Smile Politely

Lunch from three spots at the Illini Union food court

Two tacos and chips from Maize on tin foil.
Chips and tacos by Maize; Photo by Carolyn Thomas

The Illini Union food and drink scene has seen some changes in recent years. I used to eat at the Union about once a week, and believe me, it was hopping with Wendy’s, Blaze, Qdoba, Chick-Fil-A, and Einstein Bagels to name a few previous establishments. Remember the crepe restaurant that was there for a time?

There are a number of establishments still available for food and drink in the Union including Just BEE Açai. Recently, I tried out a few of the new places in the food court located in the basement. Here are five eats I tried on a recent visit.

A rectangular slice of pizza with a big baguette from Mia Za's in the Union.
Pizza and breadstick combo at Mia Za’s in the Union; Photo by Carolyn Thomas

Mia Za’s Express

This was the newest offering in the food court, recently opened this spring semester, and yes, this was run by the same owner as the Mia Za’s just down the road on Green Street. This express location was different in that they have premade slices of cheese, pepperoni, meat, or a daily special. We tried the cheese pizza and garlic breadstick combo ($6.90), which came with a slice of cheese pizza and breadstick. The pizza was served as a rectangle, and the crust was not the normal thin crust associated with Mia Za’s but instead was more of a less oily pan crust. The crust had a good flavor with a light crunch on the bottom. The sauce was a standard tomato sauce, not too sweet, not too salty, and the pizza may have benefitted from a bit more sauce. There was a good amount of mozzarella cheese that was quite stretchy with good flavor. It did need to be heated a bit more, as it arrived lukewarm. Overall though, I liked the pizza and would eat it again. 

The breadstick, however, was another story. It claimed to be garlic bread, but there was not a hint of garlic. I like garlic, and when ordering garlic bread, I do want to keep the vampires at bay! It was not oily, not doughy; it was just unremarkable.

A styrofoam container of cashew chicken with vegetables from Thai Fusion in the Union.
Cashew chicken from Thai Fusion at the Union; Photo by Carolyn Thomas

Thai Fusion

Thai Fusion was next to Mia Zas Express, and yes, this is an extension of the location also on Green Street. As we stepped up to the counter, we saw there were a number of choices, and we went with the cashew chicken with fried rice ($8.70). The dish came with a heaping mound of fried rice — so much that we thought they were not going to be able get any cashew chicken in the container. Not true! There was also a generous amount of stir-fry containing chicken breast, carrots, broccoli, onion, and cashews in a soy-type of sauce. 

The dish had a good flavor with a nice crunch from the cashews. The vegetables were not overcooked, and there was just enough sauce that the dish wasn’t swimming. The fried rice had a nice flavor with fresh ginger, scallion, and scrambled egg evident in the dish. Additionally, the rice was not overcooked or undercooked. Since it was counter service, it did need to be heated a bit more, as it arrived lukewarm. Ultimately though, I would order from here again.

Two tacos with chips and salsa from Maize at the Union.
Chips and tacos at Maize at the Union; Photo by Carolyn Thomas

Maize at the Union

The third location open in the food court that we visited was Maize at the Union, situated in the room that used to house Qdoba. This location is the third brick-and-mortar location for Maize and boasts the same menu as the others. We ordered two tacos traditionales and two aguas frescas. On our tacos, we selected pescado (fish, $4.75) and the pastor (pork, $3.50), a staple from Maize; both in the traditional style served on homemade corn tortillas with diced onions and cilantro topping. Both tacos had a good amount of protein. The fish was grilled and not fried. With a nice flavor, the fish was very light and cooked very well. The pastor was a bit dry for our liking, but, overall, the flavor was good. As always, these proteins were served on Maize’s delicious corn tortillas that don’t easily fall apart. 

All orders over $10 also came with complimentary homemade tortilla chips and salsa. This visit we had a choice of three: mild, hot, or green. The chips and salsa are always on point, but I do wish there was perhaps a touch of salt on the chips. The food was hot, fresh, and cooked to order, so it arrived piping hot.

Two white styrofoam cups filled with ice and agua frescas: hibiscus and pineapple flavors.
Hibiscus and pineapple aguas frescas; Photo by Carolyn Thomas

Of note, Maize is the only location in the food court that, in addition to fountain drinks, also has specialty drinks. The aguas frescas choices that day were rice water, hibiscus, and pineapple. We ordered two of the three aguas frescas: hibiscus ($3.50) and pineapple ($3.50), which were both a nice size. The hibiscus was fruity and sweet with a hint of flower flavor, and the pineapple was very sweet with a great pineapple flavor, almost like canned pineapple. Both were delicious, and I would try these again on future visits.

Maize’s menu was large with lots of options, so I would definitely eat at this location in the future.

The hours of the eateries in the food court differ, and there are additional places on the first floor, so check the Illini Union website for hours of operation. Online ordering from all locations is also available. 

Illini Union 
1401 W Green St
7 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily

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