The Weekly Eater


Sunday, April 22, 2001

The open kitchen at Little Village gives customers
a view of the cooks at work.

Little Village is
a bright, shiny
addition to Chinatown

Artists, restaurateurs, entertainers, promoters have talked of creating a lively downtown night scene so many times that the rest of us yawn at the same old yarn.

Not that the old downtown wasn't hoppin', it just entertained a different sort of people, the kind who like to hang out on dark street corners. Oh, it had its charms -- remember Ramsay Galleries' brief flirtation with rock 'n' roll, hangin' out in the cellar that was the old heavy-metal club C5, early a.m. commiseration sessions over duck noodles at Mini Garden?

Mini Garden closes a lot earlier than it once did, but the noodle shop at least has company before 11 p.m. There's a shiny, happy glow around that area these days. It seems that the continuing success of Indigo -- even more famous now that Visa customers have seen the TV ads starring Konishiki -- and its symbiotic relationship with the bustling Hawaii Theatre has emboldened other restaurateurs to go where few have survived long term.

Little Village Restaurant

1113 Smith St. / 545-3008

Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight daily
Cost: $15 to $30 for two

Ratings compare similar restaurants: STARSTARSTARSTAR - excellent; STARSTARSTAR - very good; exceeds expectations; STARSTAR - average; STAR - below average.

Little Village Noodle Shop is one of the newcomers that fits right into the new, safer, cleaner downtown. It's a charmer, one of the few Chinese restaurants with an aesthetic that isn't Hong Kong modern or Maunakea Street drab.

Just as the name suggests, the restaurant's interior resembles a mini village courtyard, complete with artificial willow tree, a trellis laden with plastic eggplant, zucchini and grapes (huh?) and faux bamboo partitions that separate tables. The partitions are rather flimsy and I kept worrying that I would knock one over, but a few friends and I appreciated the effort to create ambience.

Those allergic to kitsch may feel otherwise. As I told another friend, "They're really trying." His reply: "I wish they hadn't."

There's a window in the dining room that opens to the action in the kitchen. Sit awhile and watch the theater. The sights of steaming hot pots and sizzling platters might simplify the ordering process. Beats reading through the 154-item menu.

Of course there still may be mistakes. A grilled flounder ($12.95) sailed by, all smoky and surrounded by the tantalizing aroma of blackened chilies, which proved better than the fish itself. You're better off ordering the steamed fish ($12.95) with ginger and onion sauce, or the butterfish ($12.95), which involves more theatrics as a waiter shows up to pour the thick black-bean sauce over the sizzling platter, sending aromatic clouds into the air.

This is one of few Chinese restaurants trying to address health concerns. They offer to eliminate MSG upon your request, they offer vegetarian substitutions for all dishes, and when fried foods are requested, the oil of choice is heart-friendly olive oil.

You can still get your pork potstickers ($5.25), but you can also opt for potstickers filled with diced chicken and chives ($5.25).

Healthy is by no means boring. Little Village chefs compensate for missing MSG and fat by throwing more herbs and spices into the pot so that dishes have the aroma of incense. The strong flavors of anise, bean and shrimp pastes abound, which is good for adventurous types but may overwhelm those accustomed to bland, plate-lunch-style Chinese.

Minced lemongrass enlivens a dish of stir-fried clams ($9.95), a nice switch from the same old black-bean treatment. And the Shanghai mochi in soup ($5.75) is spiked with five-spice. You'll probably drink all the beef broth before you can finish the beef meatballs, bamboo shoots, choi sum and mochi, which is cut into chunky blocks.

Salted fish with chicken fried rice ($7.25) may be too briny for those who depend on rice to be their salt neutralizer, but I gobbled up bowlfuls, which I've never done with any rice dish. My mom would be proud.

See some past restaurant reviews in the
Do It Electric!

section online. Click the logo to go!

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews run on Thursdays. Reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

-- excellent;
-- very good, exceeds expectations;
-- average;
-- below average.

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