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Original Kotteri ramen at Agu Ramen
Agu Ramen / Facebook

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The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Food in Hawai‘i

From the hottest Tokyo imports to old-school Okinawan restaurants

For every meal, occasion, and price point, Honolulu has the perfect Japanese eatery. Generations of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i (where about 13 percent of residents are ethnically Japanese), as well as a robust inflow of Japanese tourists and expats, ensure that there are few places outside Japan with such a wide and distinctive collection of Japanese restaurants.

Want to step back in time in an old-school Japanese deli? Or sample cutting-edge Japanese chains, many of which might not have any other locations in the U.S.? Dig into blue-collar Okinawan specialities, or drop hundreds of dollars on sushi omakase? In Honolulu, a century-old mochi shop and a high-end yakitori franchise from Kyushu can share the same customers, often in a single day.

Okazuya

Okazuya are culinary time capsules, most often found in older neighborhoods where, in the early 1900s, families settled after leaving the sugar and pineapple plantations. Akin to delis, most are holes-in-the-wall selling old-school dishes arrayed on shelves behind glass. To start, pick your starch — typically musubi (rice balls), cone sushi or chow fun noodles — then point at what you want to build a custom plate lunch. The secret is to choose dishes with a range of salty, sweet, meaty, starchy and tangy flavors, like a combination of shoyu pork, sweet potato tempura, pickled cucumber slices (namasu) and creamy potato-macaroni salad.

Johnathan Mosley of Nuuanu Okazuya
Ed Norita / Frolic Hawaii

Standouts at Mō‘ili‘ili’s Fukuya Delicatessen include mochiko chicken, fried whole akule (a small coastal fish), assorted tempura, and pickled daikon. Nuuanu Okazuya at the edge of downtown Honolulu is known for homemade fried fishcake and andagi (Okinawan fried doughnuts). Okazuya are busiest in the early morning and at lunch; they close by early afternoon.

Saimin stands

In the 1940s and ’50s, teenagers across O‘ahu gathered at Japanese saimin stands for bowls of hot noodle soup. Now these establishments are down to a handful. There may be some question about whether the soup is Japanese or Chinese, but the fact that saimin was born on the plantations — where the lunch tins of field workers from Japan, China, the Philippines and Korea paved the way for Hawai‘i’s ubiquitous mixed plate lunches — may render the question moot. Saimin is local. The simple dish of wheat noodles, clear broth (often made with dried shrimp and pork or beef bones), green onion toppings, and kamaboko fishcake is close to locals’ hearts.

For a taste of history, try Shige’s Saimin Stand in Wahiawā or Palace Saimin in Kalihi, always with a teriyaki beef stick on the side, or Zippy’s extravagant Zip Min, loaded with shrimp tempura, char siu and wonton.

Mochi shops

The first generations of Japanese celebrated everything with gifts of mochi — weddings, graduations, New Year’s temple visits. While the soft, chewy sweets are still a popular gift, especially when local Japanese celebrate Girls’ Day on March 3, people are as apt to drop in looking for quick snacks.

Honolulu’s remaining old-school mochi shops are both in Kalihi. Started in the early 20th century, Nisshodo Candy Store is famed from Japan to the West Coast for its milky, pillowy-soft chichi dango, a sweet mochi so popular the shop employs a woman whose sole task is to tuck the bite-size pieces in individual wrappers. Across Kapālama Canal, the trays at Fujiya hold traditional red-bean mochi and local-style varieties stuffed with peanut butter or fresh strawberries and other fruit. Both places operate like okazuya — you point and order. Regulars know their favorites — “Half-pound chichi dango and two each peanut butter, coconut and red-bean mochi. In a gift box, please.” First-timers should ask about best-sellers — or try one of each.

Oyster shooters at Izakaya Nonbei
Izakaya Nonbei / Facebook

Okinawan restaurants

Okinawa may be part of Japan, but culturally and culinarily, the two are distinct. The Ryukyu Kingdom was its own entity before Japan annexed its southern neighbor in 1879; after that, thousands of Okinawan laborers arrived on Hawai‘i’s plantations. Their descendants are now the largest group of ethnic Okinawans outside Okinawa, a happy circumstance reflected in Honolulu’s food scene.

Unassuming, working-class Okinawan eateries serve iconic dishes like shoyu-braised pork belly rafute, pig’s feet soup, hearty bowls of soki soba topped with simmered pork and pickled red ginger, and champuru stir-fries of bitter melon, tofu, eggs and meat. The best and busiest among them include Kalihi’s Utage and Sunrise on Kapahulu Avenue. Ethel’s Grill, on the ground floor of a cinderblock walkup not far from the docks, is a mashup of old and new, Japanese and Okinawan, including O‘ahu’s wackiest version of the U.S. military-inspired taco rice.

The ’70s-era one-stop shops

Once upon a time, before a recent profusion of izakaya and single-specialty niche eateries multiplied choices to the umpteenth degree, you found Japanese food mostly at teishoku restaurants. Complete meals featured staples like tempura, miso butterfish and teriyaki chicken in lacquered bento boxes with side dishes, miso soup and rice. While many are dated and modest, some teishoku spots excel, and the selling points of these are undeniable: There’s a good chance your favorite Japanese dishes are on the menu, and the complete meal format saves you the constant decision-making of ordering a series of small plates.

Rokkaku Hamakatsu, a chic oasis at Ala Moana Center, has an upscale clientele and an excellent sake list. Nearby Shokudo draws younger crowds with bento sets, pūpūs like sushi pizza and foot-long chicken katsu deep-fried cutlets, and a patented honey toast dessert. Waikīkī’s elegant Restaurant Suntory (closed for renovation, scheduled to reopen late November) is known for shabu shabu and sukiyaki teishoku, both cooked at the table.

Izakaya

Not even a decade ago you had to hunt for izakaya; now the casual gastropubs dot Honolulu’s landscape. New spots from Japan, coupled with a rising tide of food-giddy locals booking Japanese vacations and a shift toward small-plate dining have spurred an increase: Izakaya are now as popular with locals as they are with Japanese expats.

Unlike in Japan, many in Hawai‘i feature sushi bars, including the pragmatically named Sushi Izakaya Gaku near Ala Moana Center, where the spicy hamachi tartare — mixed with a raw quail egg and spooned onto crispy nori — and the riotous yokubari chazuke rice dish are must-orders. Not far from Waikīkī, Gazen’s silken house-made tofu, bathed in a smoky dashi-infused soymilk broth, is revelatory. Nonbei off Kapahulu Avenue is an oldie; don’t miss the tempura-fried flounder, whose crispy bones you dip in spicy ponzu and eat like chips.

Ramen

Not to be outdone by New York and Los Angeles, Honolulu’s ramen scene has ignited, and there are now more ramen shops in the city than saimin stands. Two growing local chains compete across Oahu: Agu, whose Okinawa-born chef serves a tonkotsu bowl topped with rafute simmered pork belly, a parmesan kotteri and a yuzu pepper chicken ramen; and Gomatei, known for its spicy, sesame-infused tan tan ramen topped with a thick round of tender char siu. Chains from the motherland, where a strong yen made the dollar a bargain, include tonkotsu specialists Golden Pork from Kyushu and Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, inspired by the ramen-obsessed classic Tampopo. Both are recommends.

Kake udon at Marukame Udon
Marukame Udon / Facebook

Udon

If ramen is the sexy rock star of the noodle family, udon is the plain cousin who likes to stay home. Nothing much has changed in udon’s world — no grated cheese, no schmaltz drizzles, no fanfare. Udon is comfort food — thick, wheaty noodles served steaming in soy-dashi broth or chilled with assorted toppings.

Which made the arrival of Japan’s Marukame just ahead of the ramen explosion all the more notable. Lines snake down Kūhiō Avenue at all hours but move quickly. It’s cafeteria-style, so you pick up a tray, choose hot or cold, bowl size, toppings and sides while fresh noodles are made from scratch on the other side of a glass partition. In Mō‘ili‘ili, hometown favorite Jimbo makes its noodles by hand. Try the nabeyaki udon, which comes in a cast-iron bowl topped with shrimp tempura and egg roll, or the chilled ume-wakame udon, the slick strands al dente and twined with ribbons of seaweed and tart pickled plum.

Sushi

Where there’s food in this city, there’s sushi: conveyor belt sushi shops, neighborhood takeout spots, supermarket grab-and-go cases. There are also high-end temples of raw fish, serving omakase by Michelin-starred Japanese chefs. When you factor in that many Japanese restaurants and izakaya also feature sushi counters, you’re either spoiled for choice or paralyzed by it.

Here’s where to start. At Waikīkī’s Sushi Sho, where the sous chef holds two Michelin stars, the sole menu option is a $300 omakase by Japan’s leading master of Edomae sushi. Never mind that Keiji Nakazawa’s polite rebuff of a Michelin reviewer has left him unstarred — Japanese fans fly in from Tokyo and fill reservations weeks in advance. Maru Sushi on Kalākaua is Takeshi Kawasaki’s new outpost of his Michelin-starred Hokkaido counter, now run by his son.

For a less expensive but still excellent meal, Sushi ii and Sushi Murayama are local favorites for casual omakase in the $75-$100 range. On the North Shore, Banzai Sushi Bar is a hidden gem in the back of a strip mall; the gorgeous Maui Wowie roll of fresh ahi, avocado, mango and shiso wrapped in filmy yuba is worth the drive to Hale‘iwa.

Tonkatsu

Honolulu’s modern tonkatsu story is brief: First there was nothing — no shop specializing in panko-breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets. That changed a decade ago with Bairin, a 90-year-old Ginza icon whose Waikīkī locale elevated the Japanese cafeteria staple to near-cult status — especially when word got out that former Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto favors the $36 kurobuta pork loin katsu.

Since February, Bairin’s had competition: Kapahulu’s Tonkatsu Tamafuji, a Hokkaido import where pork is aged two weeks, unfrozen, for optimal flavor and tenderness (and even the panko breadcrumbs, from La Tour Café across town, are aged precisely four days).

Bacon and egg maki at Yakitori Hachibei
Yakitori Hachibei / Facebook

Yakitori

Fittingly for the Year of the Rooster, three notable yakitori specialists opened in 2017, instantly doubling the options available in Honolulu. All three newcomers are from Japan — price-conscious chains Yakitori Glad on Kapahulu (where everything, including pairs of grilled skewers, costs $3.90) and Mō‘ili‘ili’s Tori Ton (where most single skewers are $1.90), and Chinatown’s Hachibei, the state’s first luxe yakitori counter (get the bacon-and-egg and grilled beef sukiyaki skewers, the latter with a fresh raw egg to whip into a traditional dipping sauce).

Musubi

Whether improbably or inevitably, musubi have morphed with the ages. In older times the homely rice balls were the product of home kitchens — white rice shaped into fist-sized triangles wrapped in nori, with a pickled red umeboshi plum nestled inside — and nothing you’d pay money for. Now locals and expats line up at Iyasume, a small chain that started as a hole-in-the-wall on a Waikīkī side street, for musubi made to order with fresh, hot rice — including sea salt, miso salmon and tuna with curry mayo versions, and 17 kinds of Spam musubi. Choices at recently opened Shichi Musubi in Waikiki Yokocho include tuna-mayo, grilled eel and soy-simmered beef musubi made with organic white, brown or red rice.

Spam musubi is one of the most famous, and misunderstood, Hawai‘i-Japanese specialities. Take a moment to appreciate its circularity. Spam arrived in Hawai‘i during World War II, and locals began frying it up and serving it with rice. Strapped together with a strip of nori, the combo went portable; it appeared at picnics, football practice, church bazaars. Now it’s so popular, 20,000 people turn out every April to celebrate at a daylong Spam Jam. It’s so popular, in fact, that Japanese tourists buy Spam musubi kits to take back to Japan.

If you want to experience Spam musubi like a local, head to your nearest 7-Eleven. The convenience store chain sells huge quantities of several kinds (they’re better than decent, and they make good snacks to carry on the plane). The most haute version is at James Beard-nominated MW Restaurant near Ala Moana Center; go between 2 and 5 p.m., when a delicate pair of mochi-crusted housemade smoked pork-and-arabiki sausage Spam musubi topped with quail eggs is on the $5 small plates menu.

Matcha soft serve over shaved ice at Matcha Cafe Maiko

Matcha

Locals fall hard for matcha — not just for its familiarity, but because in these tropical climes it comes in so many cold, sweet forms. Soft-serve imports from Japan include Matcha Café Maiko on Kūhiō Avenue, home of matcha parfaits, floats and lattes. Around the corner in Waikiki Yokocho, the matcha warabi mochi parfait at Nana’s Green Tea is a creamy, loamy wonder studded with corn flakes and jiggly squares of translucent mochi. And the city’s best Matcha Old Fashioned is in the lobby of a downtown office tower, at Bar Leather Apron.

Food halls

To take in the breadth of contemporary Japanese cuisine in Honolulu, your best bet is to hit a food hall. At Ala Moana Center, Shirokiya’s Japan Village Walk is a dizzying maze where nearly three dozen food kiosks share space with five beer gardens. Turn a corner: ramen, gyoza, Japanese dessert crepes. Another corner: bento, yakitori, takoyaki octopus dumplings. Another corner: croquettes, beer, more ramen. And so on. Japan Village Walk is like one of those dreams you can’t wake up from; whether that’s good or bad is up to you.

Waikiki Yokocho’s 15 eateries seem almost spartan by comparison, until you realize their caliber. More upscale than most food halls, Yokocho is a collection of separate and notable restaurants arranged along interior alleys. Most are the first U.S. outposts of Japanese chains. There’s Kaneko Hannosuke from Nihonbashi, where waits of 90 minutes for the signature tempura bowl are common. Baikohken ramen is listed in Michelin’s Hokkaido guide. Tsujita ramen, known for their tonkotsu and tsukemen ramen, is another standout — the chain’s Los Angeles outpost is widely considered the best in that ramen-obsessed city.

Two Japanese food halls in one U.S. city — it’s not a little ironic. After all, the sugarcane that drew the original Japanese immigrants to the islands is now completely gone. What they unwittingly sowed instead turns out to be far more lasting and delicious.

Mari Taketa writes about the Hawaii food scene and is the editor of Frolic Hawaii.

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