When we’re in the mood for Thai, we always seem to end up at Thara Thai. Champaign-Urbana certainly has no shortage of Thai restaurants for us to choose from. Basil Thai may be cheaper, Nitaya Thai may have better atmosphere and Siam Terrace may be very popular, but we believe Thara Thai has the best food, hands down. This very friendly family-owned joint might be located a little off the beaten path on Bloomington Road, but it’s well worth the trip as many regulars have discovered.
There are over 80 dishes on Thara Thai’s menu, so you’ll likely find something you’ll like. In fact, if you study the menu carefully, you’ll discover amazing treasures few other restaurants in town offer. Everything we’ve tasted so far has been terrific, so we keep going back for more. There is an ample vegetarian selection, but even meat lovers will have to try the Basil Mock Duck. In fact, this healthy version may even taste better than the real thing. Made out of tofu that’s been fried, the “duck” is slightly crispy on the outside and nicely tender on the inside. Stir-fried with basil, bell peppers, onion, garlic and a sweet soy-based sauce, one can enjoy this guilt-free dish every day and not worry about suffering any heart attacks.
Not all Thai restaurants have green papaya salad on their menu, so when we spotted it on Thara Thai’s menu we had to give it a try. The crispy shredded green papaya is served on a bed of lettuce, then topped with tomatoes, ground peanuts, lime juice and chili peppers. This is a wonderfully refreshing dish that has a wonderful texture and perfectly balanced flavors. Just be sure to ask for the mild version as the authentic version may be a little too spicy for American palettes.
Another find on Thara Thai’s menu is the Yum Pla Muk, a squid salad served at room temperature. The tender squid is tossed with red onions, carrots, bean thread and then topped with lime juice, cilantro and chili peppers. This is a unique Thai dish that instantly transports your taste buds to an exotic far-away place. Our other favorites include the Eggplant with Basil Leaves and the fail-safe Pad Thai with rice noodles, bean sprouts, eggs, green onion and tofu. We usually can’t resist the super sweet Thai iced tea. And there’s even a few Chinese dishes to please the local take out crowd.
We also try very hard to save some room for dessert because the Sweet Sticky Rice and Mango is a perfect finish after a spicy Thai dinner. Drizzled with coconut milk, the subtly sweet rice is elevated to a new dimension. And there’s nothing in the world like fresh, juicy mango slices to top it all off. The service is always super friendly and the owner usually comes out into the dining room to chat with her guests. This kind of authentic local experience is easy to get used to as we find ourselves going back again and again for that warm, familiar and comfortable feeling that Thara Thai gives us. Maybe it’s just us, but unlike other restaurants, it seems Thara Thai has actually gotten better over the years.
Thara Thai is located at 912½ Bloomington Road in Champaign, Ill.