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The Weekly Eater

Benefits of branding

Nadine Kam
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Lobster King seafood buyer and co-owner Jay Chen holds Chinese-style Dungeness crab, left, and an order of lobster at Lobster King Restaurant at King and Keeaumoku.

The corner of Keeaumoku and King streets would seem to be prime real estate, but there has been little on the mauka side to persuade pau hana commuters to stop continuing on their merry way. Whenever I looked over, there just seemed to be dark, foreboding facades.

Then, one day, there was a sign, and that sign read "Lobster King." And beneath it were picture windows that, for once, would allow people to peer in and see light, food and celebration. I waited anxiously for the restaurant to open and, apparently, so did everyone else.

The promise of lobster was a big draw. I envisioned lobster prepared every way imaginable, from old-fashioned thermidor, to po’ boys, bisques or even served popcorn-style, lightly dusted with flour and flash fried.

But my imagination often sprints ahead of reality, so I was surprised to find just another Chinese restaurant with nothing more than, and nothing fancier than, lobster typical of Chinese restaurants, stir-fried with your choice of ginger and green onion, black bean sauce, or XO sauce. Yup, that’s the extent of it. The rest of the menu is given over to the usual minute chicken ($8.95), kung pao chicken ($8.95), steamed pork with salted egg ($9.50), etc.

Yet, the place is packed. A friend of mine who visited as soon as it opened got a table after 30 minutes, the standard dinner time wait. But he said he left without eating because no food arrived after 45 minutes.

It just goes to show you what a little branding can do. Most Chinese restaurants have rather generic names that either mean nothing to a non-Chinese speaker or make an attempt at poetry, e.g. Moon Garden, Glowing Dragon, or House of Fortune. It means nothing in the literal age when people just want a name to tell it like it is and convince them they’ll be rewarded, accordingly, for dropping in.

There’s no doubt what you’re going to get at Pizza Hut! Teddy’s Bigger Burgers! Ono Hawaiian Food!

With Lobster King, it’s mission accomplished. Even if it’s not only about lobster, there’s enough there to build a meal. The restaurant is packed, even though most people familiar with Chinese restaurants around town will find it average. Even so, it has several points in its favor. In the early evening, it’s a welcome family restaurant in an area that generally caters to adult tastes.

While the location didn’t work for previous tenants, it’s central to anyone who lives in a Makiki tower, and there are a lot of those. Parking is plentiful, if not in the lot, then all along King Street, diamond head of Keeaumoku. And for late nighters, the restaurant stays open to 3 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

If you don’t like crowds, you’re better off going to lunch on weekdays, when you feel more like a human being than cattle. Even so, it was interesting to listen to other diners’ reactions as they entered, as in, "Wow, it’s crowded!" (Dude, you don’t know crowded.) And, "I like it already." (You wouldn’t like it if you saw it in the evening.)

The restaurant is simply dressed in square tables, covered with white tablecloths, that can be reconfigured to accommodate larger parties. It’s only noticeable by day. At night, all you’ll see are rows and rows of heads.

I assume that at a Chinese restaurant you’re going to order more than one dish, but more people are trying to save money these days, so there are actually two prices for the live lobster. It’s $10.99 for about a pound-size lobster as long as you order one other entree. If you’re ordering the lobster by itself, it’s $14.95. You might also try ordering the lobster on e-mein, or flat noodles, essentially two dishes in one for $18. I tried it with the XO (dried scallop) sauce and this was definitely worth the trip, even if the noodles were soggier than they should have been.

Similarly, the spinach with garlic ($7.95) was waterlogged. I don’t think the size of the crowd can be used as an excuse. Other restaurants are just as busy on weekend afternoons and give no cause for complaint.

Diced chicken and salted fish fried rice ($8.25) doesn’t have enough of the salt-fish flavor sought by those who would order the dish.

In addition to salt-and-pepper pork chop ($8.75), there is a Tokyo pork chop option ($8.75) topped with garlic chips. It might be better to order the former, with its layer of onions and peppers that might mask the fattiness of the pork.

A braise of kau yuk (pork) and taro ($9.50) had a cloying sweetness and the taro had a chewy consistency far from its essence.

They do make a decent shrimp won ton, served with noodles in soup for $8.50. Simple soup dishes, including roast duck noodles ($8.50), may be among the best dishes here.

While connoisseurs of Chinese cuisine already have their favorite restaurants, this one is better-suited toward those who might normally pick up Chinese basics at a take-out window serving beef broccoli and lemon chicken. A visit to Lobster King would represent a couple of steps above that routine, making it a special-occasion option. And, of course, for anyone hungry for a quick, inexpensive lobster fix.

Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail nkam@staradvertiser.com.


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