The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Waiter Kevin Cheng and owner Vienna Hou show off a variety of dim sum served at Hei Chin Rou at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. They include -- counter-clockwise from front right -- shrimp dumplings, steamed barbecue pork manapua, siu mai (pork with shrimp), egg custard tarts, spring rolls and curry chicken puffs.

Tradition meets
contemporary style
at Hei Chin Rou

YOU really should pay attention when teachers put their aptitude tests in front of you. That little piece of paper just may hold the key to your future. No sense in lying your way through it coz you'd just be cheating yourself out of discovering your purpose in life.

Certain people are just made for certain lines of work. Maybe you liked to dress up dolls then graduated to playing stylist to the family dog and neighborhood kids. It wouldn't be a tough call to suggest you belong in the fashion biz. And if you're gnarly and niele, and can write, chances are you'll gravitate to journalism.

There's a different mindset that aligns with various endeavors. In law, one learns to establish precedence. In the restaurant biz, precedence can be ignored, particularly when it comes to setting up house on sites where others have gone before, and failed. Oh, the arrogance! Or maybe it's plain old optimism combined with an adventurer's foolhardy streak.

With that thought, I wondered why Hei Chin Rou's owner would want to go after the former Pearl's Seafood Chinese Restaurant at Ala Moana Center. With so many inexpensive places to dine in the mall, and so many places to shop, the former restaurant had to fight for customers. There was always someone posted outside the door, to lure diners, but it never did catch on. The formal setup was too time- and cost-consuming for most, and it wasn't a destination spot like Morton's or Longhi's.

SO WHAT'S Hei Chin Rou got that the former tenant didn't? Chef Shea King Kan, formerly of Legend, for one. As a result, the restaurant is packed during the day, when dim sum is offered.

This being Ala Moana Center, you've got to factor in the cost of rent in the pricing, so at about $2.75 (pork and shrimp siu mai, Chiu Chow dumplings) to $3.50 (black-bean spareribs, vegetarian dumplings) per order, you're paying a dollar or two more per dish than in Chinatown, but for the money you get a more -- let's say "pristine" -- environment, and a cook-to-order menu that has every morsel emerging glistening fresh out of the steamer, eliminating the need for the usual space-consuming carts.

CHANCES ARE most people will experience the restaurant through its dim sum. In the evening, it can be much more expensive.

Hei Chin Rou achieves, it seems, what Shanghai Bistro tried so hard to do, which is move Chinese cuisine forward. A few baby steps do the trick because Kan understands can't cavalierly mess with thousands of years of tradition.

Kan doesn't push, instead taking what's familiar and embellishing. Crispy chicken, therefore, is given a minced green onion, chili pepper and ginger relish. The result is a hot, crispy-skinned ginger chicken, a marriage of crispy chicken and cold ginger chicken which doesn't sacrifice flavor or tradition to novelty.

It made up for the fact that they had run out of the Szechuan tea and camphor smoked duck ($30 whole, $16 half).

For appetizers, they offer the usual pot stickers ($5.95) and jellyfish cold platter ($36), but they'll push the deep-fried shrimp and scallop wrapped in bacon ($9.95), which marked one of the rare times a dish lived up to its buildup. You may be tempted to add another round if the bacon weren't so darn sinful.

The restaurant's specialty is Tai Shan-style crab ($17.60 per pound) sauteed with minced pork and egg in a black bean sauce, which had the consistency of mapo tofu. At first it was disappointing that it buried the crab, but you could still taste its sweetness, and after a while, all that gravy became addicting. Staffers say a lot of people who have eaten every last bit of crab, have asked for the remnants of that pork and egg to go, as a topper for rice the following day.

Beyond that there is the usual kung pao chicken ($10.50), prawns with honey-glazed walnuts ($15.95) and mu shu pork ($9.95), but after the crab is was hard to stir up enthusiasm for Mongolian beef ($10.95) over dry cake noodles, or spongy deep-fried fish fillets ($15.95) with pepper salt.

We were tempted by mango pudding shaped like a fish, only to find it is a banquet item, so a smaller pudding ($3.50) sufficed. Even better than that however, was a mango drink filled with tapioca pearls, minced melon and pomelo ($3.95) for a refreshing and classy finish, two words that also sum up this restaurant.


Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard (street level facing the boulevard, around the corner from Slipper House / 946-1888

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Star 1/2

Value Star Star Star 1/2

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; dim sum to 5 p.m.

Cost: About $15 per person for dim sum; dinner for four $40 to $60

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

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

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to nkam@starbulletin.com



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