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Y Thai is a campus canteen with great pho

A cropped photo of the beef pho at Y Thai on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. The pho is in a white bowl with a side plate of addins (sprouts, basil, lime, jalapeno) and there are white napkins, chopsticks in a red paper, and a mini plate with sauces and chili to add. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Someone told me that Y Thai had really good pho. I love pho, so I was down to check out the little restaurant inside the University YMCA building on the University of Illinois campus. Y Thai is owned by the same family who owns Sticky Rice which serves Lao-Thai cuisine in Downtown Champaign.

As a person who drove into campus just for lunch at Y Thai, it took awhile to find a parking spot, but eating here would be easier for pedestrians are already on the U of I campus. There was a sign for Y Eatery outside of the University YMCA, and inside, there was a big red banner which was helpful because the restaurant is (in the nicest way possible) essentially a closet under the stairs.

Alyssa Buckley

Inside the canteen, there’s a half counter of hot prepared foods like pad Thai and General Tso’s chicken beside the register plus egg rolls and crab rangoons. The cafeteria-style combo lunches include one entree plus rice and an appetizer for less than $10 with options to add additional entrees or upgrade the rice to noodles.

Alyssa Buckley

Pho is available every weekday at Y Thai with beef, chicken, tofu, shrimp, or vegetable (yu choy, onion, mushroom, carrots, and broccoli) for dine in or carry out. I ordered the beef pho ($12) to eat at the Y. The cashier gave me a number, told me to find a table in the front room, and he would bring my pho out to the table.

Alyssa Buckley

This beef pho was so good that I put it in my April Five things to eat in C-U. Served on a cafeteria tray, the pho had long noodles, thinly sliced onion, chopped green onion, and beef in a tasty broth with a plate of add-ins and a spoon for slurping the broth. The starting soup ingredients: onions, noodles, and beef steeped in the garlicky broth, and I added jalapeño, bean sprouts, basil, a squeeze of lime, and a bit of chili to the big soup.

The beef was tender yet still chewy and absorbed all the delicious flavors of the broth, and the grand amount of noodles satisfied my appetite. The aromatic basil on the stem with the onions and bean sprouts were fresh, little crunches, and the lime brightened the pho. At the end, there was a ton of minced garlic at the bottom of the bowl, which explained why the pho was so intensely flavorful. This is a must try if you like pho or garlicky noodle soups.

Since the pho was so good, I wanted to return and try more of the menu, so I met my husband for a campus lunch date last week.

Alyssa Buckley

To start, we ordered the crab rangoons ($2.70) which are available a la carte or as an appetizer. Served with an orange dipping sauce, the crab rangoons were tasty fried triangles with a warm, creamy crab middle. The crispy edges were delicious especially dipped in the sweet and sour sauce, and the fluffy filling had visible pink minced crab throughout. I loved the savory crab center and that so much of the rangoon was crunchy wonton. Two was plenty for us, but if you want more, they are available a la carte or an app of six for $6.50.

Alyssa Buckley

For my lunch, I ordered the pad lard nar with chicken ($10) because I love this dish at Sticky Rice. The chicken was sliced thin, but it didn’t really soak up the dish’s flavors like I hoped. Truthfully, the noodles and broccoli were the best parts of the dish. The wide rice noodles were deep fried to order, and each noodle had both a crinkly texture and parts softened under the sauce. The broccoli was cooked well with soft florets and a tender crunch on the stems, and the veg absorbed the spiciness well.

I tried this dish at medium spice, and it was definitely spicy. The crispy fried noodles tasted great, but the sauced noodles took on the spiciness like sponges, becoming yummy hot, spicy noodles. It’s not the exactly same as Sticky Rice’s version of pad lard nar, but it’s close and just $10.

Alyssa Buckley

My husband ordered the broccoli stir fry with beef ($10), but the other protein options include chicken, tofu, or shrimp. This stir fry was pretty good. The soft onions, sliced carrots, and broccoli took on all of the spicy heat, and the beef was a bit chewy but tasted good. The savory sauce was excellent, but the best part of the dish was its spiciness. We tried this stir fry spiced hot (not the Thai hot, just regular hot), and it was very hot. The back of my throat was on fire, and we were sweating, but it did not stop us. This dish would taste good without the heat, too, but if you want it hot, they will give it to you.

Alyssa Buckley

All in all, Y Thai is an affordable campus restaurant with all dishes priced at $12 or less — and many ready-to-eat. I didn’t particularly love the use of takeout containers for our lunch, but the person working said that was just how the lunches came. The pho came in a real bowl when I had it, but every other dish seemed like it came in plastic containers or on paper plates. That said, I’m sure students or professors would like taking this lunch to go.

The $10 entrees are made to order and a good portion, but the pho is why you should go to Y Thai. The pho is for real fantastic, and if you’re on campus during the week, you’re a lucky duck because you are easily able to get this delicious pho.

Y Thai Asian Cuisine
1001 S Wright St
M-F 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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