If not for the boom in Japanese tourism beginning in the mid-1990s, we would not be blessed with the wonderful Japanese restaurants we have now.
Another boom is well under way, this time having more to do with the weak American dollar, which makes it cheaper for Japanese companies with a yen to start a business abroad, to do so.
By year’s end you’ll see many more Japanese-owned restaurants sprout up. Among the first is Jin Din Rou, offering its take on Taiwanese cuisine, with a simple lunch menu at King and Kaheka streets. I’m waiting until it offers a complete dinner service before I review it, but for now you can take a look at the dumpling-making process at my Take a Bite blog.
I’m also looking forward to a new pork restaurant, as well as another Japanese-Italian restaurant, among others.
But guess what? The Japanese are no longer the only major support system. We’re welcoming more Korean and Chinese visitors, so you can expect more innovation as entrepreneurs to try to cash in on those markets.
One newcomer, Ni Hao, is attempting to address both groups with its Korean take on Chinese cuisine. To locals the fusion might seem a bit odd, but a mostly Korean audience is eating it up.
The resulting cuisine is closer to Chinese food than Korean, but you’re presented with banchan to start, such as kim chee, processed yellow daikon and raw onions with a slick black puddle of black-bean sauce as smooth as sesame paste.
The main draw for me is the fresh noodles made on site. It is amazing to watch the noodle maker in action, pulling and stretching the dough, flicking it like a jump rope, when all of a sudden the thick rope separates into many thin strands.
I thought I had missed the crucial step of cutting the noodles, but actually I hadn’t missed a thing. It’s all done in the pulling and twisting.
It’s amazing how dough about the width of a big dog’s rawhide bone becomes slightly thinner than udon. No machine necessary.
The noodles go into two specialties. One is a black-bean-sauce noodle ($7.50) that is scary black and full of onions. Yet it is surprisingly mild and subtle, without the pungency or saltiness associated with Chinese black-bean sauces.
The other dish is a thin seafood-and-vegetable soup ($8.50), like a watered-down, less spicy version of a Korean stew. You can order either a la carte, but most newbies order a combo ($14, for two) for the experience of tasting both. I like spicy foods, so that dictates what my choice would be.
The restaurant is a casual one fronting Keeaumoku Street and the sparkling new Korean market Keeaumoku Supermarket.
The food is generally more healthful than at many Chinese restaurants, made with reduced to no salt, no MSG and without those ladles of oil that give so many Chinese dishes their sheen.
I really missed the salt in a dish of poached bok choy with mushrooms ($12). If I were to return, I might opt for bok choy with garlic sauce ($9) instead. Not quite as flavorless was a stir-fry of vegetables and shrimp ($13) with broccoli, chunky bamboo shoots, onions, bell peppers and the crunch of water chestnuts.
Gun poong shrimp ($14) or chicken ($13) are specialties, dry-fried until chewy and crispy, and coated with a garlicky sweet-sour sauce.
Mongolian beef ($13) browned with onions was more sugary than you’d find at a Chinese restaurant, and the dish that came closest to its counterpart at a standard Chinese restaurant was the kung pao chicken ($11).
Other menu options include such basics as lemon chicken ($11), beef with broccoli ($13) and won ton soup ($10).
Service is very good in that servers are attentive and eager to show newcomers how to enjoy the food, including how to mix their own sauces of vinegar, shoyu and red pepper at the table.
Beyond the noodle show, though, there wasn’t much enticing enough to wean me away from any standard Korean or Chinese restaurant. Which sounds familiar. I recall feeling the same way about the first Japanese- Italian fusion restaurants. Look at them now.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.