Honolulu’s Japanese Food Guide: Where to Find Izakaya

To me, an izakaya is the perfect restaurant concept.
Photos: Olivier Koning

Once in Tokyo, I found a tiny izakaya, a sit-down sake shop. Can’t tell you the name, because I couldn’t read the sign.


Unlike every izakaya I’ve been in since, it was cheap. Everything, including sake, was 300 Yen (less than $3 at the time). It had a display of plastic food, so I could point to what I wanted.


One night I sat down next to a Japanese businessman with a little English, Haruhiro Utsumi (“Call me Harry”). Harry worked 12-hour days, six days a week, and when he was done, he said, he liked to DRINK SAKE!


That we proceeded to do. With food, of course. Harry may be the only person in the world who could talk me into eating deep-fried tofu on a stick, if that’s what it was.


We spent three to four hours talking about everything from baseball to world peace. When Harry left to catch the last train home, I realized he’d picked up the tab for the sake.


That evening may be why, of all the restaurant concepts in the world, my personal favorite is the izakaya. It’s a place to relax and drink with friends (or in this case, make one).


It’s not just about drinking. An izakaya isn’t an izakaya without food. Only the young and foolhardy drink without eating. More than that, eating is social. You don’t want individual plates. An izakaya puts food in the center of the table for all to share. It’s a simple formula: decent drink + good food + the warmth of friendship.


The same formula applies to great wine bars (say, Vino) and pubs (say, Murphy’s). However, in Honolulu, we’re fortunate that we’ve imported izakaya straight from Japan. Hawaii izakaya invariably call themselves sushi bars, but a true izakaya needs a kitchen, pumping out plates that perk up both the appetite and the spirits.


This month, hitting izakaya around town, I stumbled across some real finds, just like that night in Tokyo. No Harry this time, but a lot of fun.



Sushi Izakaya Gaku

As luxurious as nigiri sushi comes: the lightly torched toro at Gaku.

Tough to get a reservation at Gaku. Tough to find it. Tough to park.


Worth the trouble, though.


The deliberate rustic interior of Gaku just feels right, welcoming. One keynote of the décor is fish hung to dry on bamboo racks.


Then a double take: In a place so old-school Japanese, the waiter is a sizeable haole who looks like a lifeguard.


Daniel Nevis was, in fact, an Oahu lifeguard. He told his surfing buddy, sushi chef Manabu Kikuchi, that if he got his own place, he’d come to work for him.


“It was kind of a joke,” says Nevis. “But a couple of years ago, he opened this and here I am.”


Nevis, bilingual, has transformed himself into a respectful, but friendly izakaya server. You need a guide for Gaku’s multipage menu, written in that peculiar Japlish amalgam of Japanese and English favored by Honolulu izakaya. “Try numbers 11, 20, 30,” he said.


We followed his instructions to the number, beginning with No. 11: Negihamachi, a bowl of it propped on a larger bowl of crystalline ice.


Negi are simply Japanese green onions. The finely chopped hamachi was topped with onion and a raw quail egg. You mixed it, scooped out some onto a piece of nori, rolled it up and popped it into your mouth. There was the crunch of nori, then the wondrous soft, almost buttery texture created by the egg and the oil in the hamachi.


It was hard to know what No. 20, “tako marinate basil fumi,” might be. Octopus, of course, slices of it, each topped with a basil leaf, in a bright citrus and garlic sauce. Good, startling, though the basil tended to overwhelm the taste of the octopus.


The only disappointment was No. 30: Baked King Crab, plenty of real crab, but dull after the pyrotechnics of the previous dishes.


I was out with the boys, and consequently, we were steadily disappearing 300ml bottles of Hakusturu Junmai Gingo, a sake that seemed rice-y on its own, but happy with food.


We got happier and happier, anyway. Nevis guided us to dishes we might never have ordered. Uni wrapped in kue, a Japanese kelp bass.  Brilliant stuff: firm, almost translucent raw fish twirled around soft and remarkably sweet uni, with a layer of shiso leaf to brighten the taste. Shiso somehow works better with fish than basil.


Then, something I’d never encountered, soft tofu (the restaurant called it “loose”) with jelly. The jelly turned out to be made from one of those Japanese bonito-based dashi, turned, as it were, into a consommé. It was like a soup, a really good Japanese soup, except solid.


Against my advice (“Raw octopus is slimy”), Nevis talked the boys into ordering raw octopus sashimi. Bright white, cold-water octopus from Hokkaido, firmed up with citrus, I think, and sprinkled with yuzu zest. My companions took great delight in pointing out I’d been wrong.


“Are you two still hungry?” I asked, as we killed yet another bottle of Hakusturu. Yes.


Steak perhaps would slow them down. “You can have a regular steak any time,” said Nevis. He suggested what the menu called “cow tongue original stake.”


Thanks to my German grandfather, I like tongue. Any doubts the boys had, Nevis talked them past. This tongue, with its complement of sautéed vegetables, tasted like beef all right, but richer than steak with a deep rumbling of organic notes. Wonderful, especially with a slight touch of mustard.


Still hungry? Because we had been neglecting the sushi bar, Nevis suggested lightly torched toro nigiri.


I passed. I was so full toro would have been wasted on me. The boys found it the perfect dessert.


I’m sure toro impacted my $239 tab, but the boys are worth it.


One had brought along his serious camera and snapped all the food. When he e-mailed me the pix, he wrote: “Looking at these makes me want to go back and order the exact same things.”


1329 S. King St., (808) 589-1329, Monday–Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., (reservations from 5 to 7 p.m.), limited parking, major credit cards.



Izakaya Nonbei

The food at Izakaya Nonbei is both expected, lke the miso butterfish…

Two words: Frozen sake.


“People come here just for that,” said the waitress, as my friend and I perched on the last two stools at Nonbei’s sushi bar.


She brought us one of those brick-shaped aseptic packs of Tama no Hikari, a Kyoto sake. A cardboard aseptic pack? “Wouldn’t it look better to empty that into something back in the kitchen?” I asked.


“Then it wouldn’t work,” she said. “Watch this.” She opened up the pack and as the liquid poured into the glass, it froze, turning into a sake Slurpee.


This trick requires a special refrigerator to hold the sake at the precise temperature. Nonbei has the only one of its kind in Hawaii. Even in Japan, they’re rare.


Nonbei, a tiny little space, was for decades a highly traditional izakaya, but with a change of ownership two years ago, it added, in the manner of Honolulu izakaya, a sushi counter.


… and unexpected, like grilled garlic with miso paste.

And a new chef, Toshiyuki Watanabe, a veteran of the late lamented Kyo-Ya, the mainstay of Japanese cuisine in Honolulu for nearly half a century.


Watanabe cooks to Japanese, not local tastes. Still, it’s hard to tell the difference when confronted with his hamachi roll, a large inside out roll, capped with beautiful slices of hamachi and stuffed with negihamachi, which, if my tastebuds don’t deceive me, contains a hint of sriracha sauce.


Watanabe also handles the cooked dishes, and we couldn’t get enough of his eggplant sautéed with Japanese mushrooms.


The fried chicken was a delight, boneless, golden, crunchy, alive, full of fun. And the butterfish was seriously competent.


There were some interesting sides: seaweed dipped in rice flour and deep-fried. If kaki mochi were soft, and tasted fresh instead of packaged, that’s what these tasted like.




Also unusual was the head of garlic, roasted not quite soft, then run under a broiler. You squeezed out each clove and dipped it into a sweetish red miso. I’d never had this before, it seemed to require a second pack of frozen sake.


We rounded out the meal with what has become one my favorite things—grilled musubi.  Seasoned with shoyu, crunchy brown and slightly burned on the outside, these are far more fun than just rice.


In Japan, people believe that sake, being rice, takes the place of rice and noodles while drinking. It took the arrival of the musubi as a signal to stop with the frozen sake already.


Want dessert? I asked my friend. “Yes,” she said. “Formaggio’s right up the street. I want bananas Foster.”


She got it, of course, but I don’t include it in my $114 tab from Nonbei, including tip.


3108 Olu St., (808) 734-5573, open daily 5 to 10:30 p.m., limited parking, major credit cards





Tokkuri-Tei has terrific Big Island baby abalone (here topped with uni), but it’s a lot easier to eat if you ask them to slice it.

This was the third Tokkuri-Tei location I’ve been to. The first was on Sheridan Street, behind a vast empty lot that became Walmart.


The Sheridan place was even more hole-in-the-wall than your average hole-in-the wall, an oddly shaped room, filled with weird angles and even stranger décor, testaments to the oddball humor of owners Kazu Mitake and Hideaka “Call me Santa, like Santa Claus” Miyoshi.


After Sheridan Street came a strip mall space on Kapahulu, flourescent lit, average-looking despite the antic decor, no room between the tables, boxes stacked in the hallways, every chair filled, the service less than stellar.


I hated the space, but eventually adjusted. Why? Because I loved the onomimono (drinks) and oshinagaki (tasty tidbits) on the 12-page menu tacked to the wall in plastic page protectors. I had some good times there.


Then the news: Tokkuri-Tei had moved to the old Sam Choy’s/Sergio’s/Ranch House location above Hee Hing.


It was a pleasure to see a small, highly personal restaurant go big time. But an upscale Tokkuri-Tei?


Sort of. Like the old location on Sheridan Street, the Sam Choy space has always been weirdly angled, an odd layout for a dining room.


The sushi bar, once Sam Choy’s display kitchen counter, looks great with its rainbow array of banners. And there’s actual space between the tables.


But otherwise the partners have done their best to downscale the place—hundreds of paper cochin lanterns, scores of shikishi (signed bits of art board) all over the walls, plus the usual antic décor items.


The total effect? Odd. But that’s always been the Tokkuri-Tei design ethos.


A bigger shock: Tokkuri-Tei always had oceans of sake, poured out in generous portions. The new space opened without a liquor license. Tokkuri-Tei without sake?!

Tokkuri-Tei may now occupy upscale space, but the decor is still eclectic and homemade.


Fortunately, someone tipped me off. I was taking a friend who’s not a serious sake fan. She’s easy to make happy, though. Just bring along an expensive bottle of champagne.


The service was much better, a new crew of young waitresses, a little inexperienced, but attentive.


That left the food, which seemed to have lost some of its sparkle. The famous spider roll was a tad fishy. The potatoes and octopus was heavy on potatoes and light on octopus. The negi and chicken kushiyuki was overgrilled, the negi small, the whole thing charred black.


This being Tokkuri-Tei, there were some good things. Deep-fried nori chips topped with spicy chopped ahi. The ever reliable and beautifully presented eggplant yaki.


Some excellent asparagus and pork. “What is that great flavor?” asked my friend. “Seasoned with shoyu, cooked in butter,” I said. “Called bah-tah.”


Don’t miss the Big Island smoked pork skewers, seasoned, smoky, sweet, powerful. If we hadn’t been near the end of the meal, I’d have ordered another couple of skewers.


Instead, we decided to cruise to a stop with some sushi. The sushi was strange. The hamachi came in big untrimmed chunks. We just had to pick them up in our fingers and dip the fish in the shoyu, ignoring the little squished finger of rice underneath.


That was doable. Not the abalone. The waitress told us she was under an injunction to sell the specials and that we should try the Big Island abalone sashimi. OK, but what we got were two whole abalone on the shell, baby abalone, but still too big to pick up and try to crunch through.


I finally sent them back to the sushi bar to get sliced. “Ah,” said my friend, “whole they’re hell, sliced they’re heaven.”


For dessert, some wonderful yuzu sorbet, just the sort of thing to eat when you’re full anyway.


The bill was one of the most reasonable I’ve ever signed at Tokkuri-Tei, $120 counting the generous tip to the waitress who was working her way through nursing school to support her 3-year-old son.


Then I remembered: no liquor tab, just $5 a head for corkage on the champagne.


449 Kapahulu Ave., (808) 732-6480, open weekdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.



 Sushi Izakaya Shinn

The genki jirushi at Shinn is a rainbow of flavors, from natto to okra to quail egg. Just wrap in nori and enjoy.

My friend arrived at Izakaya Shinn while I was still on the way. He texted: “This place not Tokyo Japanese. NYC Japanese. NYC Cool.”


The new Shinn is seriously stylish—river rock walls, nylon-beaded curtains, lotus flower light fixtures. It’s gotten considerable buzz among those for whom style counts most.


Two questions remained. Is the food good? Can you have a good time there?


The answers: Yes and yes. The two of us had an izakaya of a time, relaxing over bottles of the most reliable sake ever, Dessai 50.


What’s good tonight? we asked Mayumi, our server. For her, it was oyster and clam night. On an earthenware platter that could have been the shell of some exotic sea creature came six firm, not too large oysters. Two with yuzu and black sea salt (perfect), two with yuzu and spicy daikon, and two with Shinn’s version of tomato salsa (skip).


On another shelllike platter came an array of three-clam sashimi—if scallops count as clams. The sweet scallops were accompanied by mirugai and aoyagi, the crunchier orange clam.


Mayumi also guided us to the sawara. Like saba, sawara is usually translated “mackerel,” but it’s much better than saba, less fishy, firm yet supple on the palate.


Shinn seems to have it all, including a robata bar, so out came the grilled skewers: thick cylinders of negi browned perfectly, a jumbo shrimp, kurabuta pork, asparagus spears wrapped in bacon, beef tongue.


A specialty of the house at Izakaya Shinn: Botan shrimp in yuzu gelee.

And since we were ordering off the grill, two crunchy, delicious grilled rice balls, although we didn’t take them as a sign to stop drinking. As gaijin, we decided we were afforded a certain latitude.


A longish pause, some sake, a lot of conversation, then back to sushi: unagi, kanpachi, ikura.


I find it incredible that we were still hungry for dessert—and that Shinn had desserts worth ordering. Annin with umeshi jelly, for instance. Mayumi called it annin tofu, but it only looks like tofu. It’s actually milk gelatin flavored with almond extract. In other words, almond float. Shinn’s is perhaps the ultimate almond float, because it’s topped by cubes of translucent plum wine (umeshi) gelatin and pureéd frozen strawberries.


Shinn’s big on frozen berries. It serves vanilla ice cream with berries barely thawed by a hot grenadine and brandy syrup—a dessert that adds up to more than the sum of its ingredients.


The bill was $237 for two, but, really, we’d brought it on ourselves. A three and a half hour dinner, izakaya style. Since my friend had been in Japan, we had much catching up to do.


Japan made me think of Harry, my izakaya friend from Tokyo. It was years ago now. I’d sure like to know he’s doing well, maybe take him to Shinn and talk for hours.


2065 S. Beretania St., (808) 946-7466, Monday–Saturday, Dinner starting at 5 p.m.


John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.