Smile Politely

San Maru: Korean comes to Southwest Champaign

Southwest Champaign has been home to many restaurants over the years, most of which have shuttered doors after some time. San Maru is a new Korean American restaurant to open up shop in the retail development at Windsor and Mattis. Even though it has only been open since March of this year, it has the makings of a restaurant with staying power.

The space is relatively small, but brightly painted and lit. The color scheme is fresh and contemporary. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stopped in for lunch, but just after noon it was fairly crowded with a variety of folks — students and non-students alike, despite the distance from campus. The atmosphere was lively even at lunch, and I can see how it could get a little loud in there during the busy weekend dinner rush.  

The menu is robust, with favorites like wings and dumplings, as well as more traditional dishes like tang, bokkeum, and katsu. Prices range from $7 for lunches to $25 for shareable dishes. If you’re in need of lunches to go, especially for meetings or school events, San Maru has options starting at $5.50 (for kids) and they’ll deliver. You just need to make arrangements with the restaurant ahead of time. 

I had lunch with a friend, and in addition to our entrées, we ordered the kimchi and squid pancake ($12). Even though the pancake is listed as a starter, it came out after our entrées. The pancake was huge — easily sharable for four — and was served with a lovely tangy vinegar on the side. The pancake was crispy without being oily. The kimchi was flavorful, but not terribly spicy. The squid was chopped into small bites and distributed throughout. If you’re a fan of squid but not a fan of kimchi, check out the scallion and squid pancake instead ($12).

I ordered the lunch beng beng chicken ($7), which is the most popular lunch item, according to the owner. A bowl of rice was topped with some shredded vegetables and fried chicken, and drizzed with “special sauce,” which was barbeque sauce and mayo. The chicken pieces were perfect: fried to a crispy texture, but the batter was light and crunchy. The rice and veggies offered contrasting yet complementary textures. The dish, as a whole, was a little sweet, mostly because of the barbeque sauce. 

My friend ordered the bulgogi plate ($7), which was served with a small salad on the side, and rice and some veggies under the heaping pile of bulgogi beef. The beef was tender and sweet and super delicious. The rice was well cooked, and the salad on the side was a refreshing crunchiness to the tender meat and rice. 

The service at the restaurant was incredibly friendly. You order at the counter and the food is brought to your table. Our water glasses were always full. Despite being quite busy, someone checked in with us at appropriate intervals to ensure we had what we needed. I was surprised by how comfortable the green and white acrylic chairs were; we had no problem lingering over our meal and chatting. Sadly we did not order any bingsoo (shaved ice cream), and I regret that, but I’ll certainly order the fruit bingsoo ($7/$10) next time. 

Likewise, I’m eager to try the dumplings ($5.50 steamed; $6.50 fried). The steamer was down when I was there, so I was unable to give them a go. Actually, everything sounds pretty good. I made a point of looking around to other tables (discreetly, of course) and everyone was eating and enjoying some good looking food. 

The Crossing doesn’t exactly have the best track record for supporting smaller (often non-American food) restaurants, but that trend seems to be shifting. And, of course, in order for a restaurant to stay open, it has to have consistently good food and service. Diners have to want to go there, especially if it’s located outside of their normal live-work travel area. I think that San Maru will be around for some time. While Korean restaurants seem to be a dime a dozen in and around campus, there aren’t any in Southwest Champaign. Also, there’s ample free parking. And the service was good. And the food was good. As people check out, I think they’ll find that it’s well worth the trip west on Windsor.

San Maru is located at 2504 Village Green Plaza, Champaign, and is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. You can learn more about the restaurant on its Facebook page and website.

All photos by Jessica Hammie. 

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