LaBan chat: Asian taste trend? Coping with good reviews

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An onigiri rice ball mixed with pork at Terakawa Ramen in Chinatown.

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat on Jan. 29:

Craig LaBan: I'm loving the recent spate of onigiri rice balls I've come across, like the one pictured, mixed with char siu pork at Terakawa Ramen, or the one blended with salmon that I ate at Yanako in Manayunk. I'm pulling for it to be the follow-up to the bao/ramen trend.  

Reader: Craig, glad you enjoyed Khmer Kitchen, although I certainly kicked myself for opening my trap when we had to wait over an hour for a table at 5:45 two Saturdays ago. Any sense of how these smaller restaurants convert a post-review bump into the long term? I was sad to see Argan go from empty to slammed after your review only to close not that long after.

C.L.: Thanks so much for that tip on Khmer Kitchen. What a lovely place and a nice family - with genuine fresh Cambodian flavors to keep it real. As for long-term success, I try to prep restaurants like this before the review lands (without telling them a rating), saying lots of people will come, this is a great opportunity to meet a new audience, make sure you have enough staff in place. . . . Whether they take advantage depends. . . .

Reader: Your review of the St. James touched on several challenges that can make or break higher-end restaurants in the suburbs, including workforce quality and pay. These aren't insurmountable, because there are success stories, and I hope St. James gets on track. In this regard it will be interesting to see how the planned Osteria 2 will do in its suburban location. This may be a true test of the ability of a highly accomplished chef to successfully run a restaurant facing the burb challenge.

C.L.: We'll really be able to test the theory, whether it's the address or the operator that makes suburban restauranting such a challenge. My theory is that the most successful expansions happen when a restaurateur is looking to promote from within a deep bench of homegrown talent - like Vetri and Garces do, as well as Solomonov, and even Spinner. . . . Those that venture into new markets without enough staff and just start hiring away are going to be in for trouble. Like 85 percent turnover in the first three months.

Reader: Regarding St James . . . not only is the service poor, but the food has not stood up either. How can successful restaurateurs fail like this? This area is just begging for something decent.

C.L.: Obviously, the demand is there, and I even like the concept here of an updated American bistro. Familiar, but upgraded with good ingredients and some style. But success is always in the execution, and if you don't have a good staff behind you, it doesn't matter how talented two or three of the owners are - they can't do it all. Especially when one of them (Schulson) already has his hands in two other places - two-bell Sampan, and three-bell Izakaya in AC. I believe they underestimated the effort it was going to take to make this happen. And the resources. Obviously, those low wages aren't going to keep the kind of crew they need.

Reader: What is your favorite low-cost restaurant in Chinatown? I really enjoy Ting Wong.

C.L.: So many, Matthew! Nan Zhou is just one of several because virtually all of Chinatown is affordable. Ting Wong is another personal favorite. But don't forget about the subterranean Tasty Place, and the QT Vietnamese hoagie shop, which, affordable as it is, isn't even the cheapest Viet hoagie place. That would be Iron Tower on Ninth just south of Arch - I believe a banh mi there is $3, a dollar cheaper than QT. But not necessarily better. When I'm in the mood for some good Viet pate and headcheese on my hoagie, I just splurge the extra dollar and go for the finesse of QT.