POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 09, 2011
I heard about Ming's Chinese Restaurant some time ago from a reader who appreciates excellence in unexpected places. Knowing that, I should have made an immediate attempt to check it out, but no, I waited because dozens of sexier options beckoned.
There's also a love-hate relationship that some people feel toward the food of their ancestors — I feel that way toward Chinese food.
Having grown up with local Cantonese fare, I was over it by my 20s when I left my parents' home and entered a world of new cuisines. Save for dim sum — which wasn't a frequent part of my childhood diet and so is something I now can eat every week — I was among those from Chinese households who, as one friend put it, "Quit the club."
But that's Cantonese fare, and in the big picture, China has many distinctive regional flavors I have yet to explore. In Ming's case, sure, there's a Cantonese menu, but there's also a Shanghai menu that a friend who now lives in that city says is "the closest Hawaii will ever get to Shanghai," with xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and sheng jian bao (pork buns) that are "95 percent close to Shanghai."
Elsewhere, the differences were evident in sweet, salty, fermented flavors that immediately got my attention. I told my tablemate, "I'm eating here from now on."
What makes the Cantonese/Shanghai menus work is having two chefs with their respective specialties so you don't get the bland muddle that comes with the watering down of either cuisine.
If not on the radar of local diners yet, Ming's is certainly on the itinerary of Chinese tour groups. When they do descend, it can be difficult to get a table for lunch. But, if you can wait, those ravenous groups can devour a feast of crab, shrimp, chicken, steamed fish fillets, long beans, dessert and more in about half an hour.
Ming's, in the Waiakamilo Shopping Center (the same complex as The Original Pancake House and McDonald's) looks like your typical strip-mall Chinese restaurant, but a cursory check of such basics as soy-marinated duck ($13.95), salt and pepper shrimp ($11.95), and grilled marinated pork chops ($10.95) showed them to be above par.
For novelty's sake, though, I stuck mostly with the Shanghai menu, starting with the popular xiao long bao (eight pieces for $5.95). The meat is pure, lean pork — no fat, no gristle — for those who might avoid ordinary dim sum because they don't like the idea of eating mystery meat and parts.
Before I bit into the soup dumpling, owner Ying Wu, who waits on tables, warned me to be careful and gave instructions on how to take a small bite.
"Yeah, yeah," I thought, somewhat annoyed that she thought I looked like I needed xiao long bao lessons.
What ended up happening was I took a bigger bite than was wise, and I got scalded by the hot soup that gushed out.
It's more typical in Hawaii to get dumplings so thin and weak that the bottoms tear and the soup spills out before you even pick them up. That's not the case here so take heed, take a small bite to release the soup, and be prepared.
For some reason, deep-fried peanuts ($3.95) stand out on the menu, maybe because among the exotic dishes they're the most identifiable. But these have little in common with our familiar boiled peanuts, flavored instead with a sweet-salty and sticky sauce of fermented red bean curd.
A handful of dishes require a day's notice to prepare, including the yellow croaker with seaweed ($12.95) and some, such as the braised pork belly with preserved cabbage ($11.95), requires 45 minutes to prepare. A quicker, reasonable facsimile would be a dish of preserved vegetables and pork ($10.95), which is a casserole of pickled muy choy (salted mustard cabbage) nestled beneath slices of taro and pork belly.
The yellow croaker is worth ordering if you like a fishy fish. The head and bones are removed, then eight or so of these fish are deep-fried in their torpedo-like, crisp, cornstarch shells.
Then there are dishes Wu tried to steer us away from, saying "local people don't like," such as stewed codfish with pickled cabbage ($11.95) and "Braised Eight Delicious Food of Shanghai" ($10.95), the latter dominated by tripe. Although I might go back for the codfish, for now I took her word for it. I wanted to like everything.
But there was one dish I didn't like — sautéed white crab with rice cake ($13.95). It was beautifully presented, but the five palm-sized crabs were so small there was little meat to be had, and it was not worth working at.
What I enjoyed most were the simplest dishes, including braised pork meatballs ($10.95) with baby bok choy, with the same lean, clean pork as the xiao long bao, and shredded braised pork with mushrooms and cabbage ($8.95), essentially a won bok soup with the consistency of jook, that had very little pork or mushrooms.
My Shanghai friend insisted I order the dessert of black sesame mochi in ginger soup, but I was too full. Maybe you'll remember to save room.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.