Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Get a spoon at Hi Genki

Hi Genki on Urbanspoon Between Metrotown and Hi Genki are a mix of chain restaurants, Korean restaurants, and dead real estate waiting for tenants. It's a walk through a sadly dilapidated part of Burnaby. After Hi Genki, things pick up with new condos and a neighbourhood revitalized by newer construction. In a way Hi Genki is like one of the last holdouts of a generation on its way out, sandwiched between old and new.

Hi Genki is also "not" a restaurant. That is, it was probably never meant to be one. The size of the place makes it look more like an old folks home -- ahem -- seniors' residence -- cafeteria re-purposed into a fundraising arm for the Nikkei Place Foundation, a non-profit established by the two centres at the location: The National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre and the Nikkei Seniors and Health Care Society.
Hi Genki is basically the cafeteria at the ground floor of the Nikkei Seniors centre, separated from the sliver of a lobby by a wall.

There is no ambiance to speak of, really. It's like a cafeteria, but with no waiting area. You wait in a hallway next to the cashier/hostess on handily provided chairs. Washrooms are directly across from you but you have to get the key from the hostess. Since the place is open to the public, they are locked for "security reasons".

It is not really a restaurant, so I recommend not treating it like a restaurant. You are in effect in someone's condo-home. It's a weird context overlap, and the Japanese staff and residents will probably be too polite to say anything, but if you adjust your mindset from the start, you will probably have a less stressed experience.

I went on a Monday afternoon for lunch. It took maybe 15 minutes between getting a number and getting a table for one. There are smaller 2-seat tables and common 4-seat tables that can be pushed together for larger parties. It is a child-friendly place and baby seat/kid seat add-ons are available for the cushioned chairs.

If you are right at the lunch rush, you can expect the kitchen to be overwhelmed and your food to come out slowly. Between getting seated and getting my single order took probably 20 minutes. There were two-and-a-half floor staff: One dedicated busser, one server who handled bringing food from the kitchen, and the hostess pitched in whenever she could, usually to clear and prep tables to keep the wait-list moving.
Everyone's pretty busy so you will probably have to wave. Don't wave the busser down for anything. She'll just redirect you to the server.
TIP: They may have your bill prepped already in the back. Instead of asking for it at the table, if you are going to pay with card anyway (yes, they take credit cards) and will have to go to the counter to do that, go straight to the counter if you are in a hurry.

On the Monday I was there, the menu was a six-pager plus 1 large page of daily specials. Quite a lot of daily specials! And you can tell which are the most popular items on the regular menu because they have a special icon and the original price has been whited-out for a hand-written price that is probably a whole dollar more than before.
Two such items are the Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi and the Ice Cream Tempura (Deep Fried Ice Cream). It was around 1 PM and they did NOT have Deep Fried Ice Cream. I was like, WTF?, but didn't make a fuss. Maybe it was a dinner-only item. But really, if it's a popular item, there should've been a big-ass freezer somewhere in the building dedicated to tubs and tubs of ice cream, right?

Anyway, I cautiously went with just a single order of the Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi, all the rage on Yelp reviews.
Karaage is deep fried. Tempura is also deep fried, but more heavily battered first, so you can expect more crispy fun here than with Karaage. Donburi (or just "don") is "rice bowl dish". Meaning the items mentioned before it will be sitting on rice.

Spicy Chicken Karaage Donburi ($9.50 +5% tax)
  • Barely "spicy" to justify adding that word to the name of the dish. There is a very, very, mild buzz in your mouth and on your lips. If you are not paying attention you may not even notice it because the chicken pieces are predominantly sweet from the sauce.
  • It's generously coated/soaked in sauce. If you get any crispy crunch here it will probably be from the chicken skin which they left on.
    • Yup, skin on. More flavourful from tasty fat but gets you in trouble with your personal trainer.
    • The sauce cooling down your chicken may also be the reason it's not as hot or crispy as you expect it to be coming out of a deep fry.
  • LARGE pieces of chicken. We're talking two-bite pieces larger than a golf ball! And lots of pieces--No skimping here! This is more like grandma trying to properly over-feed you than a restaurant struggling to pay Yaletown rent by cutting corners.
  • The bowl isn't even half full of patted down rice (not fluffy to take up room) and a thin film of miscellaneous killed-the-heat vegetables. The bowl is heaped with chicken pieces slightly past the brim of the bowl. And it's a bigger bowl to begin with. This is a very filling meal all on its own.
  • TIPS:
    • Don't just start gobbling down the chicken. Remember you have rice. If you eat all the chicken (which is too easy to do because they are obstructing you from the rice) you will end up with a half bowl of rice and nothing but a few veggie leaves for flavour. This, however, isn't the total disaster that it sounds like because of the generous amount of sweet sauce that works its way down. Stir the rice a bit if you can to mix that in.
    • Ask for a spoon right away if they don't give you one. Unless you are a black belt at chopstick-fu with a specialization in picking up rice.
    • If you also ordered an appy or dessert and can't slog through this big bowl, ask for a takeout box. It's evil white styrofoam, so you will have to decide whether wasting rice is the greater evil and take your leftovers home.
  • Comes with a small bowl of miso soup that tasted strongly of pork (?). You get tea after you are seated as soon as the busser swings by on her rounds. Miso soup when your dish comes.
    • Go easy on ordering pop or other drinks unless you absolutely have to have them--In which case, you might want to tell them to hold the miso soup so as not to force them to toss it out later (it's cheating to re-serve food).
Overall, this is easy-to-like comfort food. Nothing fancy, but nothing done wrong. Add bonus points of generous portions (and not just filler portions of rice) compared to price and it's a winner.


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