Andagi, or Okinawan doughnuts, stuffed with shoyu pork from Off the Wall.
Bittermelon stir-fries, shoyu-simmered pork belly, crispy andagi: Okinawan food is as distinct from Japanese as the island’s sunny climes are from snow-capped Mount Fuji. Whereas Japanese food tends to be light and refined, Okinawan leans more heavy and rustic. Until the 1870s, Okinawa was part of a separate kingdom, and the foods its immigrants brought to Hawaii have kept their bold, saturated flavors.
What to order? Start with the goya champuru, or bittermelon—every place has it, a stir-fry of the bumpy-skinned squash, scrambled eggs, tofu and meat. If you’re like most, you’ll opt for chunks of simmered pork belly known as rafute. The dish is even better accompanied by awamori, Okinawa’s 50-proof distilled rice liquor.
Tucked away off River Street in Chinatown, Hanagasa is a weather-worn dive bar known for its fried chicken, tofu champuru and loads of karaoke choices.
$$ |1343 River St. | 531-5988
You’ve passed it a thousand times. Step inside and you’ll find twists like bittermelon tempura and miso rafute along with Okinawan and Japanese standards. And it’s BYOB.
$$ | 2471 S. King St. | 942-7900
Shoyu pork, stuffed inside sweet andagi donuts? Believe. Off the Wall hews to more traditional Okinawan flavors, but its eclectic menu includes bursts of fusion.
$$ | 98-199 Kamehameha Highway | 486-9255 | offthewallhawaii.com
The homiest of eateries, Sunrise is so cozy that if regulars break out a sanshin for live music, as they’re apt to, you absolutely should interrupt your bowl of soki soba to take in the vibe.
$$ | 525 Kapahulu Ave. | 737-4118
Strong local flavors permeate Utage’s goya champuru with rafute and garlic tofu ahi, but it’s the pillows provided for short customers to sit on that get us every time.
$$ | 1286 Kalani St. | 843-8109 | utagehawaii.com
Unctuous pig’s feet soup, served old-style with grated ginger on the side, or the off-menu fried shoyu pork that regulars know to order at happy hour: It’s a tough choice.
$$ | 1210 Dillingham Blvd. | 841-8535