Review | Is Windy City Express a taste of home for Chicago students?
June 23, 2023
Windy City Express is a Chicago-style eatery located on East University Avenue in Urbana. This casual dining location slings Italian beef sandwiches, polish sausages, Chicago-style hot dogs, fries, coleslaw and… Gyros?
An eclectic menu and an unassuming exterior make this place a bit of a mystery, especially when visiting as a student from campus..
This restaurant’s ambiance is clean with absolutely no frills. It was fairly busy on a Tuesday afternoon, with several groups of workers in neon yellow vests taking advantage of their two-dog lunch special.
This place offers reasonable prices and an extensive menu, representing Chicago cuisine with a southern flare. The selection offered at Windy City Express presented many options suitable for many different palates, ranging from the Chicago-style hot dog to fried catfish and mushroom peppers.
The staff is friendly and helpful with a committed approach to providing a positive experience for patrons. When faced with ordering issues, the staff was helpful and understanding.
For a casual, no-frills dining experience, Windy City Express seems to check a lot of boxes.
Prior to entering Windy City Express on Tuesday, I had no idea what a “mushroom pepper” was. Upon asking the kind staff member behind the order counter, he politely explained that a mushroom pepper was a lightly breaded and fried mushroom that could come as a custom side dish with any of the restaurant’s entrees.
On an adventurous whim, I decided to give the intriguing new dish a try.
When the mushroom peppers were served, they were instantly visually impressive.
The outer shell of breading was sumptuously golden brown. Crispy with a good amount of flavor, the fried breading complemented the marinated mushroom caps inside.
The mushrooms provided a warm, satisfying balance to the breading, contributing to a varied eating experience and a welcome substitute for fries in an otherwise uneventful meal.
As a vegetarian paying a visit to a meat-centric restaurant, I did not expect to find such an intriguing new dish to experience. Although it was not exactly the most health-conscious choice on the menu, it was satisfying nonetheless.
Chicago-style hot dog
As an off-campus option, Windy City isn’t the most accessible to University students. Located on the other side of Carle hospital, you would have to be decently motivated to drive to this spot for a meal.
Windy City Express offers a daily deal consisting of two Chicago style hot dogs, a side of fries and a drink. For about eight dollars and 50 cents, the meal is priced more reasonably than most food on Green street.
The interior of the restaurant gives you something nice to look at while you wait. Impressively clean, the venue also displays different styles of artwork on the walls, from paintings and drawings to old-fashioned pictures of Chicago.
Looking for Chicago style food in Champaign, Windy City is close to your only option. The Chicago style dogs were textbook perfect; relish, onion, pickles, peppers and all.
The fries were nothing special, but higher quality than you might find at most fast food locations. They held a little more weight to them and were slightly more filling, while not being overly greasy or salty.
The hot dogs were similar. While the food was certainly Chicago style, there wasn’t anything particularly special about the quality to make the restaurant stand out. The only qualities setting the restaurant aside from most fast food was the cleanliness of the building and the variety of the menu.
If you’re from the Chicago area and missing a bite of home, Windy City Express will give you what you need to tide you over for a decent price. For fast food, it delivers all it needs to, nothing more, nothing less.
Italian beef and sausage sandwich
Many University students are from the Chicagoland area, myself included. Despite the relative proximity of campus to Chicago, it is common for students to feel somewhat homesick.
For many Chicagoland students, homesickness often includes a longing for the region’s specific style of cuisine. For those who do miss Chicago food, the Windy City Express is here to satisfy those cravings.
The restaurant proudly displayed a couple of images that evoke Chicago-related memories, including a photo of Comiskey Park — the old ballpark of the Chicago White Sox.
The menu at Windy City Express was similar to the Chicago area chain Dengeo’s, which was a staple of my childhood. I was excited to try the Italian beef and sausage sandwich, making sure to order sweet peppers and giardiniera with it.
Unfortunately, the similarities between Windy City Express and a Chicago Italian beef stand end there. The flavors of this sandwich were somewhat unimpressive. Despite being dipped in the beef sauce, the sandwich meat was fairly dry and the bread was overly soggy.
The price wasn’t horrible, but I would say that, for students looking to have a reminder of their Chicagoland roots, there may be other options.
Hot veggie pita
As a falafel-obsessed vegetarian, I was instantly intrigued at the mention of a hot veggie pita on the Gyro section of the Windy City Express menu. Although this restaurant has a pretty pervasive meat focus, I had faith that it would pull through on the plant-based option front.
Unfortunately, the Windy City Express veggie pita does not include falafel or any veggie protein. Furthermore, this dish seems to serve as a menu filler that caters to the occasional vegetarian visitor.
Despite the pleasant texture of the fresh pita, the menu item felt like an afterthought. With toppings including banana peppers, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and tzatziki, it seemed as though the purveyors of Windy City Express decided to combine all of their sandwich toppings in order to concoct a bare-bones vegetarian option.
The flavor of the dish was not bad, but it reminded me more of a cheese-less Subway sandwich than a mediterranean plant-based meal. Seeing as Shawarma Joint’s off campus location is across the street from this place, I would advise that plant-based visitors explore other options before spending almost ten dollars on some sandwich toppings tossed into a pita at Windy City Express.
Unfortunately for meat-averse visitors, this restaurant does not exactly offer any plant-based protein options. However, there is one vegetarian entree, so visitors with this dietary restriction will not needlessly go hungry.
Despite best efforts, this restaurant seems like a place that is best enjoyed by a meat-loving public.