Change has been constant on Keeaumoku Street over several years, and more recently, it’s become like a Waikiki side street, with a growing cluster of restaurants and more on the way.
Generally, the action has been below King Street, but with the opening of Tenyaku Asian Yakiniku, perhaps restaurateurs are seeing there’s room for improvement above King as well.
I drive past the area a lot, and many of the buildings at the intersection of Keeaumoku and Young look tired. Let’s just say I haven’t been tempted to stop or slow down in the high-traffic area.
But Tenyaku caught my eye because as renovations took shape, it started to look much glossier and more contemporary than its neighbors. It looked like a place I could flag for people — the sort who care more about appearances than substance — without them turning up their noses from the start. There’s even valet parking.
Just in case, on my first peek at the restaurant, I just asked to see the menu, and I was mighty impressed. It looked huge, and prices appeared to be fairly low. It gets even better if you show up for lunch, early bird or after-9:30 p.m. happy hours, when the restaurant is offering 30 percent off red meat selections.
For that reason, they’ve been drawing a lot of seniors for lunch and families during early bird hours.
As for just how inexpensive that is, premium rib-eye steak, regularly $9.95, becomes $6.97; Angus skirt steak is reduced from $7.95 to $5.57; and at the priciest, Kobe kalbi short ribs go from $21.95 to $15.37.
Before you get too excited, those portions are small, about 4 ounces cut into six pieces. You can have the meat cooked in the kitchen or cook it yourself over a charcoal grill, and with so few pieces per order, it’s not a lot of work. It’s probably best to cook it yourself to your desired doneness, though when I was there, I was talking too much and allowed the premium rib-eye to get overdone. It was great anyway. On the other hand, I didn’t find the Kobe kalbi, even when cooked right, worth the $15.37 happy-hour price, much less the $21.95 regular price.
Think of this place as an upgrade from Gyu-Kaku, with all the Korean side dishes you could want. If you’re a serious meat eater more accustomed to Korean House-style manly portions, Tenyaku will be too precious for your taste. Tenyaku’s a place for those seeking a little more balance at the table and a little more intimacy and grown-up ambience than Gyu-Kaku.
The interior is beautifully lit, with orange lanterns lending warmth to the wood walls and cozy booths. It’s a really pleasant place to enjoy a meal with friends.
One of the things my tablemate loved about the complimentary banchan preceding my first meal at Tenyaku was a namul of kam ja chorim, or sweetened baked potatoes. She said it’s something she hadn’t had since her mother made it for her when she was a girl, growing up in Korea. Her mother used small rose-colored potatoes that aren’t available here, but she liked it enough with the small yellow potato substitutes to request two more portions.
When it came time to order, I wasn’t striving for balance, cutting straight to the meat, though if you need the warm-up act, there are such typical offerings as agedashi tofu ($6.95), fried calamari ($6.95), ahi poke ($6.95), sweet potato fries ($5.25) and the unusual if straightforward cheese corn ($3.95), which is canned corn topped with mild processed cheese. It actually doesn’t taste very cheesy at all, which characterizes much of the food here. The flavors aren’t bland, but they’re not strong either.
The meat, for instance, can be marinated in your choice of salt and pepper, garlic, Korean-style soy sauce, spicy sauce, basil or miso. I requested Angus skirt steak in miso and New York steak loin ($7.95/$5.57 happy hour) in garlic, but the flavors were negligible to start and simply buried once you dipped the meat in its accompanying salted sesame oil. That was fine with me because sesame and salt are so delicious with steak, and all they recommend with the steak anyway is a simple sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Basil was equally negligible on an order of scallops ($6.95 for six pieces). On top of that, the scallops are sliced thin, so don’t think you’re getting the full size.
Pork belly ($5.95) is also sliced thin and is already cooked when it arrives at your table, but the idea is to put it on the grill until it is as crisp as bacon. It never really gets to that point, though. Chances are you’ll be so hungry staring at it that you’ll pluck it off the grill before its time.
The same is true with bacon-wrapped enoki or asparagus ($5.95), two crunchy treats. For the pork, I suggest using the house pear sauce. The mild, sweet flavor works well.
Vegetable side orders, presented in foil for grilling, include corn with butter, asparagus, sweet potato ($3.95 each), and mushrooms with butter ($4.95).
The healthy man or woman cannot subsist on meat alone, so there is the Tenyaku salad ($6.95) of lettuce, tomatoes and carrots, tossed with a light soy dressing the texture of pureed vegetables.
And for wrapping your little pieces of meat, there is sangchu of lettuce leaves and miso bean paste ($3.50). Tear the lettuce in half, otherwise the effect is like dropping a petite hot dog or burger patty into an oversized bun.
Hot stone pot bibimbap ($9.50) will do the trick in filling you up with its combination of pot-crisped rice and vegetables with only a scant portion of sauce, making it milder than most.
Steamed mandoo (or fried, $7.50) will also fill you up. These are huge, and filled with lean pork and glass noodles to meaty effect.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail email@example.com.