Sometimes the best tasting food come from unassuming locations and restaurants. Thara Thai’s location and exterior aren’t necessarily beautiful or fancy. And the food served inside is pretty simple, but it’s pretty darn tasty.
Thara Thai is usually my go-to Thai take-out, but the restaurant doesn’t deliver, so it’s pick-up. It’s notoriously slow — if you’re planning to pick up an order, allot 30 to 40 minutes — but it isn’t nearly as slow if you’re dining in. The atmosphere within the restaurant is cozy, and the one server (who generally seems to also work behind the counter) has always been polite and attentive.
The menu features pretty typical Thai restaurant meals: noodle dishes, curries, Thai soups, fried rice. Entrée prices are generally between $9.99 and $17.99, with most dishes at $13.99. In addition to many Thai favorites, you can also find pho and riffs on Mongolian beef and General Tso’s chicken.
The restaurant is a fantastic option for dining with two or three other people; the best part about the large portions of food is sharing. Don’t go with a huge party, though, as the restaurant is fairly small (unless you make prior arrangements, of course).
I’ve tried a number of items on Thara Thai’s menu, and have, on the whole, always been pleased. There are a number of starters for vegetarians (check out the spring rolls) and omnivores. The chicken satay (4 pieces, $7.99) was lightly curried and grilled, and served with a cucumber salad and peanut sauce. The salad was light and refreshing, the sauce sweet, nutty, and not too thick. It’s a pretty decent appetizer, especially if you like to eat meat off of a stick.
The mini veggie egg rolls (6 pieces, $5.99) were tasty little fried bites served with a tangy dipping sauce. The filling isn’t particularly flavorful, but the crunchy wrapper and sort-of bland filling combine with the sauce in a way that is very pleasing to the mouth.
I’ve found that some of the noodle and rice dishes can be a little bit oily, but not so much so that I’m turned off from the dish. The thing I enjoy most about Thara Thai’s food is that the kitchen doesn’t mess around when you request spicy. Anything that is spicy will be hot. I’ve found that some other places in town don’t believe me when I request an item to be spicy, and more often than not I’m sorely disappointed. But definitely not at Thara Thai. That last few times I’ve eaten there, the mild-medium-hot scale has been used, and medium is plenty spicy.
My go-to Thai comfort dish is Pad Thai with tofu or chicken ($10.99), spicy. The tofu was likely pan-fried, but not breaded, so the texture was firm and a little crispy on the edges. The noodles were coated with flavorful sauce and cooked just beyond al dente. The peanut sauce was very subtle, and there were ground peanuts on top. The Pad Thai was by no means peanut buttery (which is gross); instead the sauce was sweet and spicy, a little oily, but not greasy. The texture is a little homogeneous; the lack of a lot of veggies leaves everything a little soft, but the addition of some sprouts, carrots, and peanuts adds a little crunchy texture. Most recently I ordered it with chicken, which had a similar texture to the tofu, and didn’t add much in the way of flavor.
A similar texture exists in the drunken noodles (pictured with tofu, $13.99), but the addition of more veggies adds some more tender-crisp crunch to the soft noodles and tofu. The tofu was very firm (again, unbattered, likely pan-fried), but was clearly not marinated and lacked a little in flavor. I ordered the dish at medium, but I think a more accurate description would be “hot shit spicy,” or at least that’s what I wrote in my notes.
The curry fried rice (pictured with beef, $13.99) contained onions, cashews, scallions, and potatoes. The beef was tender, and the veggies were all cooked to crisp-tender. The curry was light and slightly sweet — there was no heat in this dish. The generous portion is plenty for one, and a nice amount to share with two.
The Panang curry (pictured with chicken, $11.99) was rich and velvety smooth. I ordered this at medium, and like everything else at that level, was quite spicy, but not hot shit spicy, and likely mellowed by the coconut milk. The carrots were tender little orange suns in a coconut cream sauce sky. The rice was perfectly cooked, too. I ordered this as take out, and it was still piping hot when I got it home. The leftovers the next day were just as good.
The papaya salad (pictured with chicken, $11.99; vegetarian pho take-out also pictured, $11.99) was huge, and easily more than enough for one person, and more than enough for a couple of people to share. The vegetables and papaya were all very crispy and crunchy, and the sauce (ordered at medium) was quite spicy. The heat was balanced with some tanginess, and this excellent salad was refreshing.
Yes, Thara Thai is located outside of Downtown Champaign. You know what that means? You’re likely to get a table on a Friday or Saturday night. Like most Thai places, the menu is varied enough to accommodate vegetarians, omnivores, and the gluten-sensitive. And while the restaurant can seem painfully slow, the food is well worth the wait.
Thara Thai is located at 912 W Bloomington Road, Champaign, and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., and Sunday, 12-9 p.m.