was about a day’s worth of food. The noodles were udon-style, reminiscent of western-style noodles you see on your grandmother’s Thanksgiving feast — a flour noodle rather than a rice noodle.
The Sausage Fried Rice was less intimidating in scale than the noodle dish, but still more than any rational person would eat in one sitting — which is not to say I didn’t devour the whole thing. It was pretty heavy on the sausage and the rice was the pale yellow type. Mine was a little dry, but nothing a little soy sauce couldn’t fix. Also, they should have used a crumbly, ground sausage — it would fry so well and mix with everything else in the wok — but they used a packed, pre-cooked sausage with the skin still on. Still, such a smoky, aromatic element in a fried rice dish was a pleasant surprise.
I nearly forgot our appetizer — we opted for the steamed dumplings. I try Chinese dumplings wherever I can get them and, like any good American, I order them fried (there is something about the texture of fried dumplings that keeps me coming back). But I was delighted with the steamed version we found at Lai Lai. The dumplings would often leak water when broken into by the first bite, but my date reminded me that we get a greasy equivalent from our de rigueur fried version. The dumpling was beautifully starchy on the tongue and must have been hand-made. The sauce felt light, but was still flavorful.
It’s a cliché that the merits of a Chinese restaurant can be estimated to be in positive proportion to the number of ethnic people seen eating there — and Lai Lai is certainly popular with campus’ Asian population.
The worst part about dining at Lai Lai is getting through the menu. It’s like the Ulysses of Chinese food menus. After reading a few pages of their selections, you turn the page and see a new title: “Chinese menu.” It made me wonder what I had been reading the whole time. I had already selected the steamed dumplings before I reached the second appetizer menu — but I would have probably ordered them regardless. Anyway, the communication difficulty is part of the fun of visiting Chinese restaurants and the breadth of the menu left me thinking about all the things I didn’t order. I wasn’t bothered too much when they asked us to move from our four-seat table by the windows to a smaller table with an inferior view when they needed to seat a group of three, but I recognize that it would irritate some diners. If you are going to visit Lai Lai for the first time, my top two recommendations are to just go with the flow and walk in with a couple of menu recommendations from friends or from (one of my best friends) the Internet.
My first instinct was to give Lai Lai 3 fortune cookies out of 5, but because most of the menu remains a mystery to me, I am giving it a 3.5 rating. Yes, intrigue is worth at least half a point. While I have several dozen Chinese restaurants on my list of places to visit, Lai Lai is at the top of my places to re-visit.
168 Lai Lai Wok is located at 402 E. Green Street in Champaign. Their hours are Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Saturday to Sunday from noon to 11 p.m.