Just off Interstate 74 at the Mahomet exit (Route 47 south, exit 172) is a small Chinese restaurant that’s one of central Illinois’ best kept secrets. At first glance, this generic-looking strip mall joint looks like a second rate Chinese take-out restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The dining room looks sparse, the fluorescent lighting a little harsh and it’s sandwiched between a Subway and a nail salon.
But take a closer look and you’ll see red strips of paper with Chinese writing hanging on the wall. That’s a good sign — that’s their “secret” Chinese menu. Look around at the tables and you’ll see at least one or two tables with Chinese people eating (that’s another good sign). Go up to the counter and Tina will greet you like a regular, just like she did at the old Mandarin Wok on Green Street more than three years ago.
When we first discovered where Tina and her dad were hiding out, we asked why they moved. Tina explained that she and her dad sold Mandarin Wok in 2004 because the restaurant got too busy. She and her dad were overworked. They signed a non-compete contract with the new owners that required them to be at least 15 miles away from campus if they were to open a new restaurant. So here they are, in Mahomet, where things are a little quieter, and they can actually enjoy running a smaller restaurant.
Quieter on weeknights maybe, but on weekends every table is full of happy diners, most of them loyal customers from Champaign-Urbana. And if there’s an empty table, it has a “reserved” sign on it. Word of mouth got around pretty quickly that all your favorite dishes from the old Mandarin Wok can be had right here in Mahomet. And Tina still remembers what you ordered last time as well as what your favorite dishes are.
So how do you get a reserved table? All you have to do is call ahead and tell Tina what time you are coming. So on a recent evening, we called and asked Tina to prepare a banquet for four. Instead of asking for our usual favorites (Three cup chicken, snow pea tops, fried tofu), we told her that we were in the mood to try something new. We asked her to surprise us with dishes not usually available at other Chinese restaurants. And surprise us she did.
When we got to the restaurant, there was indeed a red reserved sign on our table. Not long after we sat down, Tina brought us a pork dish, a chicken dish, a fish dish and a vegetable dish. She then proceeded to explain each dish to us in detail. The pork dish was prepared with five special spices that her dad mixes personally and it was served on two pieces of crunchy fried tofu. The chicken dish was prepared with Taiwanese hot oil that her dad makes from scratch. She decided to have it prepared with bones in the chicken because that’s traditional (and it tastes better!). She couldn’t remember the English name of the fish, but she described it as “similar to halibut,” and it was steamed with ginger and scallion, then topped with a light soy sauce. She just got some fresh razor melon in, so she asked her dad to simply sautee it with a little garlic and salt — and that’s all it needed.
Once again, Tina had taken care of us and designed a perfect meal, balanced with a variety of flavors and textures — some spicy, some delicate, some strong, some subtle, some crunchy, some soft. This is authentic Taiwanese cuisine at its best, prepared by a master chef who has been cooking all his life. If you’re into trying new things, forget the menu and just talk to Tina when you arrive. She’ll interview you to get a sense of what you like and then will suggest dishes for your approval. Trust me, she knows what’s good and what’s fresh and she has never failed to produce less than a perfect meal.
Since The Wok doesn’t have a liquor liscense (and Mahomet is a dry town), you’ll need to plan ahead and bring in your own beer. And if you prefer not to eat on styrofoam plates, you can also bring in your own bowls (really, it’s okay, Tina doesn’t mind). After all, isn’t it the food that really matters?
703 Eastwood Dr