Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Anger good for the menu at Ah-Lang

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 28, 2010

Won Nam -- better known as the Angry Korean Lady -- prepares a special plate of egg rolls, an off-the-menu item offered only to regulars at Ah-Lang Korean Restaurant.

More Photos

The last thing I wanted to do was rile the owner of Ah-Lang Korean restaurant, but there I was, at the end of dinner, with no means of paying. Not only had I forgotten my wallet at home and, therefore, all cash, credit and bank cards, but so had my dinner guest.
That she is not one to be messed with is made abundantly clear on her menu, bearing the name for which she is better known: Angry Korean Lady.

Those who expect four-star service from restaurants would be best advised to take their prissy, soft hands and delicate hides elsewhere. At this small restaurant in the Imperial Plaza, there is no one to greet you, no one to take your order or bring you drinks. Plan to BYOB or grab a bottled water or canned soft drink from the small refrigerator case in the dining room.

For that matter, there's no one to help wash the dishes, either. There's only Won Nam there in the kitchen, doing all the work herself. No wonder she's angry.

Lucky for me, she'd be more accurately described as brusque and bossy. Being a bit brusque and bossy myself, we understand each other.

As soon as she opened her doors 2 1/2 years ago, with a name that she made up to mean "Lovely People," customers were telling her she was rude and angry. I asked her if it hurt her feelings, and she said, "Not really."

She's accustomed to it. "My daughter's friends always ask her, 'How come your mom's yelling at us?' and she says, 'That's just how she talks.'

"So people who know me know I tell everybody what to do, they don't tell me what to do, even since I was in elementary school. I yell to my mother, I yell to everybody. So if people call me grouchy, it's OK. I'm used to it. I know who I am.

"But what hurts if they say, 'Your food is no good.' That hurts me. Then, I cannot sleep. I try to figure out what's wrong."

Luckily, that doesn't happen often, because the Angry Korean Lady also happens to be a wonderful cook. Her moniker might bring in those seeking to satisfy their curiosity as to what an AKL might look like, but it's the food that brings them back.

When you get there, Nam will likely be in the kitchen, so guests must be resourceful and, if it's crowded, be prepared to wait. Those with larger parties should call at least two days ahead to make reservations and give her your order. A note on the tables explains: "This is a one woman show. if you see that i am busy, please write down your own order and call me in the kitchen. no shame!"

She wouldn't mind having help, but she's not satisfied with other cooks she's had in her kitchen, and doesn't even like the way other people wash dishes. She taught herself to cook because she didn't even like her mom's cooking.

Clearly, her life would be easier if she could compromise, but compromise wouldn't taste quite as good.
At first, confronted with a plain, nondescript menu simply reading "meat jun, bulgogi, kalbi and soon dobu" (various tofu stews), I was under the impression that diners showed up more to be yelled at than for the food. But with the first bites of her fried specialty wings ($9), it was clear AKL was not merely about the gimmick of being an angry Korean lady. 

The wings are saturated with flavor from having been marinated 48 hours, fried, then finished with a sauce that's almost like a paste of garlic, green onion, sesame seeds and more. I could say more, but then AKL would come after me. Same thing with the secret of her tender kalbi, at three pieces for $13 or five pieces for $21. If you end up with extra pieces, it's because she isn't quite satisfied with the taste or quality of beef that day, and wants to make up for it. I get the feeling her "not good enough" is other restaurants' "10 times better than usual."

Mandoo (eight pieces for $9 or four-piece side order for $5) and broiled yellow corvina ($11) were on par with other Korean restaurants. Most people do end up coming specifically for the chicken wings, and Nam's amazing green onion with mixed seafood Korean pancake ($16). I have never seen a Korean pancake as big or filled with as much green onion as this one, at least two big bunches worth, with very little batter, only to bind the ingredients. She prepares her pancake this way because she also feels shortchanged when she goes out to eat and gets more batter than the main ingredients. It's beautiful to the eye and palate.

Nam became a restaurateur by accident, when she partnered with a chef who was going to do the cooking. But once the deal was made, the other person pulled out, and rather than lose her investment, she opened anyway.

She started offering $5 plate lunches by day to lure in the masses, but the herd instinct ran counter to her food philosophy.

"I love to cook and I want people to enjoy it. I don't want people who only want to fill up their stomach. It's not worth my time. I want to tell them, 'Get out!'

"I don't want people who ask 'What is good?' You tell me what you want, and I tell you if it's good. If it's not good, I'm gonna say so, because if I'm not satisfied, how can customers be satisfied?"

As for my inability to pay on my first visit to the restaurant, Nam didn't start yelling, but waited patiently for one of us to go home and get the money. If not, I guess she might have had dishwashing help after all.
Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Seafood a second thought at Tairyo

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jul 14, 2010

One of the best ways to appreciate Izakaya Tairyo's colorful exterior is to view the roof of the Piikoi Street building from above.

More Photos

To glance upon Izakaya Tairyo is to come close to witnessing an ukiyo-e print spring to life in 3-D. The art form's Golden Age was from 1603 to 1868, when Edo, a small fishing village chosen to be the capital of the Tokugawa shogunate, grew into a city bustling with culture, arts and commerce.

You can almost feel the vibe standing on the street corner at Piikoi and Hopaka, with Ala Moana Beach Park within eyeshot, and neighbors that include restaurants, industrial shops, small boutiques and bars.

Among this vibrant, colorful mix, Tairyo manages to stand out like a beacon calling all ashore. Super-flat imagery of fish and ocean waves swirl around the restaurant's rooftop and exterior, while the interior is festooned with the paraphernalia of the fisherman's trade such as nets, glass floats and lobster traps.

Drawn by the color, I was standing outside reading the menu when someone I knew, originally from Japan, passed by. He'd just eaten there a few days before, so I asked him what was good. He had been told to order the steak, so that's what he did and said he found it to be so-so. Of course, he blamed himself for ordering steak at a restaurant obviously all about seafood. The word 
"Tairyo" loosely translates into "big fish harvest."


514 Piikoi St. » 592-8500
Hours:5 to 11 p.m. daily
Cost:About $40 for two without alcohol
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** - excellent
*** - very good; exceeds expectations;
** - average;
* - below average.

"Love the one you're with" may not make the best relationship advice, but it certainly applies at most restaurants. It's widely assumed that at a seafood restaurant, one should order seafood. But what if the steak really is one of the best items on the menu? The problem is, this restaurant isn't as infatuated with seafood as its theme implies. It's the Planet Hollywood equivalent of the izakaya -- slick and fun, but who really went there for great food?

MY FIRST clue that something was fishy was a quick glance at the sushi selections, which register as sushi for beginners. There wasn't much depth to the tame offerings. There was only ahi ($6.75), salmon ($5.50), marinated mackerel ($5.25) and white fish of the day ($6.75). Then there was shrimp ($5.75), scallop ($6), squid ($5.50) and ikura ($6.50). That's all. No hamachi. No uni. No eel. What's more, the sweetness of the rice battled the flavors of the fish, which wasn't even as good as that at conveyor-belt establishments.

When it came to sushi rolls, I was expecting contemporary-style layering of ahi, salmon, white fish, avocado, salmon roe and more from the Tairyo Roll ($12.50), but the ingredients were tightly packed in the traditional nori roll that was so densely chewy I found myself thinking more about the rice than the seafood center.
Granted, people go to restaurants for more than just the food, and this place can be fun with a bunch of friends and a lot of sampling. There's a lot to be said for atmosphere and decor that's different from anything else in town. You'll find yourself adapting to sitting on plastic crates with a seat affixed to the top. It's only tricky when you first sit down.

Nadine Kam photos
The “Harvest From the Sea and Mountain” basket feeds two or three people with its combination of pork, beef, clams, mussels and salmon. The ingredients are steamed and presented, below.

FOR THOSE who seek balance in their meals, start with one of four salads. Tairyo seafood salad ($7.75) comprises more lettuce than seafood (a little bit of crab, salmon roe and sashimi), but the greens were welcome in a cuisine that generally doesn't make room for fresh greens. A Caesar salad with avocado and papaya ($7.25) also sounded tempting, but its combination of cheese and cream dressing did the papaya no favors.

Heavier fare was represented by a grilled chicken meatball ($7.25) with a "secret sauce" not so different from mere teriyaki. The meatball is about the size of a flattened baseball, so on the one hand, it's two to three times bigger than most tsukune. The inside is flecked with bits of veggies, and although I enjoyed it, it will register as plain tasting to most people because all the flavor is in the outer sauce. In this case, dividing the dish into two smaller meatballs would help to distribute the flavor more evenly throughout.

One of the most impressive dishes was the Tairyo Fisherman's Hot Pot, also one of the more pricey dishes at $22. The shared dish features salmon, tofu, clams and shrimp, along with tofu, bean threads and won bok. The pot is on the small side compared to other hot pots around town, so you're also presented with a side of cooked udon to add to the pot as it empties. When I started eating it plain -- just as delicious to me -- our server got alarmed and told me to add it to the pot, but I actually enjoyed eating it while waiting for the other ingredients to cook. It doesn't take long.

Miso kushi katsu (skewered pork cutlet with miso) is one of the restaurant’s specialties.

The clams are the same small specimens ($8) steamed in sake and garlic on the hot dish menu. A dish of Agedashi Tofu and Vegetables ($6.50) is just as good and has more heft.

Assorted tempura is more pricey than it should be, at $16.75 and considering it did not deliver on all the seafood described on the menu. There were two small shrimp and salmon. M.I.A. were a piece of scallop and white fish, but I did enjoy the large piece of onion pumpkin and deep-fried avocado.

Also on the fried menu, and appearing at most tables, were sweet potato fries ($6.25) served with a pool of honey crossed with mayonnaise. It's a waste because the sweet potato packs its own sugars. The fries aren't crisp; the stiff ends and chewy texture are more consistent with something baked and left sitting for a while.
You'll leave on a sweet note if you order the frozen creme brulee ($5.25), a cool take on a traditional favorite, with the texture of cheesecake.