Ichiban Okazuya Hawai‘i: An Unlikely Love Story (Maui Now)

unagi bowlIchiban Okazuya: The first time we met, we hated each other.

Us: No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you.

The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.

Ichiban Okazuya: I did too, I remembered you. You ordered Chow Fun.

The third time we met, you ordered the Katsu and we became friends.

Us: We were friends for a long time.

Ichiban Okazuya: And then we weren’t.

Us: And then we fell in love.

This strange little shack by the courthouse in Wailuku might seem like an unlikely setting for a love story, but hey, so was Brokeback Mountain.

Our initial meeting, however?

On that very first date we tried the Chow Fun ($1.92/$3.12/$4.80), but found it low on flavor and heavy on noodles. The entire thing contained one–one!–chunk of delicious pork. One.More fizzle than sizzle.

Did someone tell you we’re Jewish? Lies. Insidious lies.

The two slivers of carrot and reasonable portion of onion didn’t do much to help. Thank Yahweh for the accompanying packet of soy sauce.

(And as a side note, we tried it again a few weeks later and got five pork chunks. Luck of the draw.)

Waiter, there is too much oil in my paprikash.

We also sampled the Eggplant with Pork Special Combo ($7.68). Tender eggplant and savory pork soak in a veritable pool of oil.

Although the flavor is fine, the grease is unnerving.

The Karokke?

Still, we were underwhelmed by the overall experience. Thankfully, however, continued endorsements led us to agree to a second date.Well, these panko-breaded and fried mashed potato rounds taste pretty much exactly like… panko-breaded and fried mashed potato rounds. Not that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Upon a strong recommendation, we went for the Korean Fried Chicken ($6.80).

Unfortunately, it was a bit soggy and the sauce tasted strongly of ketchup. We started to wonder if Ichiban even liked us.

Still, the fact that they were sold out for all but two pieces by noon is testimony to:

  1. getting there early;
  2. how good it must be if you do actually get there early.

With nowhere to sit, the small storefront is almost always packed with hungry customers and the troupe of ladies working the back display an impressive, non-stop hustle. Get in line and wait for the friendly counter help to guide you.The restaurant itself opens at 10 a.m. and is essentially a take out establishment. Moreover, it quite possibly boasts the most welcoming staff on the Valley Isle.

And help they will.

We inquired upon what was identified as a Tofu Ball.

“Is it good?” we asked.

The lovely woman’s expression, combined with a shrug, seemed to say, “If that’s what you’re into.”

In contrast, we are very much into the Katsu Chicken ($6.80). As in like like.We decided we probably weren’t.

Although we didn’t intend to order it, the fact that everything else was sold out (at 11:30 a.m. Not early enough!) functioned as a very effective mind changer.

The thigh meat is breaded in panko, crisply fried and accompanied by a way-above-average hoisin sauce. This isn’t a dish we tend to seek out, but with Ichiban Okuzaya’s version, we will make an exception.

The accompanying potato mac salad contained hardboiled eggs and was all kinds of yum.

The restaurant also prepares Nishime, a Japanese stew filled with–best guess–hasu (burdock root), daikon, carrot, shiitake, knotted sea kelp and lotus root.

However, as before–see “overwhelmingly popular place”–they’d run out of every other side dish. When we agreed to take some despite our preconceptions, the lady in line behind us in line yelled out – and we are not making this up – “sucker!”Normally, this is not our cup of tea, mostly because the smell reminds us of, well, a Honey Bucket at the tail end of Coachella .

It’s not for everyone.

On the upside, it was better than the others we’ve sampled… but still not our cup of stewed root vegetables. Still, preparation takes time and for those who do appreciate it, this version is an obvious labor of love.

Odds are we’d prefer the nishime ingredients with a nice crispy coating of tempura, but that’s not necessary when there is a Tempura Plate ($8.64) available.

Due to the obvious demands of serving the teeming masses, the individual ingredients had been fried earlier, but the two shrimps, eggplant, zucchini, carrot, and broccoli pieces still retain a little crunch.

I’ll have what she’s having.The soggier mouthfuls are well disguised by the tentsuyu dipping sauce. Between the cost and the speed, there’s no need to complain.

Although we want absolutely nothing–or less–to do with eels in the wild (admit it: they’re scary), we sure do enjoy some deceased, broiled and well-sauced anguilliformes on a plate.

Ichiban Okazuya and I finally started to reallyclick.

Perhaps there was too much PDA, as we’re pretty sure we were called out–a finger was decidedly wagged in our direction–by the lone man of the crew for ordering something (presumably) complicated and/or slow, but we’d trouble him again.

Tomorrow.

The eel itself is not available as part of the prepared foods in the deli case, but the Unagi Bowl ($11.52) is abso-friggin-lutely worth the little extra wait (and shaming).

The skin is still on and is no match for your plastic fork. Fuhgeddaboutit. It’s chewy as a pack of Hubba Bubba anyway, so we recommend just eating around it.The meat was moist, tender, meaty, flavorful and lightly sauced to perfection.

If that’s not enough, the accompanying tsukemono (salted cabbage), was extremely well done: still crisp to the bite but without the sharp raw cabbage flavor. The saltiness might be a bit much alone, but perfectly complemented the plain rice.

We suggest you two meet soon.

Because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.