Japanese Food Bliss in Honolulu, HI: A Tale of Two Doors
Words by Dirk Vogel
The Japanese have a word for eating yourself into a state of sheer food bliss. The word is Kuidaore. It’s a big thing in the town of Osaka, and it involves ordering a wide variety of foods — mostly in small bites — in what adds up to be a whole lot of frikkin’ food, ultimately sending you into a state of ultimate bliss where you have tasted everything, and desire no more.
On our recent vacation to Honolulu, Hawaii, Tilley (the wife) and I decided that the rich local Japanese food culture would offer great opportunities to experience Kuidaore first-hand, just the way it’s meant to be experienced.
So after some searching the Interwebs, we came up with the perfect spot: Imanas Tei Restaurant on 2626 S King Street, a hidden gem off the beaten track that offered practically everything! From raw oyster sushi to fresh sashimi all the way to hot food delights including the steaming mystery that is chanko-nabe and the tender beef slices called shabu-shabu.
Off the beaten track
The wife and I are big believers in earning our way to a truly out-of-this-world food experience. Therefore, walking the entire 2.1 miles to Imanas Tei from downtown Honolulu seemed like the perfect rite of passage for earning a rightful spot in Kuidaore heaven.
With this in mind we set out on foot, leaving behind the bustling crowds and flashing lights of the Kalakaua Blvd main strip.
This was going to be a long trip, and once you get away from the designer-groomed facades of Kalukaua Blvd, the neighborhoods of Honolulu soon appear in quite a different light. Crossing the Ala Wai Canal, we saw shaggy skaters on long boards, witnessed late-night soccer practice on a fully illuminated municipal pitch, overheard a late-night Baptist service with spiritual ukulele music oozing into the warm April breeze through the open doors, and saw a lady walk two bite-sized fluffy dogs that just melted your heart at the sheer sight of them.
One of the dogs growled, or was that my stomach? I was definitely getting hungry.
When we finally finished the two-mile journey and the neon sign for Imanas Tei appeared like a beacon in the sky, we were starved for food and comfort, and kind of worn out from the journey. Which is why things may have gotten a little blurry.
Door One: Not what we expected
Arriving at the doorstep of Imanas, we walk straight into a bustling dining room filled to capacity with diners. Full house! Right away, we are greeted by the Grill Master and his staff with thunderous shouts of “Ira sha-ee masay!” (“welcome”). And much to our surprise, we are ushered to the only open seats in the house, right by the bar where the Grill Master is holding court. What great luck!
After ordering some Asahi Extra Dry on draft, we dive right into our order sheet and highlight a selection of a dozen different chef’s choice yakitori skewers, together with some chicken wings and takoyaki (fried octopus dumplings). Mmmmmhh… takoyaki!
At this point, it also occurs to me that so far, we have not seen a sushi menu, nor any trace of shabu-shabu or chanko-nabe. And although there is a kitchen behind where the Grill Master is basting skewers and brushing miso onto fried rice balls, we see no extra mention of these items on the menu.
“Maybe it’s yakitori night?” I offer the wife.
She simply raises her brows and pulls out the smart phone. Meanwhile, the takoyaki and the first load of skewers arrive. They are scrumptious. The skewers include pork sausage, chicken gizzards (surprisingly tasty) and also quail egg served with Japanese mayonnaise and mustard; a high-end deviled egg if you will.
Rad! Let’s order some more food! Oysters in broth, chicken wings, and how about the fried chicken while we are at it?! This is great Kuidaore! Not to forget that we have more skewers coming by Grill Master-san, who presents every dish ceremoniously, while his attentive staff refreshes our drinks. Cheers!
This is where Tilley figures out what is actually going on with the strange gaps in the menu. “Imanas is next door to this place!” she says and points at the smart phone. “This is a yakitori place called ‘Kohnotori.’ We walked into the wrong door!”
Hmmm… so that explains it! Like, what are the chances?! Two Japanese eateries in one building?! We walked all this way from downtown Honolulu, just to walk into the wrong door. Laughing at our own foolishness, we toast our pint glasses and get back to eating.
After all, the Kuidaore is in full swing. Plus, “wrong door” sounds rather harsh. If juicy teriyaki beef skewers that melt in your mouth are wrong, who would want to be right?! So we keep ordering more food, down more Asahi, and enjoy the tumultuous revelry of this charming dining hall alive with beer, sake bombs and a constant flow of delicacies from the grill and the kitchen.
We would experience true food bliss that night, walk home with a take-out box, and make a vow to return and enter the door to Imanas Tei next time.
Door Two: Chunky, chunky, chanko-nabe!
Two nights later we cross the canal again and make our way on foot towards Imanas Tei. This time we pay attention and instead of the brightly lit revelry of Kohnotori, we find seats in the dignified calm ambience of Imanas Tei Sushi Restaurant and Izakaya. The wife instantly points out the kaki nigiri — raw oysters with scallions and ponzu jelly, wrapped in nori with spicy grated daikon radish – that beckoned her here. Sounds amazing! So does the salmon and yellow tail nigiri, which we order to set the stage for our main dish, the elusive chanko-nabe that had been hiding behind this door all along.
Chanko-nabe is actually the dish favored by Japanese sumo wrestlers for beefing up during training season. It’s a mini-stove with a pot of broth that cooks right at your table, into which the waiter skillfully layers an extraordinary amount of ingredients including beef, scallops, chicken, meatballs (scraped out of hollow bamboo sticks straight into the dish), salmon, king crab, shrimp, clams, tofu and tons of cabbage and other veggies.
Without a doubt, this towering pot of goodness has Kuidaore written all over it, and within nine minutes of the waiter’s loading up the bowl, we get our start at ladling cooked ingredients from the bottom of the pot. So much flavor! The meatballs explode with aroma, and the salmon is tender and juicy, as is the thinly sliced beef.
As we progress through the enormously varied ingredients in this dish, we realize that a two-person order of chanko-nabe could easily feed three people, and a sumo wrestler in training. And while we do our best to plug along, we still have no idea what is about to happen next, Kuidaore-wise, right at our table.
When we almost fished all of the solid ingredients out of the pot, the head waitress appears and asks if we prefer rice or udon noodles for the next round. Next round? Stunned, we opt for rice and watch in awe, as she meticulously skims all remaining solids from the broth, only to introduce a bowl of cooked rice into the liquid, which at this point has absorbed all the manifold flavors of the meats, veggies and seafood. Seeping off the fat from the surface and whisking an egg into the broth, she transforms the bowl into a family-sized serving of zosui (rice porridge) that is the final moment of every chanko-nabe dinner. And what a finale it is! All the flavors of the meal in a delicate, almost lofty porridge.
As the feast concludes, we can hardly move from our chairs and celebrate our second successful foray into Kuidaore wonderland with chilled house selection sake, before rolling our stuffed frames back out into the Honolulu evening breeze.
Two sides of the same coin
Looking back at the two doors, the doors to Imanas Tei and Kohnotori, the contrast between these two vastly different restaurants could hardly be any more pronounced. One brightly lit, tumultuous, full of loud merry-making and grilled food comfort. The other with dimmed lights and tinted windows, concealing elevated traditional dining in an air of grateful appreciation and intimacy. Two different worlds, wall-to-wall within the same building. Both celebrating the fullness of life, great food and company in their own way as different sides of the same coin.
And speaking of coins, I sure will need one to decide where to eat first the next time I find myself in front of the two doors to Japanese food bliss in Honolulu, Hawaii. See you next time! Domo arigato gozaimasu!
Kohnotori, 2626 S King St Ste 1 (door on the left) Honolulu, HI 96826 (808) 941-7255
Imanas Tei, 2626 S King St Honolulu, HI 96826 (808) 941-2626
Dirk Vogel is one very tall German, writer and skater living in Seattle. Read more of his work on his site www.dirkwriter.com.