I have a love-hate relationship with chain restaurants! I hate them for their parasitic encroachment, slowly pushing out the family owned mom and pop shops we all love and serving up generic food sourced from thousands of miles away. But, I love it too! I love the cheap comfort food that always tastes the same and comes from a nice man in a window who has packed it into a travel bag so it won’t spill as I eat it on the way home.
I could probably list 90% of the McDonald’s menu from memory, and although this is not something I typically brag about it has served me well throughout my travels. My Quarter Pounder with cheese (McRoyal) almost always has the same name and tastes the same, whether I am getting them from the young Japanese girl at the McDonalds outside Yokota AB, from the Croatian girls in Zagreb, or from the Nepalese man at the location across from the Doha airport. And I love that! It gives me comfort in an unsure situation.
Regardless of their reliability, chain restaurants are not always known for their quality cuisine. So with great trepidation, I decided to review a local chain restaurant….and “wow” was I surprised by what I found!
Sometimes chain restaurants have an endearing history of their own that forces you to look at them a different way. This is just how I felt after researching for this post. A regional business owner with restaurants in Valdosta, GA does just that. Owner of Hibachi Express and Mongo – The Mongolian Fire Pit, Terry Ho and his family have served up Asian inspired food in South Georgia for 40 years. In Valdosta, he owns: Hibachi Express, 1701 N. Ashley St., Valdosta, GA (229) 244-8880, and Mongo, 2905 N. Ashley St., Valdosta, GA (229) 242-4848.
Today, we decided to “drive thru” Hibachi Express and see how Japanese fast food was done…well…fast….? Reviewing the menu choices on the menu board, Hibachi Express had all the same options as a typical Japanese hibachi restaurant. For a full menu, you can review the restaurant website at: www.thehibachiexpress.com. We ordered the Hibachi Chicken meal, Egg Rolls and the Asian Dumplings appetizer at the speaker box and the pulled up to the window. There were several signs asking us to be patient because the food was being freshly made, but we only waited maybe 3-4 minutes before our food was package up and ready. We raced home to unwrap our dinner.
The food was still piping hot after our drive home, which was refreshing, so we dug in. The Hibachi Chicken was composed of quality white chunks of chicken; fresh vegetables and rice all prepared in stir fry cooking style. The meal probably wasn’t freshly cooked minutes after we ordered it, but I would say it was prepared within the hour. The Asian dumplings were tasty but came fried, which I would guess is a local preference. The egg rolls were freshly fried and crunchy, and were especially delicious (but not a typical Japanese menu item). We also got a big tub of Yum Yum sauce (also not authentic Japanese) which was promptly poured all over our meals. The quality and quantity of food for the price cannot be ignored; $5.59 for a full order of Hibachi Chicken is extremely reasonable. For two meals and two appetizers, we paid just under $20 for dinner.
As someone who has had Japanese Hibachi in Japan, I am a hard critic on Japanese food. Japanese food, for one, does not travel well and is meant to be served right off the grill. Plus, the beloved American version of Hibachi cooking is radically different from the original Japanese version (Hint: those crazy spatula tricks are not Japanese inspired). But Hibachi Express is head and shoulders above the typical food court Japanese fare, and serves up a decent meal that feels healthier and fresher than their competitors. I was certainly happy with my Americanize Hibachi meal…who can say no to Yum Yum sauce, especially when it’s Terry Ho’s special formula.
Terry Ho’s is simply carrying on his family tradition. His grandfather was once a chef for Chiang Kai-shek, the military and political leader who led China during WWII and fiercely fought the communists until he was exiled to Taiwan. During Chiang Kai-shek’s reign, his grandfather had a large thriving restaurant business in Shanghai, China. When the communist won the war in the late 1940’s, Ho’s grandfather fled to Taiwan and established another restaurant empire.
After the Vietnam War, Ho’s family immigrated to the United States and set up the House of China restaurant in Albany, GA. Other family members settled in Houston and California attempting to do the same thing. Ho’s currently owns and operates Asian inspired restaurant throughout South Georgia and North Florida from Albany to Tallahassee.
Ho’s inspiration comes from the success of one of his grandfather’s former business partner in Taiwan; Master Chef Ming Tsai Cherng. Master Chef Cherng’s recipes are the main attraction in his son’s wildly popular Panda Express.
I am not sure what I like more about Terry Ho’s story; the brilliant display of ambitious American entrepreneurship, the proof that all can have a crack at the American dream, or that greatness is as simple as innovation plus hard work.