Windy City Express used to be a go-to restaurant for my family. When it was on Bradley Avenue in West Champaign in the once-and-future Hardee’s location, we would often grab gyro burgers, Italian beef, and fries from their drive-through to have at home.
Until recently, we hadn’t visited their current location on Race and University near Downtown Urbana. We discussed it many times over the years, but always found another option that seemed to make more sense for us, living where we do.
We decided to dine in on our first trip since the restaurant's move. We had a nice meal, but Windy City is not the type of restaurant one would visit for the ambience. The inside of the restaurant is pleasant enough, clean and decorated with an assortment of framed art that likely once graced a living room wall when I was a teenager. But its key aesthetic is functionality. It has all of the basics: ample seating, clean restrooms, a drink refill station, a television which, at least on our visit, was set to mild reality-type entertainment (not a 24-hour news station, mercifully). And the food is really good, but there are definitely other restaurants we would try ahead of it if our aim is to sit and enjoy a meal.
So, the question becomes: Is the Windy City drive-through worth a visit, even if it’s not on the way home?
We were so determined to find the answer that we ended up going back and getting the food a second time before I wrote this review. First, I’ll review our dine-in meal.
I have to start with my favorite menu item of theirs: the fries ($1.99). They serve the kind that have a crisp, crackly coating on them, and they are always (at least in my experience) fried to a perfect golden brown and seasoned well. They were exactly as I remembered them, and brought back happy memories of when my babies were smaller.
My husband and I ordered a garden salad ($5.99) to share. I’m afraid the picture doesn’t do it justice; you have to imagine thick green bell pepper rings under all that shredded mozzarella. I also enjoyed the addition of thinly sliced dill pickle spears. The combination of fresh and pickled veggies on a salad is always a welcome one for me.
Their choice of dressings are ranch or honey mustard. That worked for me, because I’m a dedicated ranch girl (theirs was fine). One issue we faced was that their plastic forks are pretty flimsy. As substantial as the salad was, it was difficult to eat with the fork provided. My husband even commented that he wished he brought his own.
The entrees we tried on our first trip were the Polish with everything ($3.59), the gyro platter with fries ($11.99), three jumbo chicken fingers with fries ($5.99), and three whole chicken wings, which also come with fries ($5.49).
The Polish was on the small side but was very well prepared — crisp casing on the outside and dressed perfectly with grilled onions, sport peppers, and mustard. The steamed bun was a good match for it.
A word about the gyro platter: it is definitely enough to serve two people. It comes with two pitas and a healthy heap of meat, along with the standard onion and tomato slices and cup of tzatziki/gyro sauce. Fries are not included.
The gyro meat tastes a little more mild, and a little less greasy and salty than others I’ve had. I love fatty, salty, gyro meat, but found their version to be a nice switch-up.
The Windy City Express website emphasizes their chicken dishes, which surprised me. I definitely did not remember that being their specialty, but since that’s what they promote, we had to try some. The jumbo chicken fingers were a good value, I thought. The quality of the meat was exactly what you’d want it to be, and with the addition of their fries, it certainly was enough food for a meal. The chicken was tender but not overly seasoned. I wish I had tried it with their honey mustard, because I bet that would have brought the dish together even better.
The whole chicken wings come plain, but customers are given their choice of hot or barbecue sauce. I went with hot, and poured it liberally over the wings. Much like with the forks for the salad, I felt the napkins weren’t up to the task of getting the tangy and perfectly spicy, but definitely excess, sauce off my fingers. No complaints about the quality of the wings, however; they were crispy on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside.
Besides the fingers and the wings, I didn’t see any other type of chicken offered, so they must have built their reputation on just those two varieties. They seem to use the same light, flaky coating on both and it worked well for both, so again, no complaints.
What we went back for on our second trip was our old favorite, the gyro burger. Unlike the fries, the burger wasn’t exactly as I remembered. I ordered ours with cheese and asked how they usually come dressed (ketchup, mustard, grilled onions, and pickles) and went with that option. They also offered tzatziki, which we took and added at home.
I tried some of the burger meat on its own and it struck me as tasting a little like Cincinnati chili; I thought I detected a hint of cinnamon or similar Greek spices. The overall impression I had was of a Greek take on an American burger. Probably what made it the most enjoyable for me was the addition of gooey American cheese; that seemed to bind the ingredients together physically as well as give all of the unique flavors in the burger a rallying point.
I’m still lamenting the fact that Windy City isn’t closer. Though really enjoyable, the food
definitely tastes best when it’s hot and fresh (with, of course, the notable exception of the salad). I think the lean four minutes it used to take us to get it home was perfect. Our drive home clocked in at around 20 minutes, which was much less ideal.
This means you may want a strategy before you visit Windy City Express. You can dine in but perhaps bring your own fork, eat it in the car (again, maybe with utensils of your own), unfold the bag with the fries to keep them from steaming and getting soggy on the drive home, or maybe have them pack your gyro meat separately so you can microwave it for a few seconds when you’re ready to enjoy it.
But do give Windy City Express a try; they haven’t stuck around this long for nothing. They can definitely put together a tasty meal. Also, be sure to check out their daily specials, which all seem like pretty good deals (as does the everyday special: two Chicago dogs and fries for $5.99).
Windy City Express
410 N Race St
Urbana, IL 61801
M-Th + Sa 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Photos by Rachael McMillan