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New kosher eatery has diverse menu, backers
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New kosher eatery has diverse menu, backers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The menu is Asian, the food is glatt kosher, and the owners are Muslim.

With a boost from a local attorney who is an Orthodox Jew, Tokyo Hibachi in Springfield hopes to flourish where other kosher establishments have sometimes stumbled.

“We want to serve healthy, family-style meals with quality meat,” said Amy Pan, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Tony, who also works in the kitchen. She is originally from Indonesia, he from mainland China, but the cuisine of neither country is featured prominently on the menu.

Instead, the menu, which is evolving based on customer feedback, serves variations on hibachi, some sushi, and a chicken wing special.

Union County’s newest glatt kosher restaurant opened at 238 Morris Ave. on Nov. 17, under the supervision of the Vaad Harabonim of MetroWest.

Its plain, utilitarian inside is family-friendly and several steps up from the outside appearance, which mimics the generic take-out-only dives that are better left untried. Don’t expect white tablecloths or waiter service, and don’t expect the hibachi meal to be cooked at your table — the grill is in the kitchen. You can place your order at the counter and then have a seat, and grab your drink from the fridge. There are a few touches that make it a little more homey, like the curtains that adorn the front windows and the prints on the wall. The hosts are warm and friendly and trying hard to please.

Their aim is to serve food that is “simple and healthy,” said Amy on a recent Tuesday evening at closing time. She would like to add some traditional Indonesian fare to the menu, but the right ingredients are hard to find in the New Jersey area — and even harder if you also require a hechsher, or kosher certification, she said.

Why kosher? The Pans prefer to work with kosher food, said Amy, because in many ways it allows them to adhere to the restrictions imposed by halal, Islam’s dietary law, which includes a prohibition of pork. “We only eat kosher or halal food,” she said, adding that she also likes the quality of kosher meat.

For the last six years, Tony has worked at a kosher Chinese restaurant in Elizabeth. Although the couple originally looked to open a restaurant in Brooklyn, where they live, they couldn’t find just the right space. They turned to Springfield, where Tony knew there was a growing Jewish community.

“We know a lot of people wanted a kosher restaurant in Springfield,” he said, pointing out that many of the patrons at the Elizabeth restaurant live in Springfield.

When they opened Tokyo Hibachi, they brought with them from Elizabeth Banayau Perez, the mashgiach, or on-site kosher supervisor.

“We’re a team,” said Perez, as he lit the hibachi so Tony could show off his “two-way-combo” — chicken and steak over noodles — for a few visitors.

Springfield has not had good luck with kosher establishments. A kosher Israeli gourmet food store didn’t last long, and The Avenue Grill, which served Middle Eastern fare, suffered a similar fate, closing in 2007.

The Pans, who now keep an apartment in town, believe their model is different — the restaurant, unlike the Middle Eastern one — doesn’t rely on foods that require heavy foot traffic to sustain.

Tokyo Hibachi is also getting help from local attorney Ben Hoffer, a lifelong Springfield resident and member of Springfield’s Orthodox Congregation Israel. He has been doing public relations for the community, pitching it as a welcoming, affordable place for young Modern Orthodox families to live.

Hoffer, who arranged the meeting with NJJN, is a fan of the Tokyo Hibachi’s wings (“I was in bed Saturday night and decided I had to have the wings. I could eat here every night!”). He is helping the Pans as much as he can. He said he even wants to buy them white chef’s coats so they look more professional.

“I’d rather spend $50 to keep them here than hundreds down the road explaining why they didn’t survive,” he said.

Tony prepares the combo meal quickly, cooking each part of the meal separately, so the flavors remain distinct. In the midst of the cooking, he tosses water into the food and covers it so it will steam — but he does start with a bit of margarine to keep the food from sticking. When he’s finished, the chicken is tender and moist and the beef is succulent and tastes like steak. The noodles are well sauced without being gooey, and the vegetables — in this case carrots, onions, zucchini, and celery — offer a fresh crunch. Expecting to take just a taste, this reporter instead enjoyed the entire dish.

The restaurant serves lunch and dinner and opens after Shabbat on Saturdays, now at 7 p.m., until midnight. There is no delivery service yet, but the Pans offer catering for business lunches, synagogue affairs, and parties.

Tokyo Hibachi has already had some internal issues — within a few weeks of opening, the Pans bought out their business partners.

“They didn’t really understand kashrut,” said Amy. “And they didn’t understand that a business grows slowly. They would kind of freak out when things were slow at the beginning. Now, everything is under our control and it’s getting better,” she said.

She is pleased with the increasing flow of diners, which she estimated to be about 40 per evening, and looks forward to expanding the menu over time.

The newest addition? Meat sushi, now the rage in Japan.

“Tony served it at Thanksgiving and everyone loved it! We’re going to serve it here.”

Unlike in Japan, however, the meat will be cooked.

“We won’t do it raw,” said Amy with a laugh.

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