Irifune Serves Budget-Friendly Bentos in a New Location
We answer the big question, is the karaage chicken still the same?
Photos by aaron k. yoshino
For local townie kids (especially us local Japanese kids) who grew up in Honolulu, there’s a short list of “go-to” Japanese restaurants we know and love, mostly because the seniors in the family always want to celebrate birthdays there. My Grandma and Grandpa had their favorites. So do great-Aunty Florence, and Mom and Dad.
Irifune is one of those places. The restaurant opened its doors in 1974 at its original location on Kapahulu Avenue. The small Japanese Izakaya setting featured an eccentric decor (remember the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling?) and, most importantly, a reputation for satisfying home-cooked-style Japanese meals. Irifune’s lack of pretense was reflected in the motto, “Shut up and eat.” This is not a place for hyper-curated restaurant faire and elaborate plating, it’s a place to eat some good food and have fun.
Much to the dismay of many of us, the Kapahulu location closed about two years ago. But it’s back. Now serving from a counter in an office building with outdoor tables, Irifune is serving the OG restaurant’s greatest hits along with other dishes and bentos. You are greeted by the original Irifune sign and a few bits of the original decor. I ordered, then settled into a shaded dining table along Mililani Mall to enjoy my food, all the while wondering why I don’t do this more often.
karaage chicken-and-sashimi bento, $12.
The menu is fairly simple, about six options written daily on a stand-alone chalkboard. The day I visited, plates included a tofu steak with garlic-mushroom sauce and a garlic ‘ahi spinach salad. I “tried” the karaage chicken-and-sashimi bento ($12), along with the classic bento which featured sashimi, tataki-style tempura and Irifunes classic garlic ‘ahi ($10). I say “tried” because I've had everything before at the Kapahulu restaurant and am happy to report to fans that nothing has changed. The karaage chicken was perfectly crisp with just the right amount of garlic and sweetness, then garnished with a mayo-and-sweet chili sauce. The sashimi was served as it has always been, with a refreshing ponzu dipping sauce that was garlicky, gingery, and, as usual, gone in less than a minute.The classic bento’s tempura is still hot from the fryer, deliciously oily and light, and served alongside Irifuneʻs house-made tentsuyu (dipping sauce). And my favorite thing on its menu, the garlic ‘ahi, was seared and as tender and amazing as I remember it.
Not everything is exactly the same. My memory of the original Irifune is beginning to fade, but I seem to remember the original portions being bigger. Of course, the OG Irifune was a dinner-only spot and since many probably want to eat lighter for lunch, this makes sense. The smaller portions are also matched by slightly lower prices. The $10 bento is a great deal.
The new Irifune is a nice change of pace from the usual downtown eateries for those of us who work downtown, and a worthwhile lunch excursion for those who don’t. Now shut up and eat!
Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. 850 Mililani St., (808) 737-1141, facebook.com/pg/IrifuneRestaurant