These 4 Popular Honolulu Eateries Are Making it Big in Japan
First it was hula and Hawaiian music, then garlic shrimp, loco moco and Island pancake restaurants—Japan’s fascination with all things Hawai‘i goes back decades. The latest twist? New locations across Japan of popular Honolulu restaurants specializing in Vietnamese-global, Korean, Italian and even vegan food.
This tiny vegan spot in Mō‘ili‘ili sets up shop in Tokyo close to the world’s busiest crosswalk.
Togo Terai, Peace Café sous chef and brother of Honolulu-based executive chef Shota Terai (who owns Peace Café in Mō‘ili‘ili), in the new Shibuya location.
PHOTOS: STEVE MORIN
Peace Café, a six-table eatery in Mō‘ili‘ili whose vegan menu is scrawled on a chalkboard, is as laid-back as its name suggests. Peace Café in Tokyo? Not so much. The new outpost debuted Nov. 1 along with the rest of Shibuya Scramble Square, a giant complex at Shibuya Station. We took in 47th-floor views of the world’s second-busiest train station and the world’s busiest crosswalk, where up to 3,000 Tokyo-ites cross with every green light. Two floors below street level, culinary firsts to Japan fill Scramble Square’s new basement food hall: a boulangerie by Paris’ Michelin-starred Thierry Marx, Los Angeles’ organic Urth Caffé, panda-shaped steamed buns from Taiwan—and Peace Café. Its signature vegan loco mocos, Heart and Seoul bibimbap bowls, lomi lomi taco salads, pitaya smoothies and kinako lattes line gleaming new deli cases at a corner counter on this prime piece of Tokyo real estate. The scene is as polar opposite to the flagship next to Old Stadium Park as you can get—bright and busy, with emerald splashes of kale and watercress, and candylike pinks of beet hummus and dragon fruit, and uniformed staffers calling out free samples to lure passersby.
The proposal that expanded chef-owner Shota Terai’s Hawai‘i-only hole-in-the-wall to the neon-pulsing heart of Tokyo came from a family friend. Koichi Tanikawa had known Terai’s father, chef-owner of a classic Japanese omakase eatery in Roppongi, and watched the son start out in the kitchen at age 10 then go on to study kaiseki and Japanese vegetarian cuisine before taking over Peace Café in 2014. “[Tanikawa] asked if I wanted to open a restaurant in Shibuya. I said OK. I was half-joking,” Terai says. But “he understood Peace Café’s philosophy and my feelings. It wasn’t the money. He wanted to help spread the philosophy.”
— Shota TeraI
(LEFT) Peace Café’s beet hummus; (Right) The new Peace Café location in Shibuya’s Scramble Square.
Terai’s philosophy of healthful food nurturing body and planet runs deep enough that he turned down an offer to sell his vegan soy matcha latte at Japan’s 14,000 7-Eleven convenience stores. “Damé,” he says—no good. But “Japan is my country. I had been wanting to open there. Then this talk about Shibuya came up and kiiiii!”
It didn’t hurt that Terai’s family is from Shibuya. “When people come who aren’t even vegan and thank us, say it was delicious, that makes me happy. We convey the Hawai‘i feeling. And we’re vegan,” he says. “We’re gentle on the Earth.”—MT
SEE ALSO: Vegan & Tasty: Peace Cafe, S. King St., Honolulu
The Pig & The Lady
For his first overseas restaurant, Andrew Le resists the Hawai‘i-fication of The Pig & The Lady while calibrating recipes with Japanese ingredients.
Pho and banh mi at The Pig & The Lady
photos: nikki to
“It’s tasty, but it’s too clean; everything needs to be more dirty,” says Andrew Le, chef/owner of The Pig & The Lady. More fermented, more funk. He’s in Japan, tasting the menu of The Pig & The Lady Tokyo, which opened at the end of November. Following Le’s recipes, the Japanese crew at the upcoming restaurant has prepared the same dishes that Le serves in Chinatown, Honolulu. Tasting them across the Pacific is like being in an alternate universe of a Haruki Murakami novel, where everything seems the same on the surface, but the details are a bit off.
Transit General Office is a Tokyo-based restaurant company with about 3,000 employees and just over 100 restaurants spanning cafés to Spanish concepts. Two years ago, Sadahiro Nakamura, Transit’s CEO, came to Honolulu and proposed a partnership as part of Transit’s goal of bringing more culinary diversity to Tokyo’s dining scene. Transit would finance and run the restaurant, and Le and his team would consult on everything, from the dining room chair upholstery to the bread for the pho French dip.
— ANDREW LE
This is the first time that Le is sampling his dishes in Japan. And it looks like he’s going to have to rebuild his recipes from scratch. “I have to taste all the ingredients—it’s like relearning everything,” he says. Everything is different here: the fish sauce milder, the goat cheese more pungent, the hoisin sweeter and the flours—well, Le can’t figure out what’s going on with the rice flour that’s used to fry the LFC (Laotian fried chicken), which comes out paler and less crispy. Transit has asked a ramen factory to make fresh rice noodles specifically for the Tokyo location, but they’re more slippery and chewy than those in Honolulu.
For a week, Le; Kristene Moon, executive sous chef of the original restaurant; and pastry chef Jessica Fu cook alongside the Japanese chefs. By the time they present the dishes to almost 20 of Transit’s corporate team, including the CEO, CFO, COO and “experience designer,” every single recipe has been tweaked. Some required creative substitutions, like the melon carpaccio—the watermelon (hard to source consistently in Japan) is replaced with green papaya. The pho and vegan broths have been rebuilt, and Le is opting for a different noodle. It’s a lesson that recipes are only guidelines. And despite a rapidly globalizing world, where The Pig & The Lady can open in Ebisu, Tokyo, just down the street from Shake Shack, flavor remains hard to clone.
Le says: “I realized that some of the things I’m trying to replicate aren’t going to be the same. It needs a little exploring how you can make it better, how you can make it unique. But the spirit of [the original] will be there: having fun with flavor combinations, with compositions in plating and presentation. The boldness of the taste will be there.”
Left to right: Patrons of the Tokyo location; Andrew Le with mom Loan Le and brother Alex Le.
There have been a few tense moments in the kitchen: It seems the Japanese chefs sometimes want to adjust flavors slightly for a Japanese audience, to dial back the boldness a bit. But Le is firm. To do that would be like taking the Pig out of The Pig & The Lady. He also pushes back on what he sees as the Hawai‘i-fication of the Tokyo restaurant. Asked to choose a tropical leaf coaster for the tables, he says that this isn’t the look he wants. He envisioned “a city Vietnamese aesthetic” that incorporated Ebisu. What he got: a compact and polished version of the scrappy Chinatown restaurant, from a newly constructed brick wall to bamboo lanterns emulating the chicken-wire pendant lamps in the original. The famous Big Trouble in Little China bathroom? Replaced with a Karate Kid homage. And near the entrance, a beautifully tiled floor that reads, “Aloha.”
Hawai‘i sells in Japan. So when The Pig & The Lady made its first public appearance in Tokyo as a food truck at the Omotesando farmers market and at a concurrent Japanese media lunch, all the chefs donned aloha shirts and served pho and banh mi alongside tropical cocktails and Kona Longboards.
In the end, The Pig & The Lady Tokyo is not a Hawai‘i restaurant, nor a Vietnamese restaurant any more than the Chinatown restaurant can be defined in such simple terms. And while its opening menu had the same dishes served at The Pig & The Lady in Chinatown, Le plans on going to Japan four to five times a year to change it up and develop new dishes unique to Japan. He says when he was first approached about opening a restaurant in Japan, the answer was yes, a thousand times over. “It’s Tokyo that’s why—I have a sense of awe and appreciation for what chefs there do,” Le says. “They’re on another level. To be able to be part of the scene, that’s a dream for a lot of chefs.”—MC
SEE ALSO: The Pig & The Lady: From Farmers Market Pop-Up to the City’s Hottest Restaurant
Honolulu’s Arancino brings its risotto finished in wheels of Parmigiano and uni spaghetti to Osaka and Kyoto.
Inside Arancino Osaka.
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF ARANCINO
Dishes at Arancino’s three O‘ahu restaurants start out like this: Conceptualized on paper, they’re tested in the kitchen and tried out on six of the Italian eatery’s executives and staffers. If anyone wants a tweak—more butter, less heat—the dish is redone until the vote is unanimous; it can take months before it makes it onto the menu. Arancino’s cookery is a gentle hybrid, derived from Italian classics and subtly modified to suit Japanese tastes, which is how a restaurant that caters to mostly Japanese at its Beachwalk location can appeal to a bigger base of Westerners at the Waikīkī Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and to both groups plus locals at The Kāhala Hotel & Resort.
It’s a tricky enough balance that when an offer came to open in Japan, Arancino’s president, Ichiro Inamura, dismissed it outright. But Osaka businessman Tsutomu Yodoi “was so nesshin (passionate),” Inamura recalls. “He promised, he guaranteed he would maintain the brand reputation. I said how? He said he would send a team of chefs from Japan. He said you don’t need to send them back until you’re satisfied with the quality of the food.”
Inside Arancino Kyoto.
Yodoi kept his promise. Inamura’s new partner was modest by Japanese standards but giant by Arancino’s: Yodoi’s high-end steakhouses, Japanese restaurants and ice cream parlors in Japan did $150 million a year in business, roughly 10 times more than Arancino. While Inamura’s chefs trained their Japanese counterparts, Yodoi transformed a three-story boutique he’d bought in Osaka’s tony Toyonaka district into a vision of Italy by way of Hawai‘i. The first two floors, bathed in warm lighting and Arancino’s signature orange walls, evoked the Beachwalk flagship’s cozy trattoria vibe; upstairs, a space surrounded by windows and filled with light emulated Arancino di Mare’s bistro feel. The menu was identical to the Waikīkī restaurants’: Inamura’s shrimp-and-garlic-chip-topped Owner’s Favorite pizza was there; so were Arancino’s uni spaghetti and risotto finished tableside in massive wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Even the 32-ounce tomahawk steak, difficult to source in Japan, made it onto the menu. A year later, in late 2019, the process repeated when Arancino opened at Kyoto’s Hotel Okura, a sister property of The Kāhala Hotel; here the menu replicated the more high-end Arancino at The Kāhala.
“I started out conservatively. Now I’m excited,” Inamura says. “I have not forgotten my pride and identity as a Japanese. I wanted to pass on Arancino to Japan as my legacy. I wanted to encourage enerations.”—MT
SEE ALSO: Meet the Family Behind Hale ‘Aina Award-Winning Arancino at The Kāhala
PHOTO COURTESY OF BANÁN
The group that brought Banán to Japan was young, like-minded and fast. Local Japanese media personality Reiko Tokushige Rogers introduced Shifters, a small company in Osaka, to Zak Barry and his three small-kid-time buddies, who grew the vegan soft-serve business from a truck at the base of Diamond Head to four brick-and-mortar shops in three years. When local sourcing of the key ingredient of Banán’s soft serve proved challenging in Japan, Shifters executives—30-somethings barely older than Barry’s group—joined them in a visit to a cooperative of organic banana farmers deep in the Philippine jungle and spent the night in farmers’ homes. “Since we grew up in Hawai‘i we want to pay respects to the farmers of whatever region we go to,” says Barry. “We told our partners it was a nonnegotiable part of the contract—pretty strict sourcing standards for bananas and the other ingredients that go into the bowls.” Alongside Matsumoto Shave Ice and Honolulu Burger Co., Banán’s kiosk at Osaka’s Hankyu Hawai‘i Fair in the steamy summer of 2018 drew lines of up to 50 people every day, all seven days of the expo.
By August, Banán was selling its soft-serve swirls, acai bowls and papaya boats at a six-month pop-up in Yokohama. The following March it had a permanent spot: the food basement of Grand Front Osaka shopping mall at Umeda Station, where nearly 3 million commuters converge every day. During the Kansai region’s frigid winters, the space converts to a business selling hot drinks; the other eight months Banán cranks out its dairy-free, sugar-free organic soft serve. Little about its presence screams Hawai‘i save for a mascot with a soft-serve head on a miniature surfboard in front of the pineapple, papaya and coconut garnishes. Eventually there will be a spot in Tokyo, Barry says, but for now “it feels good that we’re not buying bananas from some huge multinational that’s spraying pesticides. We’re able to continue our mission of supporting righteous agriculture.”—MT
Read more stories by Martha Cheng
This story originally appeared as “Big in Japan” in the May 2020 issue of HONOLULU Magazine. Get your copy at shop.honolulumagazine.com and subscribe to the print and digital editions now.