House of Teriyaki

When HOUSE OF TERIYAKI — or H.O.T., as it calls itself on its menu — opened in Amherst almost 10 years ago, it offered Japanese and Korean food, with a full sushi bar. The food was always good, even if the service could be a little spotty. Over the years H.O.T., which is located at 1177 N. Pleasant St. (549-3666), has matured into a nice neighborhood restaurant. My wife, who worries about the stores and restaurants she likes, is always comforted when we pass H.O.T. and the parking spots are full.

We live nearby and we’ve been eating at this location since it was Daisy’s and then Pinocchio’s in the early 1980s. The sushi bar is installed in the bar that Mauro Aniello built for Pinocchio’s, although the jigsaw cutouts of Pinocchio are gone. It appears to me that House of Teriyaki is here to stay. Still, changes are underfoot. A Web site will be unveiled in coming months. A new menu of sushi rolls is coming out as well. And one room has been updated from tables to booths.

It is a truism with ethnic restaurants that it is always a good sign if members of the culture eat there. According to owner-chef Chae-Hyok Yu, House of Teriyaki’s customers break down like this: 20 percent are Korean, 40 percent have other Asian backgrounds and 40 percent are American. Americans tend to like food that is not as spicy, says Chae-Hyok Yu, so some of the dishes have been toned down for Western palates and the offerings lean toward foods that Americans like.

If Korean food is new to you, you’ll appreciate the menu’s photos of the dishes as well as descriptions. If you are still unsure, a good way to ease into the food is with the H.O.T. box. A lacquered wooden bento box, it comes with chicken teriyaki, shrimp and vegetable tempura, gyoza and shumai (dumplings) and a seaweed salad. A small tossed salad with a nice miso dressing and miso soup precede most meals. The tempura is crisp and grease-free and the teriyaki has a good flavor. You can substitute sushi or vegetables for various components if you like.

You owe it to yourself to sample something a little more adventurous. Bul Go Gi is perhaps Korea’s best-known dish: strips of sirloin marinated in a sweet teriyaki sauce. Serious carnivores might also want to try Kalbi, beef short ribs in the same sauce. Both are served on hot cast-iron plates, accompanied with onions, carrots and other vegetables as well as a bowl of rice.

Many of the Korean dishes are soups: fish, meats and/or vegetables in a spicy broth. The Dol Squid Bok-Kum pairs squid and vegetables in a hot stoneware bowl that keeps them sizzling while you eat. Seafood Jambong combines various fish and noodles in a spicy broth. Korean dishes can be very spicy, by the way. Chae-Hyok Yu imports hot pepper powders with three levels of heat, and diners can specify mild, spicy or very spicy. The dishes described as spicy on the menu fall into the middle category: They are hot, but not so hot that the other flavors in the dish are obscured or that eating becomes a painful experience.

H.O.T.’s Japanese menu offers various udon and soba noodle dishes. One standout is the Salmon Donburi. Donburis are combinations of meat, seafood and vegetables simmered over rice. For the Salmon Donburi, rice, vegetables and seared salmon filets are placed in a hot cast-iron bowl and covered with sauce, which immediately begins to sizzle. Tempura crumbs sprinkled on top provide a crispy note.

There is also sushi and sashimi, including vegetable sushi. Traditional sushi rolls are simple, with one or two ingredients. At H.O.T., sushi rolls are Americanized, as they are in most area sushi bars, and feature all manner of combinations. The caterpillar roll, which layers avocado slices over the roll to simulate a caterpillar, and the Koala roll with cooked mackerel are my favorites. I’ve been warned that less fastidious sushi bars dispose of older fish in spicy tuna rolls, but that just means you’ve got to trust the establishment if you order it. I get the spicy tuna roll all the time at House of Teriyaki.

Chae-Hyok Yu learned to cook in the army in South Korea. He came to the States in 1995 and immediately went to work in Gum Kong San, a well-known Korean restaurant in Flushing, N.Y. He moved to Greenfield in 1997, but continued to commute to New York to work at Gum Kong San and then at Yokohama in Manhattan to learn sushi and Japanese food.

He always wanted to open a restaurant in the area, but each spot he saw wasn’t right for one reason or another. He looked at the former Pinocchio’s space in North Amherst, but it had been empty for several years and didn’t appear particularly promising. Chae-Hyok Yu is a religious man and he asked his pastor for advice. The pastor told him that he needed to follow two rules: Close on Sundays and don’t serve alcohol. He took the lease and House of Teriyaki opened in January 1998. On opening day, there was a snowstorm, but the place was still filled.

Even with the stricture against alcohol, H.O.T. allows patrons to bring their own. The servers are happy to provide openers and glasses. The spicy food tends to go best with beer, I have found. Unfortunately or not, you cannot get hot sake for your sushi.

In 2004, House of Teriyaki opened a sister restaurant in the Roundhouse Building in Northampton. Chae-Hyok laughs slightly when he talks about it. “It was a management problem,” he says. Difficulties arose in whichever restaurant he was not in and in 2006, he closed the Northampton operation to concentrate on the Amherst restaurant.

House of Teriyaki is open for lunch and dinner from Monday through Saturday. Dishes range from $9.95 to $13.95. Sashimi pieces and hand rolls are $2.75 to 4.50, and maki rolls are $4.25 to $11.95.

Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, August 1, 2008

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