Monday, November 15, 2010

Hibachi Xpress: the tastes of a hibachi steakhouse without the fire and flying knives...

When I was twelve, my father seeded my love for Japanese food (which led to my sushi-curiosity which I’ll elaborate upon another time) by taking our family to a Detroit-area hibachi steakhouse called Kyoto.  My younger brother and grandmother shared an adjoining birthday, so the extended family tended to gather in mid-November to celebrate both.  Kyoto was still relatively new then, so the concept of hibachi style dining was new to all of us, save for my father, who found the restaurant.  Since we were a large group, we were spared the awkwardness of having to sit with strangers, but the show was impressive.  Flashbulbs popped (remember, kids, this was 1984) as the chefs flung food and knives, and indulged their own inner Beavis and Buttheads with alcohol and lighters on the grill.  At twelve, you have to take the entertainment you can get—and if it involves people playing with fire for you, all the better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hibachi cooking, but the showy aspect of it gets tiring after a while.  I mean how many onion volcanoes can one see before the applause becomes less than genuine?  How many times can a cheeky chef fling cooked shrimps at the stuffiest person at the dining table (not that I’m at all bitter about it after all those years, mind you) before it becomes predictable?  A big portion of the hibachi dining experience (and cost at the end of the meal) is the show itself.  Sometimes, you just want the damned food…without the clang of knives on a table, hot flashes, and the astronomical check that follows it.

Hibachi Xpress is a Raleigh-based chain with several stores in the surrounding areas.  I’d been to the one in Apex this past June, and found myself impressed with the food, but left feeling a bit…dismayed by the store’s condition, a run down and grungy space in a strip mall.  However, after spinning the Urbanspoon app the other night, I saw an impassioned plea from the owner, who was responding to his critics and asking for a second chance.  As a fat guy and armchair glutton, who was I to deny such a heartfelt appeal…especially when I saw their prices?  The fact that their Cary location was also two minutes from home certainly played in their favor.

The Cary location is in strip mall adjacent to the Crossroads shopping center.  A stark contrast to its Apex counterpart, the Cary store is elegantly and tastefully decorated, with several LCD televisions (though most were showing ads for local businesses), tiled floors, vinyl tablecloths, and pagoda-styled moldings, with a dominant earth tone color scheme.  Yellowed lighting softens the mood, but regretfully doesn’t compliment the browns and reds in the store.  In spite of its elevated presentation, Hibachi Xpress is still a fast-food style restaurant.  Orders are placed at the front counter, prepared behind the glassed-in grill area, and set out for customer pickup.  Service items are disposable—with plastic utensils, paper sauce cups, pumps that dispense the various sauces, and a self-service soda fountain, making the restaurant a bizarre nexus of one star dining in a two or three star setting.

The hibachi chicken (which was done a great injustice by the yellow mood lighting) was well prepared—blending carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and broccoli with the meat.  As should be expected with hibachi, there was a nice hint of sesame, soy sauce, and butter in the dish, which played into the ginger sauce.  Unfortunately, the ginger sauce itself was watery—with no actual ginger pulp.  I suspect that the pumps that the management chose to dispense sauce may have unintentionally filtered out the actual ginger.  They had no problem with the white sauce, but the ginger was tough to get out when I pushed on the knob.  Again, nothing wrong with the actual flavor, just not the expected texture for the sauce.  The fried rice was a bit heavy and greasy.  The flavors were solid, but I’d have liked something a bit lighter and fluffier for the actual texture.

Philly Roll
I’m seeing an irony so far in writing this blog—the named or signature dish of a restaurant may not be the best.  Hibachi Xpress is no exception here.  While the hibachi chicken was decent, the sushi shone.  Hand rolled to order, H-X so far has the best bargain on sushi that I’ve seen in the Triangle area.  I’ve been to a few places in the last year with a BOGO (buy one, get one…either free or half off) special, but for non-special pricing, H-X has the best quality sushi for the price that I’ve seen in the area.  The menu has three grades of rolls, priced at $3 (vegetable rolls), $4 (veggie-meat rolls like the California, Philly, and Orange roll), and $7.75 for the higher-end rolls like Dragon rolls and Spider rolls.  Again, everything is rolled fresh to order.  In my case, I ordered an Orange roll and a Philly roll.

Orange Roll
The great joy (and sometimes annoyance) with sushi is that not every chef presents the rolls with the same ingredients.  Some rolls (like the California roll, for example) are pretty standard so far as their ingredients go, while the waters are a bit murkier with the contents of others.  Of course, the real fun is finding the various house specialty rolls at each restaurant—like the Seminole Roll at Kitcho, the Tallahassee restaurant where I first really had a chance to eat sushi on a regular basis.   H-X’s offerings seem to be standard fare for a sushi menu, regretfully. I saw no sign of specialty rolls, so I chose a few old favorites. The Orange roll is made up of avocado, crab stick, and cucumber, covered with flying fish roe.  The Philly roll is a bit more controversial in composition.  When I was an undergrad student in Tallahassee, the local restaurants made Philly rolls with only crab stick and cream cheese.  Elsewhere, the Philly roll blends salmon and cream cheese.  H-X presents their own take on it, blending crab stick, cream cheese, and avocado.  The rice is well prepared, neither too loose nor too moist.

Walking into Hibachi Xpress, it’s almost hard to remember that it’s a one-star fast food place.  The staff is both fast and friendly.  When the register rush died down, the woman working the register circulated around the tables, checking up on customers—not something one expects from one-star dining.  The décor is stylishly elegant, themed, but not obnoxiously so.  Unfortunately, the yellow lighting doesn’t compliment the earth tone-heavy color scheme.  H-X blends chic décor with self-service convenience and food that’s a solid substitute for the hibachi dining experience, with the sushi posing a solid threat to the star attraction.

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