It wasn't all that long ago that Niagara Falls, one of the top international tourist destinations in the world, was virtually devoid of restaurants offering international cuisine.
Oh, sure, we had our share of Italian places -- good ones, too -- as well some ethnic taverns where you could also grab a bite of Old World charm. But for authentic Chinese . . . or Mexican . . . or Indian, or just about anything else, a trip over the river was required.
Either way, it didn't matter; into Canada or into Erie County.
They had it, we didn't.
Finally, somebody woke up and realized that with all these millions of international tourists arriving each year, maybe a few ethnic restaurants would be a good idea.
Nowadays, you don't have to look far to find any of the aforementioned. And now we can add another culture to the list: Japanese.
Coming back nearly a year to the day after fire interrupted their first attempt, the folks at the HANA Japanese Restaurant offer authentic Japanese food and drink in a comfortable setting, at reasonable prices.
Once we noticed the "re-opening" sign, we couldn't wait. And, unlike some places, once they opened the doors, they were ready for us.
Occupying the front corner of a motel complex, the restaurant itself is nothing special: typical setup with tables and a couple of booths. The ethnicity doesn't sink in until you walk past the cooler full of Japanese beers to take your seat below the oversized print of the Japanese masterpiece "The Wave."
Looking around, you might notice a little hibachi grill or one of the ornate wooden footbridge decorations they use to serve up the sushi -- but otherwise it could be any other place in America.
Then you glance at the menu, and that's when you are transported into the heart of Tokyo.
Katsu. Tempura, Teriyaki. Sashimi. Nabeyaki. Gyoza. Miso.
Not a burger on the list. Nor fries, nor chicken fingers. About the closest thing to a typical American menu you will see is salads, but they are given sufficient Japanese treatment to set them apart from anything you've ever had at a place called Denny's or something. Entrees start at $6, but most are a bit higher, and top out at about $15. That gets you your salad, a bowl of sticky rice, your Miso soup and, of course, your entree. Not a bad deal at all.
On this particular day, I was pleased to note the mix of young and older, as well as various ethnicities occupying the tables. It seemed that word is spreading quickly of HANA's return.
We sampled a wide variety of the menu: Katsu (a lightly breaded, deep-fried dish), Tempura (the traditional Japanese battered foods), Teriyaki (a type of Japanese "barbecue," for lack of a better word) and Nabeyaki Udon (thick, white noodles in a soup base).
We also tried the Gyoza (fried, stuffed dumplings), a little Sushi (you know what that is) and some traditional Japanese beverages.
A brief note: I use the words "authentic" and "traditional" with full confidence, because my wife grew up (partly) in Japan, having lived there for several years and in the process having become intimately familiar with the foods and the customs.
So when she says that Kirin is the "official" Japanese beer, I take her at her word. I don't take a sip, however, preferring to stick with the hot green tea. We both enjoyed our drinks, as did the girls with their more traditionally "American" soft drinks.
And when she said that the Gyoza were "just like I remember from Japan," I took that as a good sign. We try these wherever and whenever we encounter them on a menu -- be they Chinese or Japanese -- and the taste, texture and quality seem to vary greatly.
Even the cooking styles for this dish seem to differ quite a bit from place to place and chef to chef. HANA's had a crispy, bubbly exterior and a warm, tasty stuffing and were, indeed, quite wonderful.
As I said, our salads had a nice Japanese flavor, with what I believed to be a ginger-based dressing that I thoroughly enjoyed. The girls weren't all that fond of it, though.
Next came the Miso, a soup with a bean-paste base. It had little squares of tofu and dark sprigs of seaweed. Again, I enjoyed it, but Miso is more of an acquired taste, I guess. The girls were lukewarm about theirs.
They each made short work of the traditional-style sticky white rice, which came in a large soup bowl. As was the case with her salad, Meagan wondered how anyone could eat rice -- of all things -- with chopsticks. That prompted a request for a fork, which was quickly and cheerfully supplied.
The rest of us made do with the wooden utensils, after a quick lesson from Mom. It really wasn't that difficult, especially after she explained some typical Japanese dinner practices.
Steffany's chicken Katsu ($10.50) arrived first, two generous portions lightly breaded and cut into bite-size chunks, with a small bowl of thick, dark sauce on the side for dipping. It was wonderfully light, with only a hint of the usual deep-fried taste. The sauce was tangy and sweet, and set it off nicely.
Next came the Tempura ($10.50 for the chicken, although beef, shrimp and other varieties are available in both Katsu and Tempura). It was served with Tempura-battered veggies, a large plateful, and also was very tasty.
The dipping sauce served with the Tempura was similar, although lighter and not as thick. It added a bit of a grilled, smoky flavor and was excellent.
The Teriyaki ($12.50) was served sizzling on a skillet, small chunks of tender, succulent beef with a dark, sweet glaze. It was served with a side of veggies, as well, which Teresa said were excellent.
My Nabeyaki Udon ($7.50) was probably our deepest foray into "traditional" Japanese of the night. It consisted of a seemingly bottomless bowl of thick, hot noodles served in a steaming hot broth of shrimp, chicken, crab and veggies.
I sampled the broth first and thought it to be extremely fishy tasting. Digging around a little underneath the noodles, I discovered the reason: a clam on the half-shell. That was what I was tasting -- the shell.
After a couple of sips, though, I got used to it and began enjoying it more. The l-o-n-g noodles I ended up double-teaming, picking them up with the chopsticks to drop into the large soup spoons. Any other way (i.e., slurping them spaghetti-style) would have made me feel too uncomfortable, although Teresa assured me that it would be perfectly acceptable in Japan.
Fishing through my bowl, I came across a full prawn (yes, head, legs and all), some straw mushrooms and green onions, an unknown white slice with pink edges (Teresa said it was familiar but couldn't recall its name) and a mystery meat that was layered, a la onion.
She told me it was squid; I hadn't recalled seeing "squid" listed among the ingredients. So I assured myself it was "crab" and bit into it. It was kind of rubbery and chewy, but didn't taste all that bad. The unknown white thing went down a little easier.
I was still eating long after they had finished -- even with the shrimp sushi ($1.50) that we ordered a la carte. As it turned out, I couldn't finish all the noodles, even though I was perfectly satisfied with my dinner choice. It was just too much, coming on top of all the other goodies.
It ended up costing $63 for the family to enjoy a true international meal. Our only disappointment was that they were out of the Tempura ice cream, which would have been an interesting final touch, I'm sure.
By the way, HANA also does catering, house parties, etc., so feel free to plan your big ethnic shindig for the summer. And if you happen to need a sumo model to round things out, just give me a call.
Welcome back, HANA, and kampai (cheers)!
HANA Japanese Restaurant
6615 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls (283-2899)
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Favorite dish: Katsu chicken (lightly breaded and fried with sauce)
Needs work: Miso soup
Healthy choice: Nabeyaki Udon (thick noodles in seafood soup base)
Price range: Dinners $6 to $15
Noise level: Low
Wheelchair access: Yes
Parking: Connected lot
Kid appeal: Casual
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Tuesday. Also offers catering. Fax: 283-2896.