Smile Politely

Cravings: Light on your wallet but heavy on flavor

Two years ago, I was walking past the ECE building on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus with one of my friends. It was cold and my stomach was rumbling. I complained to them and they looked at me with a look of sheer excitement. “LET’S GO TO CRAVINGS!” I was hesitant. As a child, my experiences with Chinese food either resulted in me spooning grease into a separate bowl or getting sick. I looked at them and agreed. Hopefully, this would be a better experience.

As soon as I walked in, my nostrils were hit with the fragrances of chili peppers, ginger, basil, and garlic. I began salivating. Normally, the Chinese restaurants I went to reeked heavily of bleach and grease. This however, was exceedingly pleasant. Once I looked up at the menu, it got even better. There were options not just for Chinese food, but Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, and even Indian food.

The first dish I ever ordered from Cravings was the chicken gado gado. Gado gado is an Indonesian salad of steamed vegetables dressed with a light peanut sauce. But Cravings’ version is listed under their Malaysian menu and is a hearty dish of green peppers, your choice of meat, and a thick peanut sauce ladled over the meat and veggies, served alongside steaming jasmine rice.

The gado gado has been my go to meal during cold winter days where I have forgotten to pack my lunch. However, recently I have decided to broaden my horizons and try as many dishes from Cravings as I can. During my current trip to Cravings, I tried two new dishes: hot and spicy diced chicken and tofu in garlic sauce.

The diced chicken was flash fried and came with dried peppers. The spice rub on the chicken was reminiscent of a typical five spice Chinese powder. It was perfectly made, with a spice rub that was not only flavorful but not too salty. It was also incredibly fun to eat! If you happen to be a spicy food lover like myself, this is the dish for you.

The pieces of chicken already have a bit of a kick to them. However, eating the dried peppers with the chicken not only upped the spice level, but the flavor profile changed as well. Every bite was better than the last.

Now, if you’re vegetarian, Cravings has plenty of vegetarian options that are as delicious and at times more so. The tofu with garlic sauce is a fantastic option. Tofu is a difficult food to cook correctly. But, Cravings has cooking tofu down to an art. They perfectly cube, season, and panfry it. When you bite in, there is no disconcerting spurt of hot soybean water. The salt and pepper on the tofu went well with the garlic sauce.

Normally, I am not a fan of thin sauces, but the garlic sauce was a sweet and spicy marinade that not only elevated the tofu’s flavor but also made the vegetables tastier. The vegetables also remained crisp within the sauce. This is another thing that I appreciate about Cravings; they rarely overcook the vegetables, they remain perfectly crisp and simultaneously absorb the sauce of the dish you have ordered.

Besides its incredible food, Cravings’ prices are just as astonishing. The most expensive thing on their menu is approximately $9. Most of the dishes are around $7 (cheaper if they are vegetarian). Along with the affordable prices for their amazing comfort food, the atmosphere and hospitality offered by the staff is as cozy and comforting as the food. The service is fast, efficient, and for a bit feels as if you’re home.

So, if you’re in the mood for cheap but amazing food, Cravings is the place for you.

Cravings is located at 603 South Wright Street, Champaign, and open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. You can order online here

All photos by Fatima Watto.

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