Chinese, Sort Of

Three chains shake up the Chinese restaurant scene.

Some people love chain restaurants. Witness the long lines at Cheesecake Factory. Other people turn up their noses at the very concept. I’ve always thought it doesn’t matter. A restaurant either performs or it doesn’t, whether it’s owned by a single chef or a megacorporation.

Suddenly we have two new chain restaurants: P.F. Chang’s in Kaka‘ako and Chin’s Kahala in the old Tony Roma’s location on Wai‘alae Avenue. In addition, Jackie’s Kitchen, which is more a potential chain than an actuality, has reinvented itself in Ala Moana Center.

What’s interesting is that all three of these chain restaurants are more-or-less Chinese.

Chinese restaurants in Honolulu have been in the doldrums for two decades. It’s nice to see someone shaking things up.

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
Hokua Towers,
1288 Ala Moana Blvd.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Valet parking, major credit cards

P.F. Chang’s doesn’t feel like a Chinese restaurant. In many ways, it’s not. It’s that easily cloneable animal, a casual upscale American eatery. One that, in this case, just happens to serve Chinese food.

P.F. Chang’s vegetarian Buddha’s Feast stirfry is one of the best things on the menu. photo: courtesy of P.F. Chang’s

It’s tastefully done, with a beautiful 40-seat bar. In standard casual-upscale fashion, the main dining room is noisy.

My advice: Sit on the terrace, where the tables seem slightly farther apart and the noise dissipates into the open air. The view at the moment is the construction fence at Ward Centre, but that’s likely to improve.

There were four of us for dinner. “You can tell it’s not really a Chinese restaurant,” laughed one of my friends, “Nobody comes to the table, slams down a pot of tea and says, ‘Whaddya want?’”

Chinese restaurants are seldom great at presentation. P.F. Chang’s manages to combine one of the planet’s most venerable cuisines with good old American merchandising. For instance, you know the condiments that usually sit on the table at a Chinese restaurant, the shoyu and so forth, that you mix up with mustard in a little white saucer? You won’t find them at P.F. Chang’s. A friendly, well-trained server comes to the table bearing all the condiments on a white serving tray. There are full bottles of shoyu, vinegar and chili oil. They stay full, because you don’t have to use them.

The server explains that this is her special sauce, which the kitchen has premade from all three ingredients with some sugar and green onion. She then adds a dollop of mustard and chili paste, mixes them, and voila! your dipping sauce.

Here’s the kicker. She then explains that this is the absolutely perfect sauce for P.F. Chang’s signature appetizer—Chang’s chicken in soothing lettuce wraps. After all that, it seems a shame not to order them.

These wraps are famous. The Web is full of people in places like Indianapolis and Pittsburg singing their praises. Someone in Florida pronounced them “divine.”

Oh, please. There’s nothing divine about iceberg lettuce. Nothing soothing even. It is just tasteless, and it doesn’t even wrap well.

The minced chicken is a fairly standard Chinese filling—water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, shiitake, a little hoisin, shoyu, sherry. Nice texture, little flavor. The whole thing needs the special sauce to give it any life whatsoever.

There’s lots to like about P.F. Chang’s—the décor, the service, good martinis, decent wines, including a Trimbach pinot blanc, an Austrian white wine you won’t see on many Honolulu lists, for a reasonable $35 a bottle.

The food is fresh, well-presented—but bland. For instance, no self-respecting Mongol would eat the Mongolian beef. Good, tender beef, but the sauce was more of a glaze, sweet, sweet, sweet, with hardly a hint of Northern Chinese spices.

The shrimp in lobster sauce similarly made our taste buds yawn. Nice enough shrimp, but the menu promised that the egg-thickened sauce contained wine and garlic. These failed to register, as did any lobster.

Some items had more life. The Singapore street noodles had some bite to them, though not as much as the word Singapore would connote. A fusion-style fish dish, steamed wild sockeye salmon, had a zip of ginger. It was served over some first-rate, wok-fried vegetables.

In fact, our best dish of the evening was the “Buddha’s Feast,” all fresh vegetables—mushrooms, sugar snap peas, asparagus, broccoli, carrots. Wokked up, they had great flavor and texture.

P.F. Chang’s has inventive desserts with something of an Asian twist. For instance, there are banana spring rolls, a dish that’s perhaps more familiar in Hawai‘i as banana lumpia.

The banana is deep-fried in a spring roll wrapper, then cut into six bite-size pieces. It’s served with flavorful coconut-pineapple ice cream and decorative squiggles of sauce—caramel and vanilla.

Then there’s the Lucky Eight—chocolate rolled in long sheets of won ton wrapper, then deep-fried until the chocolate melts. You dip these chocolate-filled sticks into an ancient Chinese mixture of caramel and peanut butter, then roll them in bits of toffee. Fun.

Prices were entirely reasonable—main dishes from $7.95 to $17.95. The whole dinner, including wine and tip, for four was $163. With the check came fortune cookies. But no fortunes.

Instead, the little slip of paper inside each cookie read: “Hawai‘i’s First P.F. Chang’s. Mahalo for joining us. For reservations, call 596-4710.”

Good old American marketing. It never lets up.

Chin’s Kahala
4230 Wai‘alae Ave., 737-7188,

Lunch daily 11 a.m to 2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

Chin’s Kahala is, without question, a Chinese restaurant. The minute you sit down, someone brings a white teapot and little teacups. The menu has 140 items, everything from lemon chicken to sea cucumber with roast duck feet. The prices are reasonable, the food’s served family style.

Still, it doesn’t look like a Chinese restaurant. Most Chinese restaurants are so brightly lit you suspect the owners have stock in HECO. Chin’s is lit like a normal dinner house, with candles on the table. There are tablecloths and cloth napkins with a fancy fan fold. There’s a mix of Chinese décor and Western art on the walls.

There were six of us at dinner. Everyone had his or her own ideas about what dishes to order. A debate erupted over the appetizers—half the table hated the idea of crab-and-cream cheese wontons, the rest felt they couldn’t live without them.

At Chin’s Kahala, the shrimp are wokked with green tea and served tumbling out of a bamboo basket. photo: Olivier Koning

When they arrived, even the people who hated them in theory loved them in actuality. Big triangles of golden dough were filled with not too much cream cheese, with what tasted like real crab and diced vegetables with texture. You dipped them in a fruit and vinegar Chinese duck sauce, bright red but fortunately not cloyingly sweet.

The other appetizer was a shrimp and peach roll. This was casually wrapped in a wonton wrapper with a twist at the end. More dissent. “These are deep-fried, too,” complained one person. “And anything deep-fried has to be good,” said another. I liked the way the flavor of the fresh peach melded into the taste of the shrimp.

The duck set off yet another dispute: Peking duck versus roast duck in wine sauce. Fortunately, the roast duck won. This was half a duck, served cold, beautifully sliced and presented, even the legs chopped into manageable pieces. The sauce was not a wine sauce in the Western sense. It was a rice wine, with a dose of shoyu, and clearly some kind of duck reduction. This was one of the best ducks I’ve ever had—and a whole lot of duck for $14.95.

The duck was only the first of five entrées. Chin’s does a good job with presentation, especially the green tea shrimp in a bamboo net. To make green tea shrimp, you make a whole lot of green tea in which to marinate the shrimp. Then you stir-fry the tea leaves with the shrimp. This doesn’t impart as much tea flavor as you’d suspect; it’s rather subtle.

To placate the beef eaters, we also had “Chin’s famous filet of steak.” On a platter surrounded by orange slices, came remarkably tender slices of beef, stir-fried in some shoyu, black pepper, garlic, perhaps a touch of bean sauce. When I asked what was in the sauce, they said, secrets. That’s what they said about the duck.

To make Chinese salt-and-pepper recipes, you can’t just reach for the salt and pepper shakers. Instead you have to toast both black and Szechuan peppercorns with some coarse salt, grind the results and sprinkle it on the meat, usually mixed with a cornstarch-flour mix to make sure everything sticks. Add some garlic and a few hot peppers. The resulting flavor is as lively as a preschooler hopped up on sugar.

First we ordered salt-and-pepper pork chops. Then salt-and-pepper crab. We hadn’t meant to order crab at all. But the waiter insisted we should, because it was on special, $9.95 a pound. By acclamation, we had it as well.

I didn’t think we wanted two similarly spiced dishes, but the waiter convinced me that salt-and-pepper was the chef’s best crab preparation. Since the waiter was David Lei, who’s waited on me in various restaurants for decades, beginning in the glory days of the old King Tsin on King Street, I believed him.

It was a great meaty Dungeness crab. People who are smart don’t start with the legs. They go for the body sections, that’s where the meat is. Oh, yes.

If Chin’s has a weakness, it’s the wine list. From a list largely of cabernets and chardonnays hopelessly unsuited to Chinese food, I selected the only pinot noir—a Talus. It’s a pinot from Lodi, Calif., famous for Gallo, not for pinot. It doesn’t cost much, $25 on Chin’s wine list, perhaps $11 retail. But it isn’t a very good wine.

Even with two bottles of wine, however, dinner for six, crab, duck, shrimp, steak and all, was $190 with tip.

I got curious about the San Diego chain from which Chin’s had sprung. But when I called San Diego, I found that the chain’s proprietor, Chin Lung Tsai, happened to be in Hawai‘i.

Over a lunch of tangerine beef, braised string beans with pork, and more crab, I gathered some of the restaurant’s back story.

Tsai came to Hawai‘i from Taipei in 1976. He attended Honolulu Com-munity College to learn English, and cooked part-time at the old Mongolian Barbecue at the Chinese Cultural Plaza, back when it enjoyed a brief vogue.

A friend in San Diego had a restaurant. Tsai loaned him money, and when the restaurant found itself in trouble, Tsai went and took over. That was in 1980. In the intervening 26 years, he’s “built an empire,” as he puts it—11 well-regarded Chinese restaurants in San Diego and its suburbs. Tsai got out his camcorder and showed me on its small screen a video of his beautiful flagship San Diego restaurant.

“I like tablecloths,” he said. “I hate it when they put those plastic tops over them. I like candles, so a man can come with his wife and they can have a nice dinner together.”

Why return to Honolulu? On a trip back, he says, “I see Chinese restaurants here nearly the same as 30 years ago. I knew I could do something.”

He bought Ho Ho Chinese in Kapolei, upgraded it. It’s a buffet restaurant. “But I give good stuff, crab legs, duck.” Then he cast around for new locations, eventually settling on the former Tony Roma’s in Kahala.

Tsai’s scouting for more O‘ahu locations. “Can’t tell you until we sign, but I like it here.” He may well become a force to be reckoned with.

Jackie’s Kitchen
Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., 943-CHAN (2426)
Open Sunday through Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Saturday until 11 p.m.
Free parking, major credit cards

A hit restaurant can make you a celebrity (think of Roy, of Emeril, of Ming Tsai), but a celebrity can’t necessarily make a restaurant a hit.

Film star Jackie Chan has Jackie’s Kitchens in Korea, a few in Australia, all serving Chinese food. But the Ala Moana Center Jackie’s Kitchen is entirely separate from those restaurants, as well as from Chan’s restaurant interests in Hong Kong.

Chan and some friends from California are partners. The Ala Moana restaurant was supposed to be a beachhead from which Jackie’s Kitchens could conquer America. Instead, the restaurant developed some uncertainty about its direction. After being open a two-and-a-half years, the partnership called in reinforcements—Royce Ring and Alexander Urrunaga, two Texans who go around the globe redoing restaurants in trouble. You have to love the name of their company: Plan B.

Mits Hamada, the new executive chef of Jackie’s Kitchen, is part of a new team hoping to turn the restaurant around. photo: Olivier Koning

The original décor had a riot of colors and a surplus of plasma screen TVs showing Jackie Chan movies. The entry used to be dominated by a counter selling Jackie Chan tchotchkes. The new interior is much better, calmer, all done in high-end wood tones, browns and beiges. The cocktail lounge now looks like an upscale living room, with couches and coffee tables.

The menu’s been redone as well. There’s a new executive chef, Mits Hamada. He’s 25, looks 16. After growing up here, Hamada went to Johnson & Wales, the East Coast culinary college that now has a Denver campus. He worked at the Roy’s in Denver, then returned to Honolulu, where he was sous chef at Ruth’s Chris and then, for two-and-a-half years, at Chai’s Island Bistro.

It’s been years since we’ve seen somebody this young get a chance to put his mark on a kitchen. If the consultants will let him. “They’re from the Mainland, so their ideas were pretty haole. I modified the recipes so they are a little more local,” says Hamada. “I think they’re starting to trust me and let me do dishes on my own.”

The original menu at Jackie Chan’s was Chinese with some Western touches. Between the consultants and Hamada, it’s evolved into a PacRim bistro.

There are still some Chinese dishes, more or less. Among the appetizers are “Who am I?” shu mai. Not bad, these are filled with chicken instead of a pork mix, and topped with a blast of cilantro pesto. There are also cream cheese wontons (since when did this become a Chinese restaurant staple?). They are not as good as Chin’s, but at least they taste of crab.

The real star of the appetizer menu is an excellent deconstructed poke: cubes of ‘ahi, lightly drizzled with a sesame-citrus dressing.

“The consultants really messed up the pad Thai,” says Hamada. “But I’ve got it right again.” The pad Thai is full of tofu and vegetables, and Hamada has hit the sweet-acid-spice balance.

Most of the entrées are PacRim rather than Asian. There was a filet of onaga on a bed of baby bok choy, slathered in the same pesto that tops the shu mai. A tasty garlic steak, topped with onions and mushrooms, with a side of something I’ve never had, sweet potato shoestring fries, which proved addictive, sweet and salty simultaneously.

But Hamada’s signature dish is his thick pork chop, lightly glazed with apple cider, garlic, onions and rosemary, atop a bed of mashed sweet potatoes. Simple, compelling, delicious.

I found myself discouraged with the wine. Jackie’s Kitchen sells a four-foot-high cylinder of beer with a tap at the bottom, so perhaps a serious wine list is too much to ask.

Since I was out with the boys, martinis seemed our best response to the limited wine offerings. I’ve always found the touch of cucumber worked with both vodka and gin drinks. I ordered a saketini: vodka, sake and a slice of cucumber.

One of the boys took exception to this concoction: “I don’t see how they can even possibly call that a martini. I don’t even like to see it on the table.” Since I was paying $9.50 a pop for his Grey Goose martinis, I thought this showed a certain ingratitude. But, then again, you have to let people have their opinions.

My friends cheered up with the pork chop, and then, after refusing desserts, went to town on the trio of sorbets: lychee, guava and a soothing blend of haupia and liliko‘i. Like P.F. Chang’s, there’s also a banana lumpia, this one coated with cinnamon and sugar.

Dinner for three, including two rounds of drinks, was $165 with tip. I thought it a trifle expensive compared to Chin’s and P.F. Chang’s, but not out of line for the kind of restaurant it’s aiming to be.

I’m not sure Jackie’s Kitchen is quite there yet. But at least now it’s an adult restaurant with a young chef who’s only been on the job three months. Turn him loose, let’s see what he can do.