Smile Politely

A North Chinese restaurant in town

When my American friends talk about authentic Chinese food in the United States, most always blurt out a particular dish — General Tso’s chicken. However, this is traditional American Chinese food; the recipe was invented by a Chinese chef in the 1970s, while there were only few Chinese restaurants and small populations of Chinese.

After Chinese food was introduced by ABC Food, a large number of Chinese restaurants sprung up. Some smart and industrious Chinese people from Fujian and Guangdong province, with their strong sense of business acumen, started their business with the goal of making Chinese food that had a more American flavor.  This brought popularity to Chinese food in America. It also helped American people get used to “Americanized” South Chinese food. 

Nowadays, with the growth of the Chinese population in the United States, traditional Chinese food is resurgent to satisfy the requirements of native Chinese.

Today, I will introduce one special Chinese restaurant that serves very unique flavor: Bo Bo China on Green Street, which supplies authentic North Chinese food.

Honestly, Bo Bo China is the first restaurant I visited after I moved to Champaign in 2009. Because I was born in the North part of China and grew up there, I love the dishes on their menu.

The managers of Bo Bo China are Mr. and Ms. Zhang, a middle-aged couple who emigrated from mainland China in 1995. In order to avoid the heavy course load in China and enjoy a carefree childhood for their then 11-year old daughter, they quit their stable government jobs and moved to Champaign, when they were in their late 30s. Mr. and Ms. Zhang were born in the 1950s, when the brand new China under Communism required help from the “big brother” Soviet Union for social construction experience. Also, Russian was the second language by default of all middle school students. Because of that, they had to face a cruel reality that they had to feed their young daughter, but they barely spoke English.

After discussing, they made a decision that Ms. Zhang would take charge of language learning, and Mr. Zhang would work in a local Chinese restaurant to earn money. From then on, Ms. Zhang became a student of Parkland College; Mr. Zhang became a kitchen laborer with $5.50/hour to support the whole family.

Ms. Zhang smiled and said, “It was not the hardest time of us.” After they experienced the ten years cultural revolution and the pain of poverty, they had already learned an optimistic attitude towards life.

Mr. Zhang cooking buffet dishes

Several years later, when Ms. Zhang finished her language learning and accounting studies at Parkland College, Mr. and Ms. Zhang bought a restaurant called “Yen Jing.” They kept the Chinese name “Yen Jing,” as well as the English name “Bo Bo China,” which was changed by the previous owner in 2001, when there was another “Yen Jing” in town. In 2004, they started their own business.

First off, Mr. and Ms. Zhang launched a new menu. Because both Mr. and Ms. Zhang are from the Northeast part of China, they add their hometown’s food to the menu, which includes hand-made dumplings, clay pot food, and mountain delicacies. They also add Mr. Zhang’s famous dishes, such as fish fillets in hot chili oil, black pepper beef on sizzling plate, and chicken with three chilis (below).

Chicken with Three Chilis

“Cooking is the hobby of my husband. Reading recipes are happy hours [for] him since he was in elementary school.” Ms. Zhang said. “He volunteered cooking for the Chinese traditional weddings and funerals in [a] rural area, when he was only a teenager,” Ms. Zhang added. “In order to cook the most authentic fish fillets in hot chili oil, he learned from the most famous Szechwan chef in China, although this dish is not from our hometown.”

Clay Pot Food on the lazy Susan

Actually, aside from fillets in hot chili oil, it’s very easy to find some unique foods here if you explore the menu carefully. Personally, I like the hot pot; because it’s the only place you can try this traditional Chinese food in town, and it will warm you up in winter. My husband’s favorite dish is pork braised in brown sauce, which is special made by 13 Chinese herbs. It’s not only tasty, but also nutritious.

Hand-made Dumplings by Ms. Zhang

Influenced by Mr. Zhang, Ms. Zhang began to have some theoretical knowledge of Chinese food, and she took her hometown’s Northeast food in the restaurant as example.

“Some classic Northeast foods are slow-braised in seasonings and less oil.” She stopped for a few seconds and continued, “Usually, people in Northeast China are good at cooking mountain delicacies because of the geographic advantage.” She pointed at one well-known Northeast dish: braised chicken with mushrooms, which is cooked by braising with authentic Chinese Northeast mountain mushrooms.

Ms. Zhang said they would always update the menu and launched new dishes for clients out of respect. She emphasized that respect was the most impressive thing she learned in America. She showed her full respect to her clients by providing the most regular opening hours, the best price of food. and the best dishes they can cook.

Currently, Mr. and Ms. Zhang are in the process of remodeling to double the size of the restaurant. In addition, they are redecorating the whole restaurant by making use of every Monday, when it’s closed. They said all the clients would see a new Bobo China in the coming New Year.


Bo Bo China is located at 404 East Green Street in Champaign and their phone number is (217) 352-2272.

All photos by Sean O’Connor.

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