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Hokkaido: One of the Most Unusual Restaurants I Have Ever Reviewed

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An Asian/American 'All You Can Eat' Buffet, one of the world's largest, at the Westside Pavilion!

poster in  Westside Pavilion

Poster in the Westside Pavilion

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I may be one of the few Angelenos who has actually visited the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. During the Korean War of 1952-53, the U.S. Army would ferry soldiers from Pusan, Korea to Hokkaido in Japan, then put them on a train to Tokyo for a few days of R&R (rest and recreation) before returning us to the war zone. This memory flashed through my mind as I entered the Hokkaido Restaurant (10850 W. Pico Blvd, West Hollywood (310)475-8181.)

Like most of its diners, I parked at the Westside Pavilion under the Landmark Theatres -- three hours free -- attended a movie, then went to the lobby and exited the building next to the Westside Tavern, walked a few feet to the left on Pico to the entrance of this restaurant... and entered a somewhat surreal, truly unbelievable world of food and gluttony. You encounter a venue sure to be interesting to all food-lovers, a Japanese/Chinese/American seafood-and-more buffet reaching from one corner of the football field-sized building curving around to the far corner in the distance. In the center of this enormous buffet is a large dining area bordered by a long piano bar.

The bar, obviously a sports haunt, has four 50" TV seats above it, with other TVs scattered around the room. This is not an elegant Bellagio-Vegas-style buffet, but this is not Las Vegas. On my first visit (I confess I have now been four times and am meeting Steve Shulman and Jack Mishkin there tonight), I asked the smiling hostess who was conducting me to a table the cost of this bonanza, and she replied: "It is $10.99 for lunch and $17.99 for dinner, Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays all day is $17.99, with a 10 percent discount for seniors."

I blinked and then asked: "You mean, all you can eat of the hundreds of dishes... and that's the total cost?" "Yes," she replied, "Of course with drinks extra." She then added, "Children whose height is between 36" to 55" are half-priced, and under 36" are free." I naturally asked the next question: "Do you allow doggie bags and take-home packages?" and she grimaced as she replied, "No, we don't encourage such things." (Later I did notice several people with bags and baggies taking leftover food home, but you just can't completely discourage that.) It is literally a 'Feast from the Far East, a Temple of Food.'

dishes om buffet

Some of the dishes on the buffet.

roast beef anyone?

Roast beef anyone? Chef serves up the sliced beef and sausages.

it's party time every night

It's party time every night for youngsters, older diners, Beverly Hills couples, and hungry folks.

I began my adventure, walking the line, so to say. I entered the buffet line at a steam table on the left featured several dozen interesting Teppanyaki dishes, any of which could have happily made my meal. At lunch, the oh-so-exotic dish of beef tendons, which l love and order at Chinese restaurants, was on display, and I added a spoonful to my waiting plate already full of ribs. This is where you will find the BBQ ribs, the short ribs, chicken dumplings. Beyond this, in the evenings, an area called Roast Beef, where a haunch of roast beef is sliced and served by a willing carver to hungry diners. (Not comparable to Lawrys The Prime Rib, but then again nothing is.)

Beyond that is the area labeled Cooked Food & Seafood Selections, followed by a Sushi Bar, then a Salad Bar. Beyond that, at the far right of the restaurant, is an energetic young guy manning a hot grill. You hand him a plate full of raw ingredients you have pulled off the adjacent bar and he cooks them up, with a sauce of your choice. Above him is a sign: "Dear Valued Customer, Please pardon us for only be able to grill four plates in one row. The Management." I had selected a few pieces, of juicy marinated beef, several shrimp, a handful of bean sprouts, onions and mushrooms... which he quickly sautéed with a dash of low-salt soy sauce and drop of Sriracha chili. With a smile he performed a Beninhana-style knife act, flipping it behind his back to add to the panache. (I left him a dollar tip.)

grill chef sauteeing my beef and bean sprouts

Grill chef prepares my beef, shrimp and bean sprouts with selected sauce.

my luscious beef and bean sprouts

My beef-and-bean sprouts was delicious.

Hokkkaido dining room

I took this cooked plate of food and the plate in my other hand, which had the ribs and beef tendons with some bok choy, and went to my table in the rear of the dining room. As I sat down, my young waitress brought my drink order. I had ordered a draft Sapporo beer ($2.99, with a big pitcher for $9.99) from the very extensive drink menu, noting that the house wine is $5,25 a glass and $20 a bottle (Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, with four varieties offered.) Lots of sake selections at various low price points, as well as soft drinks ($1.79) and juices ($2.50). They have a full bar, so hard spirits can be ordered, but the waiters are not experienced in serving them (it took two trips to get Steve's Grey Goose vodka.)

I sampled the food on my plates, knowing that I was not at all finished for this meal. It was quite good, decent ingredients well-prepared, and I was a happy camper. After a few bites, I headed for a station in the rear where a chef was cooking various seafood selections. I noted a prominent sign on one wall: No MSG, All Organic Salads, 100 percent Vegetable Oil, Low Sodium Soy Sauce. Well, at least they had my health concerns in mind. A flashing sign above his station read: Today's Chef Feature.

Please check number below. We will cook it for you. There were 6 dishes listed: 1) Grilled Salmon; 2) Seafood Udon; 3) Crispy Tofu; 4) Beef Rice Noodle; 5)Seafood Bowl; 6)Orange Beef. I ordered the salmon and also the seafood udon, then -- while it was being wok-cooked -- wandered down the line to the sushi bar. Selected a few pieces of red snapper sashimi and a spicy tuna roll, added some seaweed salad and coconut shrimp to my plate, then enjoyed my stir-fry dishes when I picked them up and went back to the table. Leaving room for a little more experimenting, I went back to the Seafood Aisle and spooned on my plate a small portion of Salt & Pepper Shrimp, and also Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, a favorite Chinese dish from my childhood. (Note to Hokkaido management: please make the signs describing the steam table dishes a little larger, more legible; they are very hard to read.) Saw a tray of hot, steamed Snow Crab Legs... and piled a few on another plate.

chef's choice cooking station

Chef's Cooking Station will prepare any of six offered dishes.

french fries, eggrolls, and puffs

French fries, egg rolls, and coconut puffs.

Went back to my seat at the table, where my half-finished drink was waiting, and sampled my last selections. All were decent, none great, but hey, snow crab claws! I was in gustatory heaven. You see, I happen to love grazing... small tastes of many dishes... that's my idea of food fun. I asked my waitress for a cup of coffee (which was excellent) and while she brought it went to the dessert bar, where I extracted a hunk of chocolate cake and a piece of cheesecake. One bite of each was enough to know that they were ordinary desserts, but dishes of chocolate, red bean and green tea ice cream were better.

Did I mention that they have a Milk Chocolate Fountain Tower, and I watched some kids dipping strawberries and rice crispy treats in the flowing stream. I gave my friendly waitress my credit card, mentioned the senior discount, she quickly returned and I left a 20 percent tip, then made my way in wonder back to my car in the pavilion garage. I was deeply preoccupied with what I had seen and eaten... and knew I would be back shortly for a further exploration.

some desserts

Some of the many desserts being offered... including cheesecake.

flowing chocolate!

A flowing milk chocolate fountain... in which you dip strawberries and other things.

I went to their website and discovered that this Westside restaurant had opened last November, and was the third in the chain. The original is in Long Beach (3030 Cherry Avenue, (562) 989-1898), and a second is in Encino at 15910 Ventura Blvd. (818) 990-1488), with a fourth soon to open at 129 Palm Avenue in Burbank. The website indicated that the chain's founder, Hiroshi Kubota, had lived on the island of Hokkaido for 15 years, and came from a family of buffet specialists. (Yes, that's what it said!) There is a head chef, Alvin Dong, whose "greatest contribution to fellow chefs is his ability to empower the imagination." My imagination was surely empowered, and I went back for lunch two days later with camera and notebook in hand.

pasta is lo mein

Pasta is lo mein... and tasty.

yes, there is fruit..mangoes & strawberries

Yes, there is fruit... strawberries, mangoes, pineapple and more.

raw shellfiish on ice

Raw shellfish on ice is replenished regularly.

Limitations of space preclude me from being too expansive of the many choices to be had, so I will highlight just a few dishes which I have eaten and enjoyed. The Sushi bar has about six different rolls at any one time, and I sampled the California and Spicy Tuna Rolls. It's not Matsuhisa, but very few places are. No tuna sashimi, but fresh salmon and red snapper sashimi. The salad bar is interesting, featuring cold shrimp, crawfish, mushrooms -- both stuffed and with bean sauce, some tempura (fried) vegetables, and a half-dozen fruits... strawberries, mangos, pineapples and the like. The seafood aisle is a highlight, from the wok chefs preparing dishes-to-order to two dozen hot table dishes worth sampling. One day there actually was Steamed Rex Sole, not overcooked, and I enjoyed a bowl of Fresh Steamed Clams.

Fried frog's legs! Avoid the Baked Seafood with Cheese, but the various shrimp dishes are not bad. The hot food table is where I tend to congregate of late, for I quite like the Meat Balls, the Salt & Pepper Pork Chop (overcooked, but so what), the Radish Beef Stew, the Mongolian Beef, while the Short Ribs and the BBQ Ribs are actually delicious. I have sampled a half-dozen chicken dishes, and like best the Fried Chicken Wings and the Hokkaido Chicken. (The Orange Chicken was a bit too sweet.) Seasonal vegetables are served, and I like the String Beans and the Spinach. Skip the Fried Banana, but you will be satisfied with the Egg Tart, the Steamed and Fried Dumplings, and the Fried Rice. Pasta is there in the form of Lo Mein, and one lunch saw a decent pizza being served, Neapolitan with a thin crust! Another surprise was the soups, served from steam containers. I actually liked the Hot & Sour, the Miso, not the Clam Chowder, and Steve liked the (imitation) Shark's Fin Soup, while last evening I was delighted with the Peking Duck Soup. As I said, desserts are merely okay, but the six flavors of ice cream are fine if you need a sweet at the end of the meal (as I do.)

customer at buffet

Customer at the buffet.

wok chef

All wok chefs wear face masks.

Note the hours for the Pico branch: Lunch is served Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner is served Monday to Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday is 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday is 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Holidays are 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I have noticed that the majority of diners here are young people, some older folks... and the occasional Beverly Hills couple who wander in from a movie out of curiosity and walk out with an astonished smile on their faces. I am fascinated by this unique restaurant. I know it is not gourmet-quality food, and will appeal to the gourmand in us rather than the gourmet... but there is a moment for that also. I can only suggest that you explore it with an open mind... I promise you will go home talking excitedly about what you have just seen and eaten. And if you are like me, you may return more than once. I am even thinking of having a surprise dinner party here for a dozen friends... now that would be fun!

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for 12 monthly issues) email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net