With so many options for a meal out in this area, the only thing that matters to me when it comes to the question of whether I’ll eat at a restaurant twice is: Was it delicious? Sounds pretty simple, but there have been quite a few meals I’ve gotten my hopes up for (in this area and in other places) that left me with no real memory of the food having flavor.
When I took my family to lunch at First Wok in Urbana recently, that was what I was hoping for above all else — flavor. Especially at this time of year, when the sun stays mostly hidden and the layer of ice on the ponds is starting to get thick, hot, sweet, spicy Chinese food seems the perfect thing to dispel the chill.
Located on the southwest corner of Florida Avenue and Philo Road in Urbana, First Wok is very much a no-frills establishment. Seating is limited (we were able to find a booth that fit the four of us), drinks are either a small selection of canned/bottled Coke products from their cooler, or water from their dispenser, and condiments come mostly in packets. For dine-in customers, they employ a combination of reusable dishes — both ceramic and plastic — and disposable ones. Patrons order and pay at the counter with both paper menus and a specials board for input. Carry-out seems to be their main method of service; they also deliver to some areas through DoorDash.
None of that gave me pause. I figured that the owners of First Wok prefer to concentrate on providing quality dishes over a high-end dining experience, and I believe I was right.
The food started arriving shortly after we sat down. First was the egg drop soup, which was golden, positively loaded with paper-thin, floating egg ribbons, and much more viscous than I was expecting. The texture was surprising, but I felt that it might have been an authentic touch, and one that I enjoyed. It set the stage for a meal that would both delight and surprise me.
We also ordered wonton soup, which came shortly after the egg drop soup. The wonton soup had a much more traditional broth and each serving featured four large dumplings and some thinly sliced roast pork. It could have been a meal all by itself, and only cost $1 with the purchase of our lunch specials.
Very soon after soup was served ,all of our dishes came out in quick succession: mushroom chicken, Hunan sliced beef, General Tso’s chicken (made less spicy for my son), assorted vegetables in teriyaki sauce, and an order of egg rolls.
Roast pork seems to be the thread that tied our meal together; it was in the wonton soup, the egg rolls, and the fried rice. Tinged with a smoky pink, it was perhaps more visually pleasing than a major flavor contributor to the dishes.
We did quite a bit of passing plates around. Of everything I sampled, I enjoyed the General Tso’s chicken and the assorted vegetables the most. Both were everything I could have asked for in those classic American Chinese offerings: the tempura-like coating on the chicken was fried to crispy perfection and the dish was finished amply in the signature sauce. If you claim that combination isn’t worth blowing your week’s calorie budget on, I’d be tempted to call you a liar.
Likewise, the assorted vegetables were handled expertly, so that all components — the fresh veggies and the (I’m assuming) canned baby corn — were hot but still crunchy and seasoned to perfection.
The mushroom chicken and Hunan sliced beef were solid, if not transformative. I only had a bite of the eggroll, and what stood out to me was that the amount of filling seemed greater than in most rolls and the rolls themselves were larger. Two rolls would probably be more like a meal unto themselves than a side dish, much like the wonton soup.
Our total for the meal was $28.50. The leftovers have (so far) provided an additional two meals, with the potential for at least one more. It's definitely the type of restaurant that makes one wonder how they turn a profit given the amount of food they serve for the price. Based on the flavor alone, however, I would say that f you are familiar with American Chinese restaurants and are curious about giving First Wok a try, it's a better than solid choice.
1815 Philo Rd
Su-Th 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
F + Sa 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Photos by Rachael McMillan