Riding the sugar high of last week’s ice cream adventure, I paid a visit to Urbana’s newest eatery, El Oasis. According to dictionary.com, an oasis is "a small fertile or green area in a desert region, usually having a spring or well," or, "something serving as a refuge, relief, or pleasant change from what is usual, annoying, or difficult." Located behind the Walgreens, this paleteria is indeed a splash of life in an otherwise desert-colored strip mall, a refuge from the congested intersection of Cunningham and University Avenues in Urbana. El Oasis offers up Mexican desserts including Mexican ice cream, sorbet, popsicles, tomalito, flan, chamoyada, and rice pudding. Mexican ice cream differs from others in that they are often fruit-based and contain less sugar. There are also a handful of savory items, including esquite, elote, and tortas.
Despite the fairly bland exterior of the strip mall, the interior of El Oasis is brightly painted and lit, open, clear, and accessible. You can see the available ice cream and popsicle choices in the freezers. Each flavor is appropriately labeled with the Spanish/English terms, for example, arroz/rice, or queso/cheese, or guayaba/guava. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with co-owner, Mauricio Salinas. He and his staff were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and were happy to answer all of my questions. When you go, feel free to ask questions about the flavors or the foods – I’m certain the staff will be more than happy to help.
I tried several items, including the flan, esquite, and the chamoyada. I also sampled several ice cream flavors and had a taste of the tomalito.
Flan is an egg-based custard traditionally served with a caramel sauce on top. El Oasis’ flan was a modest size with the requisite caramel sauce. Flan is served cold, and the cold sweetness was a welcome treat. The sauce was thin and sweet, not syrupy or thick. The custard was fairly smooth, creamy, and rich, with the warmth of cinnamon throughout. It wasn’t the most perfectly executed example of a flan I’ve ever seen, but quite frankly, I don’t care. It tasted good. I liked it.
The staff suggested that I try the esquite, which is basically elote in a cup. Elote is corn on the cob covered with butter, salt, chili powder, cayenne, lime juice, mayonnaise, and cheese. The esquite is comprised of the same ingredients, except the corn is cut off the cob and served in a cup layered with the condiments. Both of these items are often sold as street food in Mexico. My cup of esquite was warm and delightful. The corn was sweet and corny (yes, corny, as in the corn tasted like corn), and tasted fresh. It was generously layered with mayonnaise and lime juice, and topped with cheese and chili powder. My first bite was tangy and awesome. The lime juice cut right through the heaviness of the mayo and the cheese, and sung with the sweetness of the corn. The cheese on top provided a nice shift in texture from the smoothness of the mayo and the crispness of the corn kernels. It also added the necessary saltiness to bring the flavors together. I do think that it could have used more heat in the way of some cayenne pepper, but I often like to eat things that burn my taste buds. Even though this is a savory dish, the sweetness of the corn and the creaminess of the mayo and cheese provide for a dessert alternative to those who don’t have much of a taste for the super-sweet. It’s quite the filling little cup, and would be perfect as an afternoon snack.
I also tried the chamoyada, which is fruit-based sorbet served with chamoy, a sweet-and-sour sauce, then topped with some fresh mango and chili or cayenne spices. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, or something that really plays up the sweet/savory tension, go and try one. Chamoyadas are hard to find around here; I’d neither heard of this treat, nor had one, and was excited to give it a go. My guess is that unless you’re a Mexican ice cream shop connoisseur, you’ve probably never heard of or had one, either. As far as I know, this is the only place in C-U that serves them.
I ordered my chamoyada with guava sorbet, because I’m a sucker for anything that contains guava. Most people opt for mango sorbet, as chamoyadas are often interchangeably called mangoyadas. The cup was coated with the chamoy (the savory sauce), and in went the scoops of sorbet. More chamoy was drizzled over the top, followed by fresh mango and chili powder, and a quick squeeze of lime juice added the finishing touches. This cup of frozen stuff was really, really beautiful. The colors were so enticing and alluring, but I had no idea what to expect when I ate it. When I did take the first bite, I was quite surprised by the play of flavors. Much like the esquite, the chamoyada was simultaneously sweet, savory, salty, and sour. It was a bit of a strange experience, if only because I found the sauce to be just a little too saccharine, salty, and thick. Once the sorbet began to melt down a bit and mix with the chamoy, however, the flavors balanced out. The chili powder added a nice little hint of smokiness and heat, and I enjoyed the sprinkling on top. The chunks of mango were cool and refreshing, and provided a lovely soft texture to the iciness of the guava sorbet.
While there, I also sampled a few (ok, most) ice cream flavors. They have a large variety of ice cream and sorbet flavors, including American favorites like vanilla and chocolate, and Mexican favorites like tequila, avocado, lime, mango, mango and chili, guava, corn, cheese, pine nut, and my personal favorite, mamey (a tropical fruit). They were creamy and awesome, and, most importantly, ice cream. I took home a scoop of queso and a scoop of the mamey. The queso has a unique texture – similar to a finely grated Parmesan cheese – so if you’re weird about that sort of thing, perhaps you should try it first. The mamey tasted like tropical fruit – sweet, bright, delicious.
I did have a small sample of the corn tomalito, which is a warm corn pudding. It was thick and corny, and contained enough textural shifts to keep my mouth interested. It wasn’t too sweet, either, which I appreciated. Next time I visit El Oasis, I’ll have a proper dish of it.
I didn’t have an opportunity to try any popsicles yet, but the flavors look awesome and from what I’ve heard from folks who have tried them, the taste is awesome, too. They’re currently sitting in my freezer.
There was a steady stream of customers of all ages while I was there. One woman came in and said that she lived in Champaign, drove out to Urbana to find El Oasis and couldn’t, so she went back home to find out, and came back. That’s pretty serious. She also said that the elote (corn) ice cream was “awesome,” and then she ordered two scoops of queso ice cream. According to Mauricio, queso is a very popular ice cream flavor. I can totally see why – it’s good!
Most folks ordered their items to go, but there was a couple sitting and eating when I was there. Seating inside is quite limited; there are only three tables and a few benches. There are also a few kid-sized seats available, too. There isn’t any outdoor seating, so at the moment it seems best to sit inside and eat, if you can, or take it to go. Prices range from about $3 to $6 per item, which is pretty reasonable.
Perhaps it’s just my love for ice cream, but El Oasis has filled a gap in frozen dessert options in this area. They offer plenty of sweet and not-so-sweet treats – even hot ones like corn tomalito – to please and appease everyone in the family. Don’t let the location deter you; this place is worth it.
El Oasis is located at 510 North Cunningham Avenue, Urbana. They’re open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, find them on Facebook here, or contact them at (217) 954-0215.