I admit it: I am an addict for Chinese take-out.
For a while, I thought that there were three Chinese restaurants in town that were owned by the same person. After all, they had the same menu — with the red typeface — and the exact same listings. The prices varied, but not by much more than a few cents on certain items.
Then, I learned these menus were something that Chinese restaurants can choose to purchase, and the restaurateur can opt to align his culinary choices around what has already been listed. It makes sense; a printing company someplace offers these hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints ready-made menus and four walls later, a place like No. 1 Wok is born.
The name is about as classic as it gets. By declaring themselves “No. 1,” I am not sure if the owners are speaking presumptuously about whether they are, in fact, the “best” in town, or whether they were simply first in town, like a church or bank. Or, they could simply be referring to the fact that, of all the places in town, their particular woks have been assumed to be number one based on volume. Whatever the case, this little joint on the corner of Green and Chestnut, streets where the old Katsina’s used to stand, is not just worth your time but also worthy of being declared exactly what their name implies: the best in town.
Okay, hold your horses. Let me clarify.
This is not really a sit-down restaurant. There is seating — that is true — but it’s mainly for the grab-lunch-quick crowd or the lonely-single-guy-night-out folks. So, that is what I am comparing it to; not to places like Peking Garden on Randolph Street or Tang Dynasty in Lincoln Square Village.
There are a number of places like this, what my mother refers to as “cheap Chinese” joints in Champaign-Urbana. Don’t take that as an insult. I think she just likes the alliteration and the prices. First Wok in the Sunnycrest Mall is another, and one of the originals as far as I can tell. Green Jade on Windsor Road has the same menu, too. Shanghai 1938 is similar as well, though they lack the ubiquitous menus and provide a much more welcoming dining area than the other three.
These are, however, dissimilar to Chinese fast food, which is laid out before you in troughs, not cooked-to-order and generally disgusting. Hot Wok is the place that comes to mind, and while I have eaten there on a number of occasions throughout the years, this is not the comparison I am looking to make.
Why is No. 1 Wok the best in town? I am not exactly sure; again these places tend to be rather interchangeable. But as someone who has eaten at First Wok on Philo Road more times than most (I managed the drive-thru Baskin-Robbins for three years — which, by the way, was the first BR drive-thru in the nation). I can safely say that the cooks at No. 1 Wok are a bit more careful with their recipes than First Wok. Green Jade’s prices are fit to service the “Haves” (as opposed to the “Have-Nots”) on the south end of town, so they are automatically out of the running.
When you go, start with the Subgum Wonton Soup ($4.95). It’s filled to the brim with relatively fresh vegetables, pork-filled wontons and the best chicken broth you can find. The vegetables at First Wok tend to be a little more diverse, but the broth at No. 1 Wok is less salty, and far more consumable in large portions.
For noodle dishes, go with the Chow Fun. Chow Fun is a broad noodle — its intended to be thick and hearty in order to soak up the sauces that it’s mixed with and cooked in. At First Wok, it’s more of a big fettucini, but here, the Chow Fun is mammoth-sized, and the cabbage, onions and meat are all equally portioned. There is never too few of anything.
The specials are plenty, but I generally stick with the Empire Shrimp, which is simple in it’s approach: gargantuan shrimps drowned in an oyster sauce and mixed with mushrooms and so many pea pods you won’t know what to do with yourself. The Sesame Beef is also worth noting. It has a crispy outside, but gives way to a soft and flavorful center each and every time. It is served with broccoli that is always a brilliant green and crispy enough that it just might be fresh. It tastes good enough anyway.
In all, it’s just a Chinese restaurant. But for those of you who consider Chinese take-out to be one of life’s more beautiful pleasures, No. 1 Wok is absolutely the jam.
No. 1 Wok. 12 E. Green Street, Champaign. (217) 356-4700