Cheap Eats - Spoon fed

Niji Japanese Grille is quick on the scoop, heavy on the sauce

Onion volcanoes and the flying knife work of Teppanyaki is one way to prepare Japanese cuisine, but quick and easy Asian also has been mastered for our consumption.

Just as the Chinese have adopted the quick-serve concept, with an assembly line of food choices ready and waiting to be scooped and served, Niji Japanese Grille is a cafeteria-style eatery offering a lot more for your money than you might expect.

For $5.49 you can get two entree choices, salad, vegetables, rice or noodles and a drink. The ubiquitous special is posted on signs plastered around the space, which is decorated with 8-foot-tall vases and rainbows (Niji meaning rainbow).

Behind plastic sneeze guards, menu items sat steeping in their aromatic juices. Curry grilled chicken, spicy grilled chicken, jade chicken and rainbow chicken looked freshly prepared. But other items like vegetable-fried tofu had lost color and swam in a tray that looked untouched. The fried shrimp and chicken was extra crispy in a batter more suited to an American deep fryer than the usual light and flaky tempura batter. One beef item, sukiyaki beef, looked appetizing with its jolt of color from the red and green peppers, but wasn't as tempting as the many chicken entrees.

My plate of fried rice, Iceberg lettuce salad, steamed broccoli, spicy grilled chicken and teriyaki salmon was filled by a cheerful staff who were quick to offer assistance and waited expectantly with raised spoons. After getting my meal, I filled my Styrofoam cup at the drink dispenser and made my way to one of the tables overlooking Woodruff Park.

Not expecting much from a cheap plate of meat, I was surprised by the well-seasoned spicy chicken. The crushed red pepper in the sauce added an extra kick of flavor to the already satisfying morsels of tangy, soy-basted meat. The woman behind the counter had asked if I wanted more sauce poured on, and unfortunately I hadn't taken her up on the offer. The salmon, on the other hand, was swimming in a less appealing sauce. The teriyaki coating was too sweet and drenched the pink piece of fish. The meat wasn't flaky, but it did sport grill marks.

Side items don't always wow in Asian fast food, and these sides were no exception. The fried rice was dry with only a smattering of carrots, onions and indistinguishable cubed vegetables appearing in forkfuls. On a previous occasion I tried the noodles, a sauteed tangle resembling lo mein, and enjoyed them more. They weren't dry, having been cooked with soy sauce, and were easier to combine with portions of meat. I've heard that if you are nice, the servers will pile your plate with both rice and noodles. But if I were you, I'd barter for an extra helping of the noodles instead. I'm always ready for fresh vegetables to round out a meal, but to my disappointment, the broccoli I'd ordered was over steamed and limp.

My friend opted to forgo the combo meal and instead selected a container of Kappa Maki ($1.99), six rolls filled with cucumber and rice. He first asked if the California Maki, ($2.99) which is stated to contain real crab on the menu, actually did, and he was quickly told no. Don't believe everything you read. The cucumber in the Kappa Maki was fresh and crisp, notably better than those served at the supermarket and a good deal at $1.99. It was not as fresh as one of the fancier sushi bars in town, but an unexpected treat considering the price and location. There are other choices such as the ebi (shrimp) and unagi (eel), but don't expect a full sushi menu.

Like most downtown restaurants, Niji is only open for lunch. The menu selections change on occasion with popular favorites like the grilled chicken and salmon always available. Perhaps trying to bolster their business, on my last visit there was an orchid sale, with purple phalaenopsis, bonsai and lucky bamboo. But if you're not in the market for a new plant and are simply scrambling for something edible during your hour between meetings, Niji's is there, ready to serve you. There's no fancy knife work, but those spoons are quick on the scoop.??