Let’s start with the bad news. Over the past eight months, even as some independent restaurants closed for good and others witnessed revenues drop by half or more, many fast-food and fast-casual establishments have seen their best sales in a decade. That somber development, and the dining-out dystopia it portends, has been traced to everything from ease and convenience to drive-through windows, third-party delivery services and catnip-like promotions on the restaurants’ own apps.
Not to be overlooked: that ol' cheaper price point. As long as Americans continue to be plagued by job insecurity and a virus-hobbled economy, 14-piece family meals from Popeye’s ($24.99) will remain attractive to consumers, and who can blame them? Indeed, the only surprising outcome of all this cost-saving is the number of cheap mom and pop eateries that appear to be opening in response. Some bring little more to the table than consistent quality and inexpensive menus, but they’re being rewarded nonetheless.
It’s something you see at recently-opened places like Cloud Asian in Hicksville, Aloha Kitchen in East Meadow, and a little eatery by the name of Japan Express, which debuted two weeks ago in Plainview.
"Our prices are unbeatable," announced a confident Cindy Chen, who manages the restaurant, the first Japan Express outside Maryland, which is home to a few. "In this area, there are a lot of regular sit-down restaurants with servers and servers, but nothing like us."
The immediate area in which Japan Express finds itself is Morton Village Plaza, a shopping complex featuring strip mall staples like a new Lidl, CVS, a Chinese restaurant, and an Incredible Feets shoe store. It stands out for its brightly lit counter and orange dining area (currently closed, although two outdoor tables exist), healthy deviation from your typical Asian eatery's graphics/signage and chicken teriyaki bento box. As large as a cafeteria tray, the plate finds compartments for meat, rice, a small garden salad, four pieces of California roll sushi (made on the premises), and a fruit cup of pineapple — for the tantalizing price of $7.99. Tofu bentos are a dollar less, beef and shrimp ones a dollar more, and full-on feasts are possible with an extra helping of meat ($1.99 or less). Most of Japan Express’s six-piece sushi rolls, meanwhile, range from $3.49 to $5.49, although a five-piece spider roll is $7.99 and specialty rolls run as high as $11.99 (for a ritsy lobster, avocado and crab number known, interestingly, as an American Dream roll.)
"Things have been good, everybody likes us, we are getting more and more people every day," said Chen, suddenly finding herself too busy to talk. But she mentioned one other hit with cost-conscious consumers before hanging up, a combo the menu calls "Hibachi Chicken (White Meat)."
It sells for, you guessed it, $7.99.
Japan Express is at 1056 Old Country Rd. in Plainview, 516-938-8888. Opening hours are Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 9 p.m.