4 Places to Get Your Hot Pot Fix in Honolulu
The hot-pot trend won’t quit; we take a look at four Honolulu spots for cooking up you own tasty dinner.
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Customers flock to Asuka Nabe & Shabu Shabu for Hitoshi “Kenny” Ikeguchi’s masterfully crafted dipping broths—and fresh ingredients.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
Asuka Nabe & Shabu Shabu
The restaurant itself is unassuming. The drab walls have a few framed prints, nothing else. Dingy lamps hang over the cramped booth with red cushions so flat you can feel the hard wood beneath. And the tables are already crowded before you even order, littered with two burners, squeeze bottles filled with sauces, utensils and stacks of small bowls.
But people don’t flock to Asuka for the ambiance. They come for two things: the broth and the BYOB.
Japan-born chef Hitoshi “Kenny” Ikeguchi is the master behind the broths, all made from scratch daily, some taking more than four hours to cook. He boasts more than 45 years of experience in the food and hospitality industry, gaining his culinary training at the Osaka Castle Hotel. He opened and managed Kobe Japanese Steak House restaurants in Vancouver and Waikīkī, worked as the head chef of
a French fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan, and has dabbled in restaurant and entertainment ventures in Hawai‘i, Morocco, California and the Philippines.
In 2004, he, along with Toshimitsu Matsuzaki, opened Shabu Shabu House on Kapi‘olani Boulevard, considered the first restaurant to serve only shabu shabu in Hawai‘i. He left to open Asuka three years ago in this 1,500-square-foot spot in Kaimukī.
On most days, Ikeguchi greets customers—we found him in a short-sleeved shirt tucked into relaxed pants and Nikes—with an easy friendliness that makes you feel instantly welcome.
Ikeguchi keeps it traditional here. Taiwanese-style hot-pot places like Sweet Home Café keep ingredients in serve-yourself refrigerators and finish meals with housemade dessert. Asuka, in contrast, is very Japanese. You pick broths and ingredients from the menu and a server brings your order.
“Once I go to a restaurant, I sit down and I don’t want to stand up,” Ikeguchi says. “I want the server to come and serve me. This is the Japanese way.”
Here, he offers four basic soup bases: kombu seaweed, spicy umakara sweetened with honey, the ‘ahi-based wafu and the sweet Osaka sukiyaki, one of which is included in the cost of a set. And then there are 10 premium soup bases you can opt for at an additional charge. The most popular is the Asuka Classic ($2.95), which, Ikeguchi says, has a 1,300-year history and is made from milk, honey, miso and chicken broth.
The sets are basic, too, with pork, kalbi short ribs, chicken and combinations of meats, starting at $17.95, and come with assorted vegetables, soft tofu, udon noodles and homemade gyoza. Each set also includes an endless bowl of either white rice or gokoku-mai, a nutty mixed-grain rice.
In addition to pork and rib-eye beef, we ordered a few side dishes of vegetables including baby bok choy, Chinese cabbage, choy sum and sokisoba (Okinawan noodles). The vegetables were fresh and crisp, something that’s mandatory for hot-pot restaurants.
“We have to use fresh, very green vegetables because we cannot cheat,” says Ikeguchi, who buys ingredients every day from Chinatown or through a distributor. “People can see it before it’s cooked, so it has to be fresh.”
When the broth came—we opted for the classic—the server brought a plate
with a pat of butter and cracked black pepper.
“A lot of people like to add this to the soup,” our server said. “It’s good. You should try it.”
The broth was fine on its own, but we dropped the butter and pepper into the boiling soup.
I couldn’t believe the difference. The rib-eye, already tender and flavorful in the original soup base, was now rich and creamy. The butter added a fuller flavor to the broth, and everything we could pull from it. The round onions, the bok choy, the pork, all suddenly became complex bites in our mouths.
By the end of dinner, we looked at what was left. Empty plates, a pot of murky broth and an untouched bowl of ponzu sauce. Asuka just might have cured me of my sauce addiction
Lunch Wednesday through Sunday, dinner daily, street or municipal lot parking, major credit cards, 3620 Wai‘alae Ave., 735-6666, asukanabe.com