Yen King at Maple Garden brings back memories
By Wanda A. Adams
By Wanda A. Adams
The sign says "Maple Garden." The menus say "Maple Garden." It's in the familiar spot across from Stadium Park where Maple Garden used to be.
But it's Yen King. Don't let it confuse or worry you.
When beloved restaurateur and host Robert Hsu died this year after a long illness, many who had loved the place thought they'd never enjoy his trademark dishes again. But his widow found a buyer in Richard Lam who was willing to do two key things: conform to the requirements of a lease that keeps the Maple Garden name on the building, and reproduce the dishes regulars enjoyed (though with Yen King chefs).
It's a marriage made of necessity. Lam, whose Kahala Mall Yen King restaurant (also serving Northern Chinese food), had to move due to changes in mall configuration and lease arrangements, saw an opportunity at Maple Garden. There, he would find not just a space but a ready clientele, who liked and understood spicy eggplant, hot and sour soup, string bean with shredded pork, Mongolian beef and Shanghai noodle.
From a trio of visits on various days and for both lunches and dinners, it became apparent that the marriage is working.
Despite the restaurant's nearness to Waikiki, there was not a touristy-looking face in sight; locals were gathered around big round tables in family groups chattering in both Chinese and English; solo diners were reading their Chinese newspapers while polishing off plates full of buffet selections; couples were watching waitresses skillfully slather pancakes with hoi sin and fill them with moo shoo pork.
At Yen King at Maple Garden, which opened in May, you can eat three ways: ordering specific dishes from the menu, making two or three selections to create daily lunch or dinner "plates" (which come with hot and sour soup, rice and tea) or perusing the steam-table buffet, which, Lam says, features about 14 dishes at lunch and 18 at dinner.
I visited twice with male friends, both of them very fitness-oriented, and once with a mother and her 3-year-old. (Next time, I'm taking a group of girlfriends: I always think Chinese restaurants are more fun when you can go in a larger group, order lots of different stuff, chat and take your time.)
Lam says the Maple Garden regulars come in and don't even look at the menu sometimes: "They know what they going to order."
So what did we eat? As much as we could!
My body-building male friend chose hot bean curd, kung pao chicken and chili garlic shrimp from the set menu at dinner one night ($9.95). I ordered semi-vegetarian: spinach and garlic sautéed in wine ($9.50), mu shui pork without pork (you gotta love the many ways they can spell that name; $9.50) and eggplant with pork (for old times' sake and in honor of Mr. Hsu's memory; $9.50).
We thought the kung pao chicken — bite-size boneless chicken pieces stir-fried with peanuts, water chestnuts and chilies — was a definite come-back-for-dish, with a gentle bite, fun to eat with chopsticks, nicely flavored. We also really liked the hot bean curd: tofu squares steamed or braised in a mildly spicy sauce, mounded in a bowl. A vegetarian could make a meal of this one easily (and there are no less than 28 vegetarian dishes on the menu, so this restaurant is a good choice if you've got a non-meat-eating friend).
I can't tell you about the chili garlic shrimp because my friend ate 'em all before I could filch one. Curses.
My moo shoo pork (as we non-Chinese tend to spell it) was as good without meat as with. I'm a sucker for anything that involves a flatbread or pancake and these hefty "tortillas" (you get about a half-dozen of them) were even good the next day, full of bamboo shoots and lily buds and other crunchy things.
The only thing about which I had any complaint, ironically, was the eggplant with pork, the one Maple Garden dish for which I really had yearned. But, hey, chef, go easy on the ginger! The eggplant was perfectly done, cut into thick slices and glazed with sauce, not at all greasy or mushy as eggplant can so often be. But somebody lost control of the ginger grater in the kitchen, and the flavor balance in the dish was lost. (Ask me if I still took it home and ate the leftovers, or at least my husband did.)
With my young friend and her daughter (they kindly offered a child seat), the buffet seemed the most economical and time-saving choice, as we were on a bit of a schedule. We walked the line to make our selections from two kinds of salads (Chinese chicken salad and pickled cabbage), cold ginger chicken, honey spare ribs, beef broccoli, more of that hot bean curd, kung pao chicken, Chinese fried chicken, ma po tofu, chow fun and fried rice. There was also watermelon for dessert.
And you get hot and sour soup with the buffet; just ask if they forget to offer it.
You can really fill up for less than $15; we took home boxes and paid for only two lunches although our little 3-year-old also got what my daughter, when she was very young, used to call "bites." (As in, when the waiter would say, "What are you having, little lady?," she would answer, proudly, "Oh, I'm having bites" — from Mommy and Daddy's plates.)
And I must say a word about that pickled cabbage salad. Two words: Try it. I need to learn how to make this dish: crisp, vinegary but sweet, delightful both as a salad and atop hot rice.
Another day, a friend and I visited. He doesn't eat much meat and asked if he could have something with just seafood and vegetables. They were happy to produce a stir-fry of steamed white fish with mushrooms and Chinese broccoli and other crisp vegetables to set off the moistness of the fish ($10.50).
I had the string beans with shredded pork and can see why owner Lam says this is their most popular dish — rich (and, be warned, spicy hot), but you feel virtuous because you're eating a vegetable ($8.95).
As often happens at Chinese restaurants, the menu here is vast and wide-ranging, written in both Chinese characters and in English, and it can be difficult to know what to order. However, the waiters are quite friendly and will answer questions and make suggestions if you give them a general idea of what you want. There's a nice wall of Chinese plates and artifacts to look at at one end of the room but, mostly, the décor is unremarkable.
It's the food and prices you go for. And, for those who remember Maple Garden of old, the memories.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.