Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
I love most forms of sushi. From the $5 trays at Safeway on Fridays to the plates rotating on conveyor belts at Genki Sushi, the take-out trays at Kozo Sushi and Marukai, and all the way up to the high-end found at Mitch’s, Murayama and Izakaya Gaku. About the only sushi I’m not really interested in sampling is the original sushi, narezushi or fermented sushi where some type of freshwater protein, most commonly carp (funazushi as funa = carp) is fermented in salt for several years then further fermented on cooked rice. Because of the long fermentation period, which was meant to preserve both the protein and the rice, the final product has a strong flavor that I hear is an acquired taste. Almost all of the sushi we consume today are hayazushi or fast sushi with the acid coming from bottled rice-wine vinegar instead of acids being produced from long fermentation periods.
Not the “Best of”
Before I get your hopes up, this column isn’t the “best of” sushi establishments in the 50th. In fact, there are many sushi restaurants that we’ve never sampled including many sushi restaurants that make the “best of” list on Yelp and Trip Advisor. We’ve never sampled Sasabune Hawaii partly because of the proprietor’s reputation as the “Sushi Nazi,” who in his younger days would ask patrons to leave or even ban them if they consumed the sushi against his wishes (dipping in shoyu when he instructs you not to), though our neighbors who frequent most of the top sushi restaurants in Hawai‘i say that Kumagawa-san seems to have mellowed with age. Ms. S still is a little hesitant as we’ve heard that Chef Kumagawa expects you to consume the piece in one bite and various versions of nigiri can get quite large and when your mouth is stuffed, therefore to us the experience wouldn’t be as enjoyable. Nor have we tried Sushi Sho but at $350 per person plus taxes and beverages and the fact that one diner currently only receives a modest pension, Sushi Sho isn’t even on our dining horizon. And I feel that sushi, especially great sushi, needs to be paired with sake, which would now push the bill well past $400 per person.
At the other end of the spectrum, though we previously frequented Genki Sushi in Kāne‘ohe, I only place a take-out order on very rare occasions. They used to have a BYOB policy so I would bring a small 300ml bottle of sake to sip with the salmon skin roll, raw scallop gunkan or onion salmon nigiri while Ms. S always had the teriyaki chicken bowl and tuna salad gunkan. But they eliminated the BYOB policy many years ago then that was followed by the hepatitis A outbreak due to tainted raw scallops (which I used to enjoy). Of course, we still usually purchase a couple containers of Marukai sushi at every visit – especially the crab filled uramakizushi (inside-out roll) topped with purple shiso. And on stay-cations, we try to visit Mitch’s Fish Market and Sushi Bar, if for nothing else, for nostalgia’s sake since we first visited when they only had 14 seats. It doesn’t hurt that the seafood is very fresh and they also have a BYOB policy. (Is this a recurring theme?) Whenever we visit a sushi establishment with a BYOB policy, we normally leave the last 8-ounce with the sushi chef. On a visit to Mitch’s on one occasion, after leaving the first open bottle with the chef, we noticed that the second order of salmon had larger pieces of salmon covering the rice. After the second and third open bottles were left with the chef, the last order of salmon had pieces that were six to seven inches long!
Though our regular sushi restaurant has been in business since May 2018 and we first visited at the end of 2018, I made a conscious decision not to write about the establishment. For starters, it’s very small with six counter seats, one four-top table and two two-top tables. That’s it. So though I posted pictures of their sushi on social media, I never did a “check-in” nor did I state my location. I even asked co-owner Mark if he was interested in a write-up (“not really”). So I kept “our” favorite sushi restaurant just to ourselves. Until now.
For starters, Tanuki Sushi is in our neck-of-the-woods in K-Town (Kāne‘ohe) so it’s only a 10-minute drive. It is a BYOB establishment (obviously my favorite type of restaurant) though they do stock various sake glassware for use but the staff know that we always bring our own Riedel sake glasses. And most importantly, the sushi is on par with any of the higher end sushi restaurants on O‘ahu. There is no kitchen so the only cooked item is the occasional fish collar (kama) and the miso soup. If you do enjoy the crispy shrimp heads served after ordering amaebi (sweet, raw shrimp), Tanuki simply uses the shrimp heads in the miso soup. On one occasion with advanced notice, I was allowed to order salmon skin rolls – since they don’t have a deep fryer, I’m wondering if they brought in a portable fryer that day just to fry the salmon skin. They do have a standard four-page menu listing the usual nigiri and specialty rolls as well as sashimi plates and sashimi donburi but Ms. S orders from the special board, running the whole board (ordering one of every sushi special) then going back after we’ve finished and placing individual orders for specials that were especially tasty that evening.
The Must Haves
Nodoguro (black throat sea perch or rosy sea bass)
Though I won’t turn down a great o-toro, I actually prefer nodoguro, which probably contains as much fat as o-toro. But when the skin gets briefly torched, it adds a slight smokiness not found in o-toro and the warming of the flesh gives nodoguro the same luxurious mouthfeel as the best o-toro, and Tanuki always hits it spot on!
Yukimasu (snow trout)
Because trout are part of the salmon family, even if they spend all of their lives in fresh water, it seems that if the water is as cold as the water salmon live in, the flesh retains just as much fat as their saltwater cousins. And like the nodoguro, Tanuki also briefly torches the yukimasu skin accentuating the fatty mouthfeel. And it’s only half the price, so perfect for a retired diner!
Not much tops a fatty slice of salmon and Tanuki places a small piece of torched salmon on top of the raw slice.
I always use saba (and tamago) as barometers for sushi quality. Some sushi aficionados say you should always first order the tamago – if it’s not ethereal and light and simply resembles scrambled egg, pay the bill and leave. I feel saba also measures a chef’s talent as there shouldn’t be a strong vinegar flavor, just enough acid to complement the fish and Chef Shawn always hits it right on the money.
Mehikari (green eyes)
Not often on the menu since it’s seasonal but the white flesh is rich and fatty and Chef Shawn fries the head and attached backbone to a crunchy delight! Again, maybe a portable fryer is brought in during the season.
Currently Tanuki Sushi is only open for dinner and reservations are required – they also do take-out. Ms. S feels that with sushi, dine-in is the only way to go but I feel that as long as the sushi is good and I have a good sake on hand, eating in the garage is fine!
45-556 Kamehameha Hwy.
Kāne‘ohe, HI 96744
Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a retired clinical pharmacist. However, he and his wife still enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”