CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Allan Lam offers a plate of jai at his Good Luck Chinese Restaurant in the Chinatown Cultural Plaza. Symbolic ingredients in the $8.95 dish -- including red dates, fried tofu, snow peas, seaweed and lotus seeds -- are said to bring good fortune in the new year.
Try the jai for a fresh start on the year
Being Chinese American comes in handy at the time of the Lunar New Year. I get to celebrate the Western New Year, but if it starts out badly, I feel I have rights to a second chance at another new year.
I'm ready for a do-over considering what 2008 has wrought so far: the tanking of the stock market, a spate of heinous murders, the death of Heath Ledger and the general malaise in the air.
So, I will be happily awaiting what the new lunar year brings beginning Thursday. According to TheHolidaySpot.com, we can expect the Year of the Rat to bring opportunity and fresh starts.
Of course, any new year involves a table, and I thought I'd make my needs clear to the universe by heading to Good Luck Chinese Restaurant at the Chinatown Cultural Plaza. By evening's end I felt very lucky indeed.
The restaurant is not new, and that shows in carpeting that has definitely seen brighter days. This is accompanied by thread-worn chairs and overall stickiness in the air. All this is usually disheartening, but as any frequenter of local restaurants knows, godly appearances are not a requisite for good food.
I contemplated ordering the "Good Luck" crab with ginger and onion but didn't feel lucky enough to afford the $26 crab (fortunate for all the tank denizens), so I ordered the "Good Luck" chicken ($9.50) instead, boiled like ginger chicken ($9.50) but served warm and without the usual topping of ginger and green onion. Instead, it was accompanied by a mixture of five spice-seasoned salt and oil. At first I missed the green onion topping, but quickly acclimated to the salt flavor usually associated with deep-fried selections.
The other "Good Luck" dish on the menu is a seafood casserole ($10.95), but lamb ($9.95), beef brisket ($8.95) and other casseroles beckoned. These hot-pot dishes are particularly welcome on rainy days. I finally went with the combination of tofu and eggplant, with a sprinkling of salted fish for flavor. All are coated with a brown sauce flavored with a light touch of oyster sauce. I saw more oil than I wanted to see, but the dish didn't seem heavy at all and I liked that the eggplant tasted like eggplant. Too many restaurants have adopted the habit of dousing their eggplant with sweet chili sauce or other heavy sweet-sour ingredients.
ON THE WHOLE, the cooks here should be commended for allowing the natural flavor of foods to dominate. Spicy shrimp was spiced with a sprinkling of chopped peppers, green onions, garlic and salt, but the flavor of the shrimp asserted itself over a mild chili sauce and it was cooked to a rosy, tender crunch. Perfect.
A seafood taro basket ($10.95) was generously stuffed with sea bass fillets, calamari, mushrooms and snow peas. Only the dry, crackery basket left something to be desired. It didn't seem related to taro at all, but I don't think people will mind if they don't get to eat the bowl. There are still plenty of edibles in this dish.
And, for New Year's sake, you should try ordering the traditional jai, or monk's food. This one dish carries all the symbolism of the occasion.
Wishes for a long life are conveyed through long strands of mung bean threads, and should you write this off as mere superstition, consider that the Chinese are among the longest-lived people in the world and, as census statistics have revealed, outlive every other ethnic group in Hawaii.
Gingko nuts in jai represent precious metals and good fortune; fried tofu brings blessings to your house; snow peas foster unity; and black mushrooms welcome spring and the opportunities it brings.
I have to admit I didn't like the strangeness of some of these ingredients when I was a kid, but it's grown on me. I'll be back for more before the new year begins. This time, I'll be ready.