Asian Taste feels a bit like Diagon Alley, the hidden marketplace in the Harry Potter universe. I say this because it could be easy to overlook, but when you step inside you are transported to another world. Located at 502 E John Street, it is tucked away behind Insomnia Cookies. My first time here was courtesy of a coworker who described it as traditional Chinese food like what you might find in the northern regions of China. I’ll admit I felt a bit of culture shock, but the food was so comforting my worries were quickly assuaged as we sipped brothy bowls full of noodles, meats, and vegetables.

This time I was more prepared and excited to try different menu items. Having been there once before I was also better able to take in my surroundings while we waited to order. It is a small restaurant and remarkably quiet for as busy as it was during the lunch hour rush. If you ask me, that’s the mark of good food: everybody is too busy eating to talk too much. I almost felt as if I had walked into somebody’s home...if their home had a menu and photos of food on the walls, an order counter, and an assortment of seating arrangements. There are a couple of fish tanks and several houseplants in the window, which provides some greenery and allows some natural light to shine in and brighten up the space.

We ordered an appetizer of Spicy Chicken which was about $4. And we definitely got $4 worth of chicken — it was a small mountain of chilled spicy chicken. We dug right in and discovered that it was tender and had a perfect amount of heat. The chicken is presumably rubbed with the spice mixture after being cooked and shredded, then refrigerated to marinate. This allows it to absorb the flavor without becoming overpowering. It also became a nice complement to my meatless dish.

Our entrées came out a short time later. We retrieved our steaming bowls from the order counter and sat down in a recently vacated booth. The Noodles with Sesame and Peanuts Pasta ($6.95) was plated in a way that should impress any Food Network judge. The bowl was filled with noodles which were topped with the peanut sauce, shredded carrot, shredded cucumber, and what I assume was the sesame mixture. I really love peanut sauce and this peanut sauce hit all the right notes of saltiness and nuttiness. When I  got a bite with the noodles, carrot, cucumber, and sesame mixed together, it formed a delicious combination. If you add a little bit of the Chinese chili oil that sits at each table you’ll get a spicy bite with some extra kick.

The Noodles with Meat Sauce ($7.95) combined the same noodles with cooked cabbage and carrots, small chunks of meat (pork maybe? It wasn’t specified.), and a broth that I would drink by itself. While this dish utilized the same noodles as the peanut dish, they took on a different texture when immersed in broth. It was as if I got two different meals in one bowl —noodles to be wound up and devoured and a broth that begs to be drunk directly from the bowl. I can’t say enough about the broth in this dish, which while savory also had a very subtle note of sweetness. It felt as though I was being thawed from the inside out as I sipped it.

I should also mention that the entrée portions are incredibly ample and generous. These were large bowls and they were filled up with deliciousness. I wanted to eat and eat — so I did — yet I felt comfortably satisfied when I was finished despite the sheer amount of food we had consumed. For $23 total, we got way more food than we expected.

Asian Taste has a website where you can order online, and a very short “About Us” section.  There appears to be a Facebook page which hasn’t been updated in several years. However the business seems to be doing very well despite the absence of much online presence. The ambiance is really very cozy and inviting. All the patrons sat bent over their bowls, some immersed in intimate conversations. The kitchen staff is only just barely visible from the order counter, but it’s obvious they stay busy. The woman who took our order was patient with us and conversed with some of the other customers in Chinese, which I can imagine would be welcome if you’re living outside your home country.

It’s obvious that noodles are the staple at this establishment. Noodles are so versatile and Asian Taste plays that up in each dish. I was impressed by the difference of flavor just by changing up what accompanies them. Every dish had a depth of flavor that can only be achieved by patience and skill. It was apparent that the food geniuses here have invested a lot of time and energy working on their recipes. The result is a variety of menu items that are appropriately salty, savory, and soothing.

Asian Taste
502 E John St
Champaign
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Photos by Sarah Meilike