NOT a day goes by that customers of Tsuru Diner don't feel threatened. Today just might be the day that co-owner Betty Pang decides to strike Garlic Ahi or some other favorite entree from her menu. No, she's not being cruel. She's just exercising her artistic license.
at Tsuru Diner
"Some people come in and they order the same thing every time, like Hamburger Steak. I can't do that. And if everyday I'm cooking the same thing I would get bored," says the Hong Kong-born chef.
And, as Pang's husband, Earl Yonemura, says, "The menu's on computer. It's easy to change!"
Thus new specials appear. Old ones disappear. But not to worry; after a brief hiatus, old favorites often make a comeback.
But before you drop in, let's make a deal. If you want to try Tsuru, go on your dog's, cat's, fish's, guinea pig's or bird's birthday. The diner is not fancy enough to suggest dropping in on your own birthday, and too much business all at once would overwhelm the little mom-and-pop operation.
THE diner specializes in stir-fry cooking. Many homestyle dishes start with lots of onions browned in wok over high heat, as in Garlic Ahi ($6.75 regular; $4.25 mini), which is cut into bite-size pieces and miraculously, cooked tender. It's unusual to find cooked ahi that's not dry.
Shrimp ($6.50) also gets stir-fried with onions, green peppers and a light black bean sauce.
There's truth behind the moniker "Snooz You Looz" Teriyaki Steak ($6.25 regular; $3.75 mini). Chances are if you come in for dinner, there might be none left since it often disappears with the lunch crowd. The regular size plate looks like a platter with the meat cut into large, uniform strips and neatly arranged on a bed of cabbage. Rice comes in a separate bowl, to leave as much space on the plate as possible for the sweet teriyaki.
Macadamia Nut Chicken ($6.75/$4.25) is breaded with panko and nuts, deep-fried katsu style, then served with a refreshing pineapple sauce. The chicken is even better served Portuguese style, an occasional special served with a fiery sauce of onions, tomato and peppers.
Pang insists on using chicken thighs, juicier and more flavorful than breast meat. To help safeguard customers' health ,though, she carefully removes all the skin and fat.
As simple as the offerings may seem, such as with "Camping Time" Canned Corn Beef with Cabbage ($5.95/$3.45) or Pork with Purple "Palama" Eggplant ($5.95), Pang puts a lot of thought into what she puts on the table.
"I like to play with food. I read cookbooks. I go to seminars. I eat a lot in restaurants."And although she'd like to put Italian and Thai dishes on the menu, she's not sure her customers would allow it.
"People grow up with their own food. No matter what, a local person's gonna eat Spam and eggs. I grew up in Hong Kong and I still prefer my porridge, the rice soup (jook) for breakfast.
"Some things on my menu, like the oxtail soup, I don't even eat, but people here, they crazy about it. If it's very tasty food, local people like it."
So if Pang wants to take a break from Garlic Ahi for a while, I'd say, if she gives you what you want most of the time, she deserves a break some of the time.
Tsuru DinerWhere: 525 Kapahulu Ave. at Herbert Street
Hours: 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Prices: Less than $15 for two for lunch or dinner
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