If you are craving Chinese food and live in Champaign-Urbana, you have seemingly endless options. Given the competition in the marketplace, you really have to offer something special to stand out from the crowd. I decided to see how the long-running Rainbow Garden fares compared to local favorite Golden Harbor and campus darling, Cravings. Beyond hearing they have a decently priced and sized lunch menu, I had not heard much about this place prior to visiting.
There are actually two Rainbow Gardens in Champaign-Urbana. I visited the original location on South Neil Street in Champaign, but they also have a second location on University Avenue in Urbana.
The menu has a mix of classic American Chinese dishes you would expect, along with more authentic fare. We had a very friendly server who was quick to help us narrow our search by suggesting we focus on the House Specials menu. This part of the menu has more unique dishes such as sweet Honey Pecan Prawns and “Ants Climbing Trees”, which is thin rice noodles cooked with spicy ground pork. Each specialty dish includes a clear description and a picture.
We started with an appetizer of their freshly made, pan-fried pork dumplings. You get six large dumplings for $6.95. They came out quickly and were warm and crispy. The inside was a bit lacking in filling and did not have a strong flavor. The dumplings were served with a slightly vinegary, yet slightly sweet soy-based sauce for dipping. Overall, they were okay, but nothing remarkable.
For our main courses, we took our server's advice and went for some house specialties: the spicy diced chicken and the boiled beef in Szechwan sauce. This is where the meal really picked up. These dishes were really delicious. I have tried the spicy diced chicken at a few different places and at first, I was confused because the pieces were very dark in color and there was no breading of any kind. Instead, the skin of the meat was really well-roasted and crispy. It was prepared with dried chilies, fresh jalapeños, and celery, which absorbed the spicy oil perfectly. The plate was huge, plenty to share, with a more than fair price of $12.95.
The boiled beef in Szechwan sauce ($15.95) came as a giant, deep red colored soup adorned with fresh cilantro. The broth had a mala, or numbing peppercorn, base. The beef was fall-apart tender and tasty. My only issue was the sauce was not numbing or spicy enough; it felt like it was holding back or was slightly watered down. It did not have a great depth of flavor. The dish included bok choy, which absorbed the broth really well and was a much needed green and crunchy addition to our meal.
Each dish comes with a side of white rice to catch all the yummy sauce drippings. If you prefer brown rice or fried rice, you can upgrade for $1.50.
As for beverages, they offer an assortment of hot teas ($2.50 for a whole pot to share). The teas include green, jasmine, lemon ginger, house special blend, and a decaf option. I went with the jasmine and it was surprisingly strong and was a perfect compliment to the spicy dishes. They also offer a selection of sodas and ice tea. Keep in mind, they do not have a liquor license.
As for the dine-in experience, the place itself is fairly small and cozy. They have a main room with small booths and a back room with bigger tables for parties to share dishes. The interior is decorated in red and gold with dark woods. It was clean and surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night. I think it would be a great place to meet a big group for a nice meal.
Overall, my experience at Rainbow Garden was really good, but not great. The flavors of the food definitely could have been stronger across the board. I would have liked to see a little more variety in their dishes. However, the atmosphere was great on my visit and there are more dishes on the menu I would definitely like to try in the future.
1402 S Neil St.
Su-Th 11:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
F + Sat 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
*see website for delivery hours
Photos by Madeline Trimble