Monday, November 15, 2010

Japanese fast food meets the Fat Panda Restaurant Equation

I wear several hats in life: doctoral student, proctor (a polite way of saying “adult babysitter”), and web developer. The latter is supposed to compliment my doctoral skill set, as educators often juggle multiple hats themselves—curriculum specialists and instructional designer among them. In my exploration in the world of web design culture, I came across a phrase that was borrowed from computer programmers:

Fast, efficient, cheap: pick two.

The idea behind the phrase is that an application designed to be efficient and done quickly isn’t going to be cheap. One designed to be efficient and cheap isn’t likely going to be finished quickly. And one developed quickly and on the cheap isn’t likely going to be efficient. Solid application design must measure and balance all three in order to produce quality product. In my food travels, I’ve borrowed this notion and extended it out to restaurants—let’s call it the Fat Panda Restaurant Equation because I'm too lazy to think of a cute acronym:

Fast, cheap, tasty, healthy, quality: For a one-star restaurant, pick one…two if you’re lucky. Add one for each star added to the restaurant.

I’ll leave you to run the permutations of the combinations. For example, McDonalds is fast and cheap, but negligible on taste and even more negligible on nutritional balance. Try it with your favorite restaurants some time…and be honest when you do it. It’s almost universal.

Japanese food, while known for being tasty and healthy, is rarely cheap, much less fast. Sakura Xpress tries to balance out the four factors. Nestled on the western edge of the NCSU campus, Sakura Xpress is a fast food Japanese restaurant that blends its Japanese offerings with Thai and Chinese dishes, to create a diverse Asian dining experience. I’ve been driving by the building for the last year, and something tells me that it’s a recycled space that might be featured on Not Fooling Anybody, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was in its previous life. A Dairy Queen, perhaps?

The interior of the restaurant is spacious, with minimalistic décor. The ceilings are high, and the dining room is divided into several smaller areas—a front dining area, a smaller dining area in the rear, and two “wings” on each side. In addition to the tables and chairs, a small bar area separates the dining room from the food prep area.

I split my review into two visits, so I could sample a few things on the menu. On my first trip, I ordered the Kung Pow Chicken and a sushi platter. While the chicken had a nice spicy flavor to it, I found that it was overfried. Based on my experience with fast-prep Chinese food, this seems to be a decision left to each restaurant/chef. I’ve had some that were lightly fried, and others that were heavily fried. Sakura Xpress’ was fried to the point of being tough and chewy—Kunk Pow chicken jerky, if you will. The fried rice, however, was well done—not overcooked and solidly seasoned with a hint of pepper overtaking the others.

Alternatively, the sushi was disappointing. This was one of the compromises that Sakura Xpress had to make in order to prepare Japanese food in a fast food format. The menu was extremely limited: shrimp and eel nigiri, and a California roll and vegetable roll. When I walked in, I couldn’t figure that out—why the sushi offerings were so limited? Then when the plate arrived, it all made sense. The sushi seems to be produced en masse before each meal. My California roll looked like it came out of a rolled-mold, with grains tightly-compacted into a neat square. The rice was also a bit dry—as if it had been given too much time to absorb its vinegar mixture. The avocado had also started to brown a bit. The taste of the overall product was satisfactory—I didn’t jump and exclaim it the best sushi I’ve ever had, but I also didn’t spit it out and run to the loo—but its mass-preparation and presentation suffered a bit. Again, it’s Japanese food served fast-food style, so I expected some corners to be cut.

My next meal hit more of their Japanese menu: hibachi chicken and chicken udon. As I waited, I heard a microwave beeping in the background, so my suspicions about the advance preparations were furthered. My meal arrived about five minutes after I placed the order. The hibachi chicken was on par with the quality of fast-food hibachi restaurants like Hibachi express—more of a blend of meat, zucchini, and onions. I didn’t really notice the taste of other hibichi flavors like butter or soy sauce. The accessory sauces (the ginger and white dipping sauces) were up to par and gave some much needed flavor to the meat and veggies. The udon (which was what I suspected I heard in the microwave) was steaming hot, and had identical looking meat to what I saw on my hibachi plate. The broth was light, and the udon noodles were fat and well-prepared.

When I reviewed Cloos Coney Island, I made mention of the fact that a fix was a fix was a fix—the idea that something was better than nothing in a moment of craving. Sakura Xpress continues this nothing by providing Japanese food on a student-meal budget by cutting some corners. A majority of the food is already made to one degree or another, which results in food that can be blend or generic at times, in the case of my chicken dishes. Still, when the need for affordable Japanese strikes, a fix is a fix. Fast trumps quality and marginalizes tasty in the final product.

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