On Saturdays, I like to visit the Urbana Market at the Square for fresh produce, dog treats, and all kinds of local crafts. I am always tempted to sample some of the fresh food but often resist indulging too much early in the morning. It was only a few weeks ago that I finally sampled the beef pie at Stango Cuisine’s stall, and my first thought was to scold myself for having waited this long. Ever since, I have had a hankering to visit the full restaurant in the Lincoln Square Mall and get a more comprehensive taste for Zambian cuisine from the only Zambian restaurant in the United States. Given that they recently announced that they will be closing their Urbana location to relocate to Champaign, it seemed all the more timely to visit their original home base.
My partner and I decided to get our food to go, but Stango had a large space available for a sit-down dinner. We felt immediately welcomed by delicious smells and a warm greeting from the friendly service staff. Perusing the menu, there was no shortage of appealing options, and we were struck by how accessible their menu was for individuals with dietary restrictions. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options are both numerous — and clearly indicated on the menu. The real treasure is the fact that many their their entrée options come with a choice of starch (rice, sweet potatoes, nshima, yuca, or fried plantains) and a choice of greens or beans, opening up a host of menu combinations.
Photo by Rafay Khan.
As an appetizer, we opted for the vegetable samosas ($4.99). As someone who has had his fair share of samosas, Stango’s vegetable samosa had a familiar, comforting taste, chock full of flavor and spices but without much heat in the filling itself. The savory pastry shell was crispy, clearly freshly fried, and steaming hot even after the drive home. The filling of potatoes, peas, and spices was soft and pillowy, providing the ultimate mouthfeel to complement the crispy exterior. A spicy chutney was provided on the side for those looking to add a kick to their appetizer. To my fellow spice lovers, I highly recommend it!
Photo by Rafay Khan.
We also couldn’t resist an order of plantains ($4.99) to accompany our meal. The plantains were caramelized until golden and soft while still maintaining their signature texture. As promised, they were ripe and sweet, providing the familiar banana-like flavor we were looking for, offsetting the savory samosa. I have had crispy fried plantains before, but this was my first time trying the soft, sweeter preparation, and it did not disappoint.
For my entrée, I opted for the beef stew with a side of sweet potatoes and greens ($13.99).
Photo by Rafay Khan.
The tender, deeply flavorful beef was served in a delicious, rich curry, which served as a nice pairing for the potatoes and greens as well. It was hearty and comforting, delivering the familiarity of beef stew but introducing me to Stango’s signature Zambian flavor profile. It really felt like the beef had been simmering in the curry for hours. As my loyal Smile Politely fanbase obviously remembers, my literary debut last summer involved reviewing my five favorite beef dishes around town, so you may say I am something of a fan. I would eagerly to add Stango’s beef stew to that list.
The sweet potatoes were sweet, starchy, and soft with a texture that just about melted in my mouth. The sweetness of the potatoes was a perfect accompaniment to the natural beefiness of the beef. The greens were incredibly flavorful, and their bitter flavor perfectly complemented the sweet and savory components of my meal, so that my dinner really rounded the palate. I especially appreciated that everything was served in a single container, allowing all of the delicious flavors to intermingle, combining to develop rich flavors all over the plate.
Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
A long-time vegetarian, my partner was delighted to see a wealth of options on the menu suitable to her dietary needs (there is a whole vegetarian section on the menu!). After much deliberation, she ordered the Urbana vegetarian plate, which included a choice of rice, sweet potatoes, or nshima alongside servings of beans and greens ($11.99).
Hoping to try something new, she opted for nshima, a starchy, neutrally flavored Zambian staple, to round out her meal. Now it’s important to note that my partner has an honestly unusual fondness for beans and vegetables. She may unironically, for example, name broccoli among one of her favorite foods. This is all to say, she has high standards when it comes to greens- and legume- based entrees. I can assure you, however, that Stango’s offerings did not disappoint. My partner quickly identified the greens as some of the best prepared vegetables she’s had in a long time; she loved the savory preparation, and the greens were cooked to the perfect level of tenderness without losing their body and bite. In contrast to the bold and flavorful vegetables, the preparation of the beans was mild and understated (in a good way). Rather than disguise the natural earthy flavor of the beans with a host of added seasonings and accoutrements, Stango let the beans themselves shine. The neutral flavored nshima served as the perfect vehicle to marry the different elements of the dish, as my partner found herself using it to enjoy the last bits of curry lingering at the edges of the plate. Indeed, the nshima served as the ideal base to capture every flavor profile (I may have “borrowed” some to enjoy the curry of my own beef stew because, after all, the reviewer has to taste everything, right?).
Overall, we were excited to finally try this local gem, having heard many great things since they first opened in 2017. The food was extremely comforting and nourishing, and you could truly feel the love that was put into its preparation.
As announced earlier this week, Stango Cuisine will be teaming up with Wood n’ Hog barbecue in the Downtown Champaign area, and I will definitely be in line for their grand reopening. In the mean time, I will be a regular visitor at their Farmer’s Market stall, which will continue to operate as usual.
(Until July 31, 2022)
140 Lincoln Square
F 11 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.