When the Emergency Order Shut Down Honolulu Dining Rooms, These New Restaurants Decided to Open Anyway
Launching during lockdown.
It’s 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, the end of week six of O‘ahu’s pandemic emergency order. On the sidewalk outside Kapahulu’s newest izakaya, masked faces peer at the plethora of handwritten specials papering the windows: oxtail curry, garlic fried rice with cheese, seared rib-eye steak bowls. Inside the kitchen of Aburiya Ibushi, the chef, Toru Ibushi, is scooping rice into a takeout container.
A Japanese customer—a regular waiting for her food—pops in. “There’s an older lady here who can’t handle spice,” she says. “She wants to know, how spicy is the oxtail curry?”
“It’s regular curry spicy,” Ibushi tells her.
“Hai.” She runs outside with the report.
Ibushi has been here since 10 a.m., alone. It’s not how he envisioned opening his first restaurant. But after three years of planning and four months of paying rent on the space formerly occupied by Hawai‘i Curry, Ibushi opened March 18 with a crew of four and 20 reservations on the books. All around, events were being canceled and restaurants were advertising new social distancing measures. Ibushi watched as his own cancellations piled up. Two days later, all O‘ahu restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms. Those who stayed open would have to survive on takeout and delivery.
“I’ll never forget. March 20 we had just one customer. I wanted to cry,” Ibushi says. “It was hard, but from the next day I realized we had no choice. Everyone was suffering.” He furloughed his crew. He adjusted his hours from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.—typical for an izakaya where plates are crafted to accompany an evening of drinks—to a more neighborhood-friendly 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. He came up with specials, photographed them and splashed the pictures on his windows and Instagram—musubi stuffed with miso-cheese tonkatsu, charcoal-grilled pizzas, bentos with flame-seared meats. “Hey boys!!” read one Instagram post. “This is ‘ABURI’ steak sandwich!! garlic teriyaki sauce, basil sauce, butter, & cheeeese.”
The older woman outside has decided on the oxtail curry and miso-simmered pork belly. Ibushi is garnishing the pork dish with a soy-marinated boiled egg when a passerby walks in and surveys the empty restaurant. “Only you?” It’s an empathetic question. He orders the rib-eye bowl and an aburiyaki beef flank set.
Aburiyaki means flame-seared. Usually this refers to meats; when it’s used with sushi, the surface of the seafood is kissed with a propane torch to wake up the oils, not cook the flesh through. At Aburiya Ibushi, cuts of chicken, pork belly and beef are marinated in shiokoji, miso-ginger-garlic or a sweet-sour barbecue sauce, then grilled over charcoal until the meat releases drippings of fat onto the hot coals. The resulting flames bathe the meat in an essence of smokiness unique to this type of cooking. It’s not unlike wok hay, the breath of the wok—an aroma that flavors and lingers.
Aburi was the style of cooking Ibushi wanted to introduce to Hawai‘i. It would be his signature, his way to communicate with a new audience through food. The 28-year-old likes meat; when he arrived in Hawai‘i from Hyogo three years ago to cook at Osaka Teppanyaki Kawano in McCully, he noticed that locals were crazy about pork belly, tonkatsu, hamburger and steak. “Nice to meat you” would become his motto at Aburiya Ibushi.
This restaurant and Kawano are the only Hawai‘i outposts of Osaka’s Sasaya Co., whose dozens of restaurant concepts focus on the individual styles of young chefs like Ibushi. The chefs have no ownership stake, but their names go on each restaurant, and everything—from menus and management to décor and plates—is their responsibility.
Flames leap from the grill as Ibushi finishes his customer’s rib-eye. He’s taken one day off since opening, and that was to move. Apart from that he’s been here 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and he’s not tired. “I always wanted to come to Hawai‘i. When I got here, I loved it more. Local people are excellent. Awesome. So kind. It was a little bit of a shock,” he says. “I thought America was a colder place. I like surfing but I didn’t know the ocean conditions. People took me and taught me. They helped me move. When I opened this place they came and helped for no money.
“So I want to ongaeshi—I want to return the favor. I wanted to show local people my appreciation. I want to feed them. And even if it’s just one customer or 10, just purely, I want to see their happy faces.”—MT
740 Kapahulu Ave., (808) 738-1038, Instagram: @aburiya_ibushi
At a time when they had been planning on prepping escargot in their shells and Dover sole amandine, the crew of Miro Kaimukī were opening cans of corn, shredding cheddar cheese and roasting chicken thighs for shoyu chicken—items that Chris Kajioka of Senia probably never imagined he would serve in any of his restaurants, least of all his new French bistro.
In October 2019, Kajioka, along with chef and restaurateur Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco, Justin Park and Tom Park of Bar Leather Apron, and the help of silent investors, bought Café Miro, a 22-year-old neighborhood bistro known for French dishes with an infusion of Japanese style. They planned on reopening at the end of the year. The opening was delayed, as openings usually are, and a new date was set for unveiling: April 2.
In March, Miro Kaimukī had finalized its menu. Its new logo was a line-drawn iris, the national flower of France. The refresh of the space, orchestrated by Oakland-based de La Cruz Interior Design, was complete—a new blond wood bar installed, the carpet ripped out and the concrete underneath polished, dividing walls opened up, the fusty décor replaced with slim and straight chairs, slender lamps hung from the tall ceilings, and lapis blue tables edged in gold. There were private parties booked in the two weeks before the opening date. On March 5, Miro Kaimukī opened advance reservations to the public. Two weeks later, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell ordered all restaurants to close for dine-in service.
“We did nothing for the first month,” Kajioka says. (It was actually about two weeks—a testament to how during the beginning of the pandemic, time seemed to stretch in a way that seemed no longer measurable by standard metrics.) “Just shell shocked, you know. We used that time to finish some things around the restaurant that weren’t completely done. And then we started to go a little stir-crazy, so we started cooking.”
On April 4, the day that Kajioka had planned on serving à la carte dishes such as escargot at the bar and a six-course $60 prix fixe menu that included terrine and steak au poivre to an already sold-out dining room, he and his small crew were under a pop-up tent handing out takeout bags via a makeshift drive-thru in the parking lot. His crew included Trevor Webb, who had moved back home from Los Angeles in January and was to be the chef de cuisine of Miro Kaimukī; Alejandro Briceño, formerly of V Lounge and Prima and who also had moved back from LA in November to open his own restaurant; and Jason Peel, previously executive chef of Roy’s Hawai‘i. The first takeout dinner, which offered moi with ginger scallion dashi or Wagyu short rib with peppercorn sauce, utilized ingredients that the restaurant had already stocked. After a month of takeout, the weekly dinners had gotten increasingly homey—prime rib, roast chicken, barbecue ribs. By the beginning of May, Briceño was emptying cans of corn for a corn casserole for the weekend takeout dinners and Webb was roasting racks of chicken thighs for 60 plates of shoyu chicken to be delivered to homebound seniors as part of the Show Aloha Challenge, funded by donations.
Kajioka emphasizes that nothing they’re serving now will be on Miro’s menu when it eventually opens. The temperature and texture sensitive dishes on the original menu wouldn’t have held up well. And he didn’t want anyone’s first taste of the restaurant to be based off an experience delivered in a “horrible takeout container that’s all steamy.” The takeout dinners cost between $50 and $90 for two, and Kajioka estimates they sell about 120 to 160 meals each week, which helps to pay his staff of six. Original projections for the restaurant estimated 120 diners a night, five nights a week. (As this magazine went to print, Miro was planning for a June 10 opening for reservation-only prix fixe dinners, with weekend brunch to follow.)
“The good part is we didn’t officially open,” Kajioka says. “We were not fully onboarded with staff yet.” He says his landlord has also been supportive, and they’ve worked out rent abatement and deferral. “So we’re not pressured here, we just need to make sure the staff is OK. Beyond that we’re ready to rock. I like our menu a lot and a lot of people were really stoked to come—we were completely booked out for two weeks. We’ll open eventually.”—MC
J & S Lumpia Spot
One lumpia, two lumpia …
A month after J & S Lumpia Spot opened a takeout window at the corner of Vineyard Boulevard and Liliha Street, I can’t even get into the tiny parking lot. Ahead, four parked cars are waiting for orders of freshly fried lumpia. These come out by the bag, blasting hot; as the bags are handed through open windows, engines start up, a space opens and I park behind the kitchen. The smell of fried dough and bananas is intoxicating.
Inside, a three-woman production line is rolling, frying and taking orders by phone, text, Instagram and Grubhub. Occasionally someone lured by bright yellow sidewalk signs advertising Hot & Crispy Lumpia turns up at the window. Meat and vegetable, vegetable, Shanghai and banana lumpia are the standards; florid purple Okinawan sweet potato, pastele and strawberry cheesecake lumpia are specialties. Each one is rolled by hand and fried to order.
Three lumpia, four.
Owners Janine Unciano and Susan Eladnani are life partners; their friend, Charmaine Peralta, has stopped by to help. Unciano has no idea how many lumpia they roll each week with help from her mom, but based on how many boxes of lumpia wrappers they go through, she knows it’s at least 750. They make them in between frying and during off-hours when the shop is closed. Lumpia that make it into the freezer sometimes haven’t even frozen before more orders come in and they’re taken out and fried.
Five lumpia, six lumpia …
The dream of owning a business was Unciano’s. She’d been trying to arrange for a space at ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace when she was laid off from her job as a dental assistant in late March; a week later Eladnani, a dental hygienist, was also furloughed. The spot in Liliha was going to be their support kitchen. With both staring at zero income, it abruptly became the entire operation. It turned out to be a good spot: Liliha and Vineyard is a major intersection with freeway on- and off-ramps, direct access to Chinatown, and supermarkets and medical offices nearby. And there’s no other lumpia shop for miles. One lady on her way to work at a credit union saw the Hot & Crispy Lumpia signs, turned and drove all the way back around the block. “We didn’t think it would be so busy. We thought we would be able to keep up with the rolling and frying,” Eladnani says. “Then we realized people really like lumpia.”
Top sellers are the standards and pastele, which takes the longest to prepare because J & S makes its own green-banana masa. It’s a fun menu. Meat, vegetable and starch choices mimic the courses of a meal, and then you choose your dessert. There’s even a banana lumpia sundae. When they get caught up on staffing and workflow, Unciano has ideas for lumpia stuffed with mac and cheese, spicy mac and cheese, hamburger, cheeseburger, haupia and poi mochi. “I like the idea that you can roll pretty much anything in a lumpia and fry it and see how it goes,” she says.
Seven lumpia, more!—MT
517 N. Vineyard Blvd., (808) 400-1855, Instagram: @j.s.lumpia.spot