More than 30 years ago, Jinny Zhao took her first job at a Chinese restaurant. Eventually she bought the place and grew the staff from five to more than 150 before retiring. Thankfully, retirement did not stick for the dedicated restaurateur — Elmwood Park and surrounding communities have benefitted ever since.
Zhao left her leisurely lifestyle behind in favor of purchasing New Star, 7444 W. North Ave., in 2015. The veteran restaurant owner immediately turned her attention to updating the Elmwood Park mainstay. After all, New Star had been serving up traditional Cantonese cuisine since 1954. While Zhao is proud to carry on the New Star traditions started by the Moy family decades ago, she eagerly expanded the cuisines available at the North Avenue establishment bringing both Thai and Japanese dishes to the menu.
In 2017, Zhao turned her attention to the banquet room in the back of the restaurant. The outdated space was underutilized, and Zhao had a vision to bring entertaining hibachi dinners to New Star. Today the fiery meals are drawing customers by the hundreds seven days a week. On busy nights the room welcomes more than 300 hungry hibachi fans.
“I am always improving my restaurant,” said Zhao. “There was no hibachi in the area, and I thought offering the meals would be attractive to younger people and bring a new generation to New Star.”
A little bit of reading on Japanese Food Guide (japanesefoodguide.com) revealed the North American interpretation of hibachi is far different than the heating device of the same name that dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185) in Japan. Evocative of a flowerpot and commonly stashed in a corner, homeowners would fill a traditional hibachi with hot coals to help warm a chilly room. More elaborate versions of the hibachi would offer means to warm water for tea before electricity was readily available and by the 1800’s hibachi use evolved to grill meats and snacks in Japanese households. The slow cooking charcoal hibachi was far from flashy, but Teppan grills, first used in Japan in the early 1900s, made their American debut in 1945 and brought the flair commonly referred to as “hibachi” today.
Zhao’s investment into the former banquet room brought eight state-of the-art cooking tables to New Star. The renovation took six months, and Zhao, the passionate owner, is particularly proud of the floor ventilation system that keeps smoke away from customers while keeping sightlines clear in the well-appointed dining room that boasts vaulted ceilings. Each table seats 10 and the flat top griddles allow for high heat cooking that brings flames and flavor to every meal.
Every table features a trained hibachi chef who puts on a show while deftly cooking dinner. Flaming onion volcanos and fried rice beating hearts enchant guests while tossing delicate eggs and flipping full bowls of fried rice draw applause from onlookers. Every hibachi meal at New Star comes with a soup and salad and sides including a vegetable medley, chicken fried rice and soft long noodles. Zhao points out the teriyaki steak is the most popular protein selection among patrons because of the fresh meat and skilled preparation.
Note that lines to enjoy a hibachi dinner at New Star are often long; guests have been known to wait more than two hours for a table. To minimize wait times Zhao suggests calling to see if reservations are available on the evening you are hoping to dine and always advises arriving for an early dinner is the single best way to dine without a wait.
“I worry that long wait may disappoint customers, but our hibachi is popular because our chefs cook right in front of you,” said Zhao. “We want to be the place where your mom can have chop suey, you can order sushi and your kids can have hibachi.”
Zhao’s respect for both tradition and innovation are a key reason New Star remains a destination for both special occasions and everyday fare in Elmwood Park.