Honolulu’s Japanese Food Guide: Top 8 Izakayas
Housemade tofu sampler at Izakaya Gazen (from top): black sesame tofu, zaru (basket) tofu, sukui tofu in soy broth.
Photos: Olivier Koning
Pub or restaurant? In Honolulu the distinctions sometimes blur, but an izakaya (literally, ‘shop that has sake’) is a casual, even rustic place where alcohol flows freely and the small plates are meant to be shared.
The exception? Rice or noodle dishes, which are always ordered last. Tradition dictates that rice and sake—which is made from rice wine—aren’t consumed at the same time, so when the evening’s libations are gone, it’s customary to order a starchy finale to soothe both stomach and soul.
Each izakaya has its own character; there’s one for your every craving.
For the finest tofu:
Even non-tofu lovers can appreciate the pillowy, handmade lobes, served in their own savory broth, that star on Gazen’s eclectic fusion menu. This sukui tofu is like a rich custard, melting on the tongue. Tofu lovers will swoon.
$$$, 2840 Kapiolani Blvd., (808) 737-0230
For the adventurous:
Sushi Izakaya Gaku
Gaku is a favorite among Japanese nationals, locals seeking life beyond maguro and hamachi nigiri, and those looking to impress out-of-town guests. Here, chefs scrape fresh hamachi off the bones for a luminous dish topped with green onions, tobiko fish roe and a raw quail egg, which you mix together and scoop into crisp nori. The adventurous will revel in Gaku, which offers grilled ray and raw octopus sashimi with yuzu ponzu. Definitely check the specials menu for seasonal seafood not often seen in Hawai‘i, such as wild yellowtail and even shirako, the delicacy also known as, um, fish sperm.
$$$$,1329 S. King St., (808) 589-1329
MEET THE CHEF: MANABU KIKUCHI
“This island is more Japanese. Lots of local Japanese, more close to Japan,” says Manabu Kikuchi, 43, the chef and owner of Gaku. It’s the reason he settled in Honolulu, after leaving Tokyo to work in Los Angeles, then Miami. “Sometimes on the Mainland, it’s hard to explain to them—many American people—the traditional Japanese style. Here, more people understand and they like it.”
His foundation may be traditional Japanese—he can execute sushi and a simple grilled fish to please purists—but what also drives people to Gaku are his creations such as a housemade tofu with dashi gelee and uni, and tako with garlicky ponzu and basil. Basil? “Whatever is good, we try,” he says, of incorporating a non-traditional Japanese herb.
Some favorite dishes come out of his philosophy of no waste. The oft-ordered negihamachi is fish scraped off the bones after he’s done filleting. Even the fish skeleton itself is transformed into “bone-chips,” an off-menu treat for in-the-know diners.
Kikuchi’s right-hand man, Hideki Daimom, scours the fish markets in Chinatown and around town every day to supplement orders from distributors and fish from the auction. The day I talk to Daimom, he’s found a local sea bass from Tamashiro’s. He’ll serve it thinly sliced on a cold plate, with chili daikon, green onion and ponzu.
“Everyday is different,” says Kikuchi. Gaku’s daily list of specials is almost as long as its regular menu, and it’s for this reason—a menu of standbys and new specials, the traditional and the contemporary—that Gaku ranks as one of Honolulu’s most popular izakayas.
For classic Japanese and nabe:
There’s always a line out the door at this longtime favorite known for its sushi and massive chanko nabe, a meat-and-veggie hotpot fit for sumo wrestlers. Get the gobo and seafood kakiage, too, a voluminous fried tangle on par with the Bloomin’ Onion.
$$$$, 2626 S. King St. (808) 941-2626
Where local meets traditional:
Kona native James Matsukawa, a veteran of Sasabune and Tokkuri Tei, presides over the sushi counter and an izakaya menu. It reads like a “greatest hits” of favorite dishes at sushi bars and izakayas around town, in a local-friendly atmosphere. Get the crispy fried fish spines, rock lobster broiled with Japanese mayo, and bamboo shoots breaded with bonito.
$$$, 3579 Waialae Ave., (808) 594-7687
For avant-garde Okinawan:
Bittermelon stir-fry on an izakaya menu? That’s because Naru’s a Japanese chain specializing in Okinawan dishes. Other picks: gyoza pizza, fried veggie chips.
$$, 2700 S. King St., (808) 951-0510
For soul-warming flavors and frozen sake:
Envisioned as a farmhouse in snow country—at the edge of Waikiki—Nonbei came under local management a few years ago, which means there’s now a sushi bar making favorites like an inside-out hamachi roll. But standbys such as the deep-fried flounder, butter-sauteed enoki and eggplant, and grilled musubi remain. Don’t forget the frozen sake, like a sake slushie.
$$$, 3108 Olu St., (808) 734-5573
For fusion comfort food:
Chez Kenzo Bar and Grill
A user-friendly sake list, generous happy-hour pours and an exuberant menu of fusion small plates including garlicky bacon kabocha, kimchee hiyayakko (chilled tofu) and spicy cod roe pasta define this newcomer. Think that doesn’t sound very Japanese? Then you haven’t been to Tokyo lately.
$$, 1451 S. King St., (808) 941-2439
The local’s izakaya:
Props for the wackiest izakaya menu, which include Nori-chos, tempura-battered seaweed topped with nacho cheese and tobiko, and Spider Poke (soft shell crab, ahi and ikura rolled into nori). Other favorites include the ika yaki (squid pancake) and salmon skin salad. Japanese food can sometimes be intimidating, but nothing is more frightening than the “Snake Venom,” a shot poured from a jar containing an entire snake.
$$$, 611 Kapahulu Ave., (808) 732-6480