Smile Politely

Best Wok … it really is!

I swear I have never eaten less Chinese food than since I began this review series. It’s like I can’t do it for fun anymore because I should be writing about it. I hope you appreciate what I’m giving up for you people. The next stop on our tour of local Chinese fare takes us to the North side of town to check out Best Wok at 907 W. Marketview Dr., Suite 8 — in townie speak, that’s North Prospect between the Champaign B-Dub’s and some kind of Asian Massage Parlor (unrelated to Best Wok I’m pretty sure). Just to give you a heads up, I was completely in the tank for this place before I ever began writing about food. It’s not the prettiest place in town but I have a lifelong love for this joint and their takes on the classics. This review could very well end up like Jon Stewart pretending to criticize Obama.

So let me take a deep breath, put my critic’s hat on and try to be unbiased. Let me get all the things that are wrong with this place out of the way so I can get on with the love fest. This gem is located in a strip mall, and the décor is about as exciting as it gets in a strip mall; not quite as sterile and lame as the rest of North Prospect, but not exactly a bouquet of ambiance either. Also, the place is not supposed to be fine dining. It’s totally fast food. About half of the guests seem to be carrying out, and even dine-in guests get their food served in Styrofoam containers. Also the place almost always has cops in and out of it. I guess that’s neither here nor there, but watching the counter interactions, many of the guests seem to be regulars. I know I am, and so does the guy who is always at the counter. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know mine, but he knows what counts. When I walk in he always says with an unnecessary question mark at the end — “Chicken fried rice and an egg roll?”

“And a small drink,” I always reply.

Thinking back, this may have been my first introduction to American Chinese food when my mom started taking me there as a kid. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much … because it reaches back into my uncritical childhood. And perhaps that’s why I am convinced that Chinese food should always be eaten with plastic silverware. On to the food.

First of all, they have the best egg rolls in town. They have a medium crunchy exterior and a soft crunchy cabbage interior with shredded carrots and a great sweet and sour sauce. But the egg roll has a different role in my dining experience here than it does elsewhere. I sit down with my meal and bust open my chicken fried rice. I dip my egg roll into the house sweet and sour sauce and use the adhesive qualities of that corn-starchy delight to pick up some fried rice. I do this bite-by-bite until the sad moment when my egg roll has deliciously vanished. And I love that the last bite is the crunchiest. I am a crazy man about my food. When I eat a Jimmy John’s sandwich, I eat the ends first because I like the middle better and I want my last bite to be the best. Here, the first and last bite are the best because the end of the egg roll has a greater proportion of fried wonton wrapper. Yum! The delicious taste of neurosis!

Anyway, once my egg roll is gone, my fried rice has a soft dusting of sweet and sour sauce from the previous exchange to which I add considerably. By now you all know my partner in criticism, Megan. We have noticed differences in the kinds of dishes we enjoy. I tend to like homogenous dishes — like fried rice or lo mien or Pad Thai. Megan prefers dishes with sides to them providing a little variety between which she can alternate bite to bite. The enormous plate of fried rice at Best Wok perfectly fits my dining style. The dish does get a little salt, pepper, and soy sauce to fit my taste. But when it’s ready I delight in knowing that there’s nothing left to do but grab my plastic spoon and go to town. It’s like a starchy rollercoaster with a short line. And if you do it right, you may feel a little woozy when it’s all over.

With her more sophisticated palate, Megan went for the Broccoli and Beef dish. It had a deeply flavored beef gravy which always compliments crisp vegetables. The vegetables in the dish are a stylized rough cut — almost signature to Best Wok. They are cooked — so the flavor is enhanced, and they are marinated by the other ingredients — but they are still crispy. Megan said it was delicious but that she got bored eating it. Makes sense, but for someone who delights in a zombie-like rice fest, I can’t relate. She opted for egg drop soup on the side, which was … well just egg drop soup, nothing special.

The place had a crazy ratio of regulars. And I feel like it’s mostly the poor bastards who have to work on North Prospect, and the only high point of their day is getting a delicious lunch and watching the wok-master make it in a display kitchen. It may be just the taste of stir-fried nostalgia I am getting, but I love this place. 

I’m giving it 4 fortune cookies out of 5. Reserving a star because I don’t expect everyone to love it as much as I do. Tune in next time when I rip into a local favorite with a much better reputation than Best Wok.

Boring vital stats: Best Wok is located at 907 West Marketview Dr., Suite 8 in Champaign. They are open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 12 p.m.–9 p.m. on Sundays.

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