POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 20, 2010
Human beings are creatures of habit, even when it comes to tracking down one's next meal. Choosing a restaurant isn't all about the food. If it were, the so-called "best" restaurants would command all diners' attention. We may pride ourselves on seeking out the best, but that's typically for special occasions. On a daily basis, it's eat at home or love the one closest to you.
Oahu has hundreds of restaurants to choose from, but when it comes to picking one for lunch and dinner, I believe most people have only about a dozen, or fewer, that they frequent. There will always be those trendsters with the energy, freedom and means to chase the latest and greatest, but I'm guessing they have just a handful of reliable, humble favorite haunts that people in other parts of the island would never go out of their way to find.
Similarly, I tend to shop at the nearest grocery stores, but one day, when I found myself at Times Liliha, I passed by Nice Day Chinese Restaurant and wondered why, after living in the area five years, I never visited once. For starters, it looks like one of those restaurants that has been there forever, blending into the backdrop, but it's only been open two years. It's a sister restaurant to Kaimuki's Happy Days.
For weekend dim sum, I typically head to nearby Chinatown on autopilot, bypassing this strip mall. With so many restaurants to choose from in Chinatown, if one restaurant is full, it's easy to walk to the next. Then there's the general ambience of Chinatown, with its lively and colorful markets and bustling streets, which delivers an "experience" even if the restaurants themselves have no more flair than a mall restaurant.
Nice Day is one of those places too generic to become much of a media darling, but check it out for weekend dim sum and it's packed -- a nice fit for the community and those who don't want to mess with downtown parking. In the Liliha Square lot, parking is ample and free.
By day the restaurant offers about 36 types of dim sum, at $2.30 to $2.50 per selection, some better than others. Chiu Chow-style half moons filled with a mixture of pork, peanuts and vegetables are comparable to those available in Chinatown, and shrimp har gau are translucent gems packed with the chopped shellfish.
But, there wasn't much flavor to a basic pork shumai. If it's pork flavor you're after, you'll get it in the bean curd roll, the meatiest in town.
I can't complain much. I don't believe there is one best dim sum restaurant anymore. I might hit different Chinatown restaurants for specific items. I've not been impressed by the trend toward monstro dumplings held in place by wrappers as thick as pancakes. They're just not the delicate pieces they used to be.
Nice Day did succeed in the impossible by getting me to say one of my favorite dishes off the dim sum menu is the stuffed green pepper. I don't usually like green peppers, but here, the crisp pan-fried green pepper provided a nice counterpoint to the soft, bouncy texture of the fishcake stuffing.
The restaurant's full menu is also available day and night. It's a huge menu that is standard for this town, so I was tempted by the more unusual specials such as lamb with ginger and onions ($12.95) and a pork and pumpkin hot pot ($10.95).
I forgot I was at a Chinese restaurant, so I expected to see white onions with the lamb, a la Japanese skillet dishes. Of course it was green onion, and due to the heavy sauce, the lamb might as well have been beef. Only occasionally did the gamey flavor of lamb come through.
The hot pot was nearly all pumpkin, but that was fine. Slices of roast pork were just there for punctuation.
Where this restaurant shines is in deep-frying. Crispy chicken ($10.95 half) prepared on the premises has a skin with a thin, glassy crunch that's superb. The nuts in a dish of honey-walnut shrimp left something to be desired, but the shrimp arrived in a light, airy, crisp puff, despite the layer of honey sauce. A marvel.
It might also be worth noting that in the evening nearly every table had a hot-pot dish sitting on it. I look forward to trying others such as the spare rib with bittermelon ($9.95), seafood with tofu ($10.95) and eggplant with tofu ($8.95).
I'll be back for a few favorites I've found so far, and with so many menu options, I'm sure I'll find more. Not bad, for just a neighborhood restaurant.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.