Stango Cuisine might be the nation’s only exclusively-Zambian restaurant, and we are fortunate enough to have it right here in Urbana, Illinois. The newly opened location in Lincoln Square Mall resides on the south side, around the corner from Common Ground with its own entrance. That means you can park just outside of it without having to go through the mall if you’re in a hurry or don’t want to browse the other shops.
At first glance of the menu, you might think Stango Cuisine is another diner-esque spot to eat in Champaign-Urbana. The breakfast and lunch sections of the menu boast the usual array of American-style dishes, including omelettes, sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, burgers, and grilled cheese. The standout on the breakfast menu is the Urbana City Beignet Combo for $5.39, which is three of their freshly fried beignets with a cup of hot tea or coffee. While I can’t speak to their breakfast or lunch just yet, I can report that the magic of their unique offerings lies in their dinner menu.
Stango Cusine’s new spot is quite large, with a waiting area that opens up to the mall, in addition to the separate entrance that leads out to the south side of the parking lot. The dining room has plenty of tables to accommodate a large number of people. When my husband and I dropped in, there were a few tables taken but it wasn’t full. We didn’t see a hostess, so we seated ourselves. A friendly server greeted us with menus and gave us time to decide what we would like to try. There are options for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike; there is something for just about everyone.
From the generously appointed appetizers menu, which includes plantains ($4.29) and gizzards ($4.29), we chose to share a beef pie ($3.79). Unadventurous eaters: they also have cheese fries on the appetizer menu for $3.59 for a medium size. Vegetarians can also try the vegetable samosas for $4.59.
The beef pie arrived enveloped in a bright yellow wrapping and shaped like a pocket. The crust of the wrap was flaky with a distinctly subtle flavor. We found seasoned beef inside and that’s about it. However, despite what initially seemed to lack moisture or sauce, said seasoned beef was full of flavors, some recognizable and some new to us. All in all, the beef pie was very tasty, definitely unique, and we were happy we tried it.
For our entrees, I went with the chicken curry to step out of my comfort zone, as I don’t usually go with curry dishes, paired with yellow rice and greens ($11.59). For those who don’t want spicy, this is a savory dish and spiciness is optional. More on that in a bit. My husband went all out and got the oxtail with a side of nshima and beans instead of greens ($16.49). Nshima, according to the menu, “…like polenta, is an authentic Zambian staple food prepared with cornmeal and water. Also known as Ugali, Fufu, Papa, etc. in other parts of Africa.” On the plate, it looked like bright white mashed potatoes and my mind immediately went to the scene in My Cousin Vinny where the New Yorkers are trying grits for the first time.
We eagerly dug in when our dishes arrived. As advertised, the chef expertly flavored my chicken without making it at all spicy. I really enjoyed my helping of yellow rice with it, too. My husband was oohing and ahhing over the oxtail and then his nshima, which was extremely creamy and not gritty at all. It sops up flavor, such as the sauce from the oxtail. If something could convert a person to try a corn-based side, this would be it.
Just after we started eating, our server asked if we wanted hot sauce. We said sure and when it arrived, it was about a tablespoon’s worth of orange paste in a small dish. We were warned with a smile that it was very hot. We each dipped the tine of one fork into the sauce and tried it. If you are sensitive to heat, you might not like the punch — or maybe a stab? — of spice that hits your tongue. Immediately following, however, is a burst of flavor. I don’t usually eat incredibly spicy food just for spicy food’s sake, but once I adapted to the heat, I dipped my fork in a few more times to complement the other flavors in my dish. We informed our server how much we enjoyed the hot sauce and she told us that they make it with habanero peppers, plus what I can only assume is a secret blend of spices. If anybody at your table puts hot sauce on their food, absolutely get Stango’s version with your meal.
Sides: the greens appeared to be sauteed mustard greens, perhaps some spinach, in addition to some onion. I preferred the beans that my husband had, and although he agreed he enjoyed the beans more, he also really liked the greens and helped me finish them. The beans had a bright flavor to them from tomatoes and peppers, resembling more of the taste of salsa.
As for the entrees, we swapped bites throughout our meal and my husband and I agreed that the oxtail was our favorite. The sauce has an incredibly rich, heartiness to it and is thick like a hickory barbecue sauce. The meat arrives still on the bone, which adds to that richness. After we ate every last bite of our entrees and because the portions were just right, we plowed on to dessert. There was no way I was not going to try the beignets, regardless.
Initially, we were just going to split an order of Urbana Beignets ($4.50), to which our server gave a thumbs up, but they were also serving a dish of fried ice cream that evening, so my husband tacked that on to our order. (It should be noted here that it was difficult to choose among the desserts, as they also serve a lava cake and an apple blossom, plus assorted pies. Make room for dessert!) The fried ice cream arrived first, as the beignets are made fresh and take a little bit. After the hot sauce from dinner, the ice cream really helped. They seal the ice cream in a cornflake-based crust and quickly flash fry it without melting the ice cream. It didn’t hurt that there was a Leslie Knope-approved dollop of whipped cream and two cherries atop this miniature mountain of a dessert.
As to the beignets…If you have never had a beignet or aren’t really sure what one is, it is a pillow of fried dough — think funnel cake — sprinkled with a healthy amount of powdered sugar on top. Simple, yes, but when done properly, you won’t want anything else. You receive three in an order and they are perfect for sharing. The hot, lightly sweetened dough is just crisp on the outside, soft and pillowy on the inside, and best of all, not greasy with no residual flavor of oil.The powdered sugar on top gave the perfect hit of sweetness and melts into the warm dough as you bite into it. It’s some of the best fried dough you can find here in Champaign-Urbana.
There are probably many people wondering whether to try Stango Cuisine and I’m here to tell you with a resounding yes, you should. The place is easy to find with plenty of parking, they have a large menu that caters to the pickiest of eaters, including a kids’ menu, and of course they serve some Zambian dishes that are incredibly well made. More people trickled in during our meal and we heard many compliments about the food going to the servers. There was only one family who came in, looked at a menu and left without eating, but it is truly their loss. Hopefully they’ll try again sometime.
If nothing else, go to Stango Cuisine for the beignets but I bet you’ll end up staying for so much more.
140 Lincoln Square Mall
T-Sa 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Photos by Zoe Valentine