More Japanese Than Japan

Jo McGarry
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Friday - March 19, 2005
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Tomiko and Teruaki Mori run the successfully
authentic Japanese Izakaya Nonbei

Only in Hawaii can a restaurant be successful for 25 years, have a deeply loyal following and yet still remain something of a secret.

Izakaya Nonbei is such a place.

A favorite of those who know and love this little Japanese bar, it sits in unassuming dowdiness behind a small parking lot off Kapahulu Avenue. Blink as you drive down Olu Street and you’ll miss it, along with the opportunity of a unique dining experience.

Izakayas are all over Japan. They are typical pubs and serve a variety of food, mostly on small plates, to accompany beer and sake. This one, run by husband and wife Teruaki and Tomiko Mori, is about as authentic as they come.

“The tourists say that this is more Japanese than Japan,” says Tomiko. And one look inside tells you why.

Imagine entering a modest home in wintertime. You might see snow shoes and raincoats hanging by the door. You would be seated perhaps in a tatami room for dining, or by a roaring fire where kettles boil for soup and other warming dishes. This is Izakaya Nonbei. The décor is unique, with all of the furnishings, including antique dressers and handmade clothing, from Teruaki Mori’s home near Nagano.

“This is original rainwear and snow shoes,” says his charming wife, Tomiko, pointing to the beautiful straw jackets and shoes hanging on the wall.

The menu ( much of it displayed on renban that line the walls) has character and a certain style — the dishes are a mix of homemade “country” dishes and more sophisticated ones

— both equally suited to the local palate and to accompanying quantities of sake and beer. And while the traditional idea is to serve small portions to accompany drinks, the food, as it tends to do in Hawaii, has somehow taken over.

Teruaki goes shopping each morning for ingredients, and his trips include a visit to the early morning fish auction and then to Chinatown for fresh fruits and vegetables. The poke therefore is as fresh as can be. Pupu are undeniably popular here as regulars group around the oval bar sit cross-legged on the tatami room floor or sit lower down around the faux fire.

The Nonbei Special Steak ($16.75) is deliciously tender and is a “must try” as is the flounder (Karei Karaage, $11.75) along with the excellent sashimi platter.

Lunchtime is becoming something of a hit — with great value complete meals like Unagi Don,Yakitori Don and Tempura Udon served for just $5.50 from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays.

Hawaii boasts dozens of hidden restaurant gems, Izakaya Nonbei, with its wonderful atmosphere, comprehensive sake list, excellent food and charming owners, is one of the best.

Izakaya Nonbei 3108 Olu St. 734-5573

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