The place to eat plenty
Friday - March 21, 2008
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When Todai first opened in Hawaii in 1999, it instantly became famous as the restaurant worth a one-hour wait. With a gigantic seafood buffet that included shrimp, crab and lobster, it became an instant hit with budget-conscious diners. Tourists and locals happily stood together in line, anxiously anticipating the damage they’d do to the 135 items on the seafood buffet.
Things have changed a little in the past nine years. There’s no long wait and there’s no more lobster on the line, but you could hardly say that business had slowed down.
“This Hawaii Todai is the busiest location in our company,” says general manager Jeff Chen. “It’s been that way since day one.”
Todai’s appeal is almost universal. For tourists it offers much of the seafood they hope to try on a visit to Hawaii - sushi, sashimi, poke and fish - while for kama’aina there are meaty crab legs, steaks, udon, sushi, teppanyaki, tempura and Chinese food - all in portion sizes too good to be true. You need only spend an evening watching people pile plates high with crab legs and freshly rolled sushi to see the appeal.
“The crab legs are big, the meat is sweet and a little salty, and local people appreciate the quality,” says chef Max Kang.
You’ll also find on the buffet line that stretches or more than 100 feet a selection of, well, everything. It’s the only restaurant I know where the menu is so large it’s listed alphabetically. And while the lunchtime menu is large enough for most huge appetites, at night it goes into overdrive.
“We have over 135 dishes in the evening,” says chef Max proudly. “At our sushi station there are over 40 different types of sushi, and we make hand rolls to order.”
For whoever has room left, there’s also a vast array of bitesized desserts, all made in-house.
But even with a staggering number of items on the menu, at the all-you-can-eat buffet line there’s always room for more. This coming weekend look for clam chowder, hickory smoked ham, pineapple shrimp with honey-mayo sauce, Mediterranean shrimp, walnut shrimp, deviled eggs and New York steak teppanyaki as features of the Easter menu.
Max and Jeff are particularly proud of Todai’s signature sauces. You’ll find them at the teppanyaki counter, and you can dip almost anything from crab legs to sashimi into any of the four different sauces.
“Jeff wanted something spicy and with lots of heat, so we created this habanero dressing,” Max says of their latest creation. There’s a ginger sauce made with freshly ground ginger and shoyu, and a creamy wasabi that’s made with soy sauce, roasted sesame seeds, wasabi, garlic and cream.
“We know that we can’t really improve on the taste of prime rib or pork belly,” he adds,“so we try to make the sauces interesting and keep the quality of the dishes high.”
Personally, what fascinates me about buffets are the behind-the-scenes details: those burning questions like how much rice is cooked every day (more than 150 pounds) and how much people really eat.
“A lot,” say Jeff with a smile, although he politely declines to talk about actual portions or people. “It’s what we want at Todai - people who feel like they can come and eat a lot and get good value. That’s the idea. And that’s why so many people come back.”
“We don’t want people to leave until they’re full,” jokes Max, who will admit to sometimes finding the kitchen numbers misleading. “There are days when I think, ‘wow’ we must have had 600 for lunch, and then Jeff tells me no, just 350 or 400 who ate plenty!”
1910 Ala Moana Blvd.
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