First Look: Tane Vegan Izakaya Serves Vegan Sushi Ramen
The strictly plant-based izakaya is a new challenge for two McKinley dropouts and “Heroes of the Environment” with a mini-empire in San Francisco.
Leahi roll: smoked beets, cashews, creamy tofu, avocado and orange zest.
On the surface, your typical Japanese izakaya/sushi joint seems easy enough to veganize, what with all the types of tofu, sunomono (vinegary vegetable and seaweed salads), vegetable tsumami (dainty appetizers featuring things like edamame, cabbage, eggplant and kabocha) and plant-forward rolls made with gobo, cucumber, ume and takuan. In fact, kanpyo—dried gourd—was one of the first sushi ingredients back in its original Edo days.
It is the underlying foundation of Japanese food, dashi, that disqualifies izakaya dishes as vegan. Dashi, which is in everything from soups to salad dressings, is made with bonito flakes. And ramen broth, which we’re all bananas for, usually includes pork, chicken, beef or a mix of two or more of those. If those two building blocks are weak, then almost everything on the menu is meh.
Tane Vegan Izakaya, which opened in March, will make you wonder why bonito flakes or long-simmered bones were ever part of the equation. And when you ask chef/owner Kin Lui and his brother-in-cuisine, Ray Wang, the secret to their resonant dashi and ramen broths, they look at each other and then look at you with that “if we tell you we will have to kill you” expression. All they will divulge is there is, of course, kombu and shiitake—which are in traditional versions—and “lots and lots of vegetables and dried flowers.”
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Lui made like a hermit crab and crawled into the handsome, textural Peter Vincent Architects-designed space left behind by the late Sushi Izakaya Shinn. Inside the glass case atop the sushi counter are little fillets of mango, avocado and tomato in place of tuna and ika.
And if it feels like Lui has been doing this for years, it is because he has—Tane is the Honolulu sibling of Lui’s 4-year-old San Francisco vegan spot, Shizen, which he has pretty much airlifted lock, stock and smoked beets to Mō‘ili‘ili. And he opened three other San Francisco restaurants before that, including Tataki, the pioneering sushi bar using only responsibly sourced seafood. In 2009, Time magazine recognized Wang and his business partners, chef Raymond Ho and environmentalist and sustainable seafood advocate Casson Trenor, as “Heroes of the Environment” for their work at Tataki.
Before Shizen, the group had been looking for a new challenge. “We thought of kaiseki, omakase, but nothing felt right,” says Lui. “Then we thought, how about vegan? Over the years we have offered small vegetarian menus at our other restaurants.” Lui (who along with his cohort is a carnivore) doesn’t know if Honolulu has the clientele to support this kind of a business, but for him it is an experiment and about offering diners something new.
Flowers, seaweed and mushrooms form the base of Tane’s spicy garlic miso ramen ($14).
Don’t go in looking for o-toro alternatives, because there is no such thing. Do go in looking to enjoy vegetables in new ways. Who knew a slice of avocado on top of a pod of nicely seasoned rice could be so satisfying when enhanced with smoked beet aioli and lemon zest? Roasted bell peppers are combined with mustard shoyu, and mango is pickled and balanced with lime-spiked avocado purée. (Nigiri sushi comes two pieces per order for $6.)
The “specialty rolls” ($13–$15) are equally intriguing exercises in pushing the vegetable flavor and texture envelope. For example, the Manila Dune is a beautiful assemblage of pumpkin tempura, spiced gobo, shredded tofu, avocado crema and chile, with lotus chips topping the tasty log like a row of fans ready for a Japanese classical dance. (Writing about it is prompting me to call to see if there are any spots open tonight—reservations are a must, especially on weekends.)
And really, with other sushi places sacrilegiously piling so many ingredients and a gallon of Sriracha-mayo on top of delicately flavored fish, why even bother with seafood? What a waste.
At Tane, traditional dishes like wakame sunomono ($5), agedashi tofu ($7) and eggplant agebitashi ($7) compete with those at any other meat-friendly izakaya.
And that ramen? My companion and I were already full from small dishes and sushi, but one taste of the rich, animal-product-free shoyu broth, combined with the unmistakable chew of Sun ramen noodles, and we kept eating. Additions like smoky tofu chashu imported from Taiwan make it my favorite ramen of the moment.
In addition to being vegan, Tane is gluten conscious. The menu is dotted with “gf” and also indicates dishes that can be made gluten free (like the ramen—but check ahead to make sure the latest shipment of wheat-free noodles from California has arrived).
On the night I dined at Tane, Lui and Wang were both working. They’ve known each other since high school—they are both McKinley dropouts (they even dropped out the same day)—and learned their craft by starting at the bottom in the most humble of places. Lui worked at Sekiya’s Restaurant & Delicatessen and Wang did time at Panda Express. They moved to San Francisco, gained more experience, and leveraged their new skills and knowledge into a budding Bay Area restaurant mini empire. Lui will remain in Honolulu to oversee Tane. Wang was heading back to San Francisco the next day. Theirs is a success story to savor.
Tuesdays–Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m. Tane Vegan Izakaya, 2065 S. Beretania St., Diamond Head of McCully Street, (808) 888-7678, facebook.com/tanevegan