Thursday, February 17, 2011
Fiji Island cultivates exotic flair
This Roanoke stalwart still serves tasty Polynesian and Chinese cuisine.
Hong Kong chicken
Photos by SAM DEAN The Roanoke Times
Flames blaze above a pu-pu platter at Fiji Island.
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In the 1950s, Trader Vic's Polynesian restaurants brought exotic flaming foods, mai tai cocktails and tiki culture to the states. The tropical menu and totem decor, along with live hula music, made for a fun experience, and the restaurant chain became phenomenally popular.
Roanoke's Fiji Island restaurant carries on this spirit in its concept, name and totems, combining Chinese cuisine with many Polynesian-influenced dishes.
Few restaurants convey the warm welcome that Fiji Island extends. Whether it is Charles Chang or his wife, Wu, at the front desk, the sincerity of their greeting creates an immediate pleasant feeling. One or the other Chang escorts your party to a white cloth-covered table in the spacious dining room, places menus on the table, and names your server.
Tables, which look festive with colorful leis decorating each place setting, are arranged in separated sections in the tiki-adorned dining room, including a raised stage area. The adjacent Aloha Room accommodates private parties and overflow diners.
Meet the owner
Owner Charles Chang arrived in Roanoke from Taiwan in 1972 and went to work cooking at the original Fiji Island, his brother's restaurant. He took over the restaurant in 1975 near the Franklin Road Kmart, after becoming a certified executive chef in the American Culinary Federation and actively participating in the Roanoke Valley Chef's Association. To this day, he continues to be a part of both groups and has been the chef's association's longtime president.
When I spoke to Charles Chang about his many years in the restaurant business, he allowed that "every day brings me achievements I work for when I see my clientele leave happy and satisfied."
Chang enjoys visiting guests at their tables, making conversation and creating a comfortable environment in his restaurant.
The dinner menu at Fiji Island is extensive, creating innumerable variations on a theme. Entree selections come with house salad and fried rice.
The menu starts with 10 appetizers ($1.25 to $9.75) ranging from a simple egg roll to a more elaborate pu pu tray for two. Other options include barbecued spare ribs, crab rangoon and onion rings. Soups by the bowl are $1.25 and include the usual hot and sour, wonton and egg drop.
From there, the progression goes to entrees ($7.95-$11.95), with beef, chicken, pork, seafood, combination dishes, lo mein, vegetables, fried rice, chow mein, and sweet and sour preparations. This section rounds out with two chicken salads, four vegetarian dishes, and four chow mein mixtures ($7.95). The list concludes with five fried rice combinations and 13 chef's specialties ($7.95-$11.95).
Gourmet specialties include wide-ranging cross-cultural preparations ($9.95-$18.95) such as steak Kobe Diane teriyaki, surf and turf (market price), orange roughy, New York steak served with baked potato, Bora Bora steak, beef shish kebab, Hawaiian chicken, scallops in wine sauce and a seafood platter. A children's menu with prices under $5 consists of items such as chicken fingers with fries, popcorn shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and cold noodles. Desserts ($1.75-$2.50) such as banana flambe for two, ice cream, and cheesecake end the menu.
What I tried
When we visited Fiji Island for the first time, our decision to have pu pu tray for two ($9.75), a dish we hadn't had for a long time, started the meal on a fun note. This classic, with its miniature hibachi, featured a feast of thickly battered fried oysters, tender chicken pieces, crab rangoon, an egg roll and falling-off-the-bone barbecued spare ribs, which we roasted tableside over an open flame. Next, we ordered tasty soups -- hot and sour and egg drop -- before getting in to our crisp, chilled, crunchy iceberg lettuce salads.
Entrees -- steak Kobe Diane teriyaki and Hong Kong chicken -- followed quickly. Despite an overwhelming quantity of teriyaki sauce, the two precisely cut pieces of steak lacked juiciness and beefy flavor. The golden fried breast of Hong Kong chicken balanced with an assortment of vegetables was excellent.
On another occasion, I had an 8-ounce sirloin steak broiled to order, which came with a nice, large baked potato, but the steak was upsettingly dry. I also enjoyed a substantial taste of the volcano shrimp in a tomato-wine sauce.
Going to Fiji Island for lunch makes good sense -- it's a real bargain. The menu features a wide assortment of dishes similar to the dinner offerings, which are served in abundant portions and at reasonable prices.
My dining companion and I decided to have an order of tasty, tender dumplings with dipping sauce. The six steamed dumplings were juicy and well-seasoned, and the fried ones, like pot stickers, gave crisp and soft textures with each mouthful. Shrimp with vegetables and steamed rice provided a colorful serving brimming with tasty ingredients, while my partner enjoyed a heaping plateful of shrimp lo mein.
Even though cheesecake is a dessert option, neither of us had room for anything more than fortune cookies and a cup of jasmine tea.
Sunday brunch ($7.95) brings two dozen or more items to the hot and cold buffet. Among the offerings are chilled peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp, chicken teriyaki, delicious meatloaf, fried rice, tender golden fried General Tso's chicken in a zesty sauce, sliced beef with green peppers, fresh fruit, chilled lettuce with an assortment of dressings, and desserts.
Not to be picky, but ...
Lack of attention by the staff does a disservice to the Sunday buffet and patrons, with the mostly empty chafers looking forlorn for some time before being replenished. The overcooked, watery vegetable assortment disappointed me tremendously.
During my trips to Japan, I relished the sensuous texture and flavor of Kobe beef, an exceptional grade raised in the port city of Kobe. Fiji Island's menu lists "Kobe beef teriyaki," an inaccurate name. When I spoke to Charles Chang about this, he explained: "The meat is locally bought beef tenderloin, but not the very special Kobe beef. I will correct the menus to read 'Kobe-style beef' instead."
The next time I go ...
I am looking forward to having the Hunan-style shrimp and pork with chili sauce and shredded pork with spicy black bean sauce. This combination brings together some of my favorite ingredients in a single dish.
The bottom line
Over the years, Fiji Island has developed a loyal group of fans who appreciate the Chinese and cross-cultural Polynesian influenced preparations served in abundant portions at reasonable prices. It's an unusual and fun dining experience at "The Fiji."