Pau Hana Patrol: Kaimuki yakitori spot offers refreshing, authentic Japanese cuisine
Out of all the many eateries in the area, it is one of the most modest and unassuming. Yet as a place for a pau hana stop, it offers plenty to please the palate and ease the soul.
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Japanese Restaurant Aki is a cozy little spot, tucked away in the same Kaimuki shopping block as the Himalayan Kitchen, Big City Diner, Happy Days Chinese Seafood and the Movie Museum. Out of all the many eateries in the area, it is one of the most modest and unassuming. Yet as a place for a pau hana stop, it offers plenty to please the palate and ease the soul.
If not familiar with the block, it can be hard to find Aki. Basically it’s underneath Himalayan Kitchen, which you can see from 11th Avenue. There’s a nice big Propark parking lot behind the restaurant, accessible on 12th Avenue. Near the parking lot exit lane toward 11th Avenue, you’ll see a sign for the restaurant and a walkway to an interior courtyard, leading you to the entrance.
Some people like to see activity and excitement as they eat and socialize, which is fine if we’re talking about a sidewalk cafe in Paris, Rome, or even Waikiki, but too often the view from a restaurant consists of little more than a parking lot.
At Aki, entering the courtyard area brings you away from the cars and almost to a different state of mind. Walk a bit further to Aki’s big wooden doors and you’re entering an intimate, approximately 40-seat space. Soft classical piano music plays on the speakers inside, and even though the restaurant’s big windows are kept open, a rock garden and plants outside create a still-life effect.
The decor is quintessentially Japanese; the yakitori chef is visible behind a clear plexiglass window, but otherwise it’s elegantly simple, with wood features and no frills. Even the menu looks like it was written using a typewriter.
The Happy Hour menu is labeled “Aki’s Happiest Hour,” and that’s the only hype you’ll find in the place. Instead, there’s a warm, friendly spirit and good, traditional comfort food, Japanese style.
Our server was extremely well-informed about the menu, patiently explaining its selection of cold and hot dishes, the selection of chef’s specials and the skinny rolls — the restaurant’s diminutive version of sushi rolls, served during happy hour.
Prices were excellent, ranging from $3.50 for cold tofu ($5 regular) to $12.50 for a serving of five different kinds of sushi.
On the server’s recommendation, we tried Agedashi Tofu ($6.50, regularly $8.50), pieces of soft tofu coated with corn starch and deep fried, then served in dashi, a broth with various garnishes. I must admit to liking soft tofu, but this was a revelation — just adding that bit of crunch really enhanced the experience, while all the flavors balanced out perfectly.
If you go to Aki during regular dinner hours, the specialty is yakitori, and the happy hour menu offers a serving of three kinds of yakitori for $5.50. That day the dish featured a skewer of pork belly, one of chicken thigh, and another of chicken interlaced with a mentai (spicy cod roe) and mayonnaise garnish. That also was excellent.
One of the more filling dishes on the Happiest Hour menu was the miso cream cheese ($4.50, $6 regular), which was in fact cream cheese mixed with saikyo miso, a sweet miso that came with seaweed strips to wrap it in. It was a tasty and fun combination of tastes and textures.
Even Aki’s sushi offerings seemed to have something special. Certain local sushi offerings seem to have no flavor until you put soy sauce and wasabi on top — but after you add this, all you can taste is soy sauce and wasabi. I didn’t need to put anything on this sushi to find it tasty and satisfying.
Aki’s happy hour beverages include beer and shochu blends for $4, sake for $8 and wine for $6. We had the Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo sake, which went down well with the sushi, and a Shochu Highball with Green Tea. Both complemented the delicate flavors of the food.
Aki is truly a delight for happy hour, and I’m sure for dinner it’s just as good. It’s an authentic experience as well; all the chefs are from Japan, and all the table staff speak Japanese. The owner is Japanese and owns several restaurants in Japan, but this is his only restaurant outside Japan.
If you are interested, make sure you come look for the Kaimuki location — a quick internet search reveals a restaurant called Aki on Makaloa Street; that’s the old location. Despite the potential confusion there, and Aki’s tucked-away location, people know about it. By the time we left our happy hour visit, about 10 more people had also come in and were enjoying themselves. You can’t ask for a better recommendation than that.