Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Not just sushi: Owner Hui Chuan also knows the appeal of tapas. (Photo by Vishal Malhotra)
Hui Chuan
Mon-Thu 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm. Fri 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-11pm. Sat noon-11pm. Sun 5:30-10pm. All major credit cards accepted.

Hui Chuan
Squid salad
Potato puffs
Top Sushi

Four-year-old Hui Chuan packs a lot of quality into small portions of authentic Japanese cuisine.


Soon to celebrate its fourth anniversary, Hui Chuan could’ve easily been overlooked. The tiny Japanese restaurant — maybe “sushi stand” is a more accurate description — is tucked beneath a brown awning on Camp Bowie Boulevard directly across from the Ridglea Theater in the hectic Ridglea Shopping Center. Though the place looks almost shy amid all the shops, bait-lovers know that this is one of the go-to places in town for heavenly fresh sashimi, those supple, fleshy little slabs of raw salmon, yellowtail, and sea bass that manage to satisfy without stuffing you.
Less celebrated is the inventive tapas menu, which visitors may have ordered from without knowing what the hell “tapas” means. The word is Spanish for “top,” and most culinary historians agree it refers to small plates of olives, sausage, and bread that were placed on top of wine glasses in 19th-century taverns to keep the flies out and the customers just sober enough to order more vino. For their menu items, contemporary tapas bars have developed more sophisticated recipes and seasonings, but the purpose is the same: It’s high-falutin’ bar food served in successive, appetizer-sized portions.
The tapas concept in America expanded from Spanish restaurants many years ago to encompass any ethnic establishment whose proprietor realized he could serve small plates of specialty items at inflated prices and reasonably expect diners would also order multiple drinks, since that’s what you’re supposed to do during a tapas meal. If that sounds dandy, just make sure your pocketbook is as healthy as your liver at Hui Chuan. At $4 for one of those small lacquered clay bottles of hot sake, the bill adds up fast. But alcohol isn’t mandatory, especially if you’ve got a modest appetite, a curious palate, and a long-winded conversational partner. The two of you can pause for bite-size helpings between bouts of tale-telling.
The starter — that Japanese staple, miso soup — was disappointing. It looked great: clear brown broth, billowing clouds of soybean paste at the bottom, and thick slices of mushrooms floating on the top. But it was room temperature at best and lacked that wet-grass aroma, although the mushrooms did their best to raise the woodsy flavor quotient.
The following order was much better, a small terrific bowl of squid salad that was ice-cool throughout and tossed with a sweet-hot vinaigrette-style dressing that didn’t dampen the firm, pale squid slices or the accompanying crunchy dark brown sprigs of that cabbage taste-alike called “Japanese mountain grass.”
After that, a conscientious but casual style of presentation took over. The bed tataki roll is probably best reserved for those who find themselves salivating like canines at the meat counter in the grocery store. Six silver-dollar-sized spheres of barely cooked beef containing narrow plugs of raw asparagus and shrimp were arranged around the plate, with thin lemon slices in the center, lightly drizzled with a savory brown sauce. “Barely cooked” is the operative phrase when talking about these dark-pink steak wraps. They proved that rare meat cuts really do offer more flavor.
Potato puffs arrived reclining on a bright green fan of romaine lettuce. Four fried, hush puppy-shaped pieces had a crumbly, light-brown exterior and a tongue-scorching interior, a gooey mixture of spinach and mashed potatoes. The puffs were over-fried, and the spinach had been chopped into parsley-sized bits that didn’t yield enough bitter-greens taste. Luckily, the baked sea scallops arrived — spread across a pentagon-shaped sheet of folded tin foil — before the steaming potato puffs cooled off, allowing us to use the scallops’ mayonnaise and chili powder sauce to dip the bland puffs. A thin sprinkling of fish eggs atop the browned mayo gave the accompaniment a nice seed texture. The sea scallops had been cut into moist slivers that were too precious to share with more than one person, and even that was pushing it. Don’t forget that the tapas experience is more about tasting than eating. In a country of super-sized portions, that translates into authentic foreign food. l

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