A new approach to chicken
There's a house for sale at 2353 Dole St., and the Realtor involved might be advised to end any open house at 4 p.m. instead of the usual 5 p.m. That's when Tsukuneya opens with the accompanying drama of valet parking or nonvalet drivers scrambling for street parking. It would be enough to scare any potential buyer away, or maybe lure them with the attraction of great food footsteps away.
The site at the corner of University Avenue and Dole Street has been beautifully transformed so that any University of Hawaii alumni who knew it as Pizza Hut or Players would not recognize the interior, updated with warm wood and stylized graphic designs, and lighted with paper lanterns. With the space divided into small, intimate quarters, Tsukuneya is as comfortable as it is beautiful.
Now, you might be thinking that we need another Japanese restaurant about as much as we need another car on the road, but Tsukuneya is, for Hawaii, an original. The restaurant specializes in the foods of Nagoya, particularly "tsukune," or chicken.
Said chicken is ground, blended with grated yam and other ingredients, kneaded to tenderize, wrapped around bamboo skewers and, finally, seasoned and grilled just for you. The Japanese have a knack for editing basic foods down to their essence, then re-codifying the elements to make them palatable again. The result of mad chicken experiments is a juicy, tender chicken meatball on a stick that somewhat resembles a drumstick, minus the stuff that's bad for you: fat and skin.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tsukuneya Robata Grill occupies the corner of University Avenue and Dole Street once occupied by Pizza Hut and Players.
The menu suggests that you start with teriyaki ($1.50) and lightly salted versions of tsukune ($1.50) as a palate primer before graduating to the likes of cayenne- ($1.50) or wasabi-topped ($1.80) chicken skewers. The price listed is per piece, and it's misleading in that you can't just order one of each, even though there will be reason to do so -- for example, when one dining partner likes miso or garlic while the other doesn't. You must order a minimum of two of a kind. It would have been more honest (but less lucrative) for them to simply list prices of two for $3 to $5.
The product that arrives is not as tantalizing as one would imagine. Instead of being rolled in freshly crushed peppercorns, for instance, the peppercorn tsukune ($1.50) is sprinkled with a little black pepper. It's not lying, but "peppercorn" has a connotation that registers as being more gourmet than the words "black pepper tsukune." Similarly, piripirihabu tsukune ($1.80), a Portuguese-inspired "spicy herb" offering, consisted of a tame sprinkling of commercially dried oregano and a hint of red pepper.
It makes for great comfort food, like much of the food on the menu, and just looking at a picture of these newfangled drumettes makes me wish I had some.
DON'T WORRY if you're unfamiliar with the dishes. The menu is like a book, full of photos, illustrations and descriptions.
The weather has been good for the many soupy dishes on the menu, such as paitan nabe, which staffers claim to be rich in collagen -- good news for anyone of face-lift age. These big pots of soup ($18 to $20), which include veggies and tsukune that you add to the boiling broth, serve two. Add $12 more per person if you want to complete the meal with appetizers, two kinds of grilled tsukune, noodles, sliced chicken and dessert.
Simpler still is chicken soup meant to be poured over a grilled rice ball ($5.50) or ochazuke ($5.50), tea on rice with grilled salmon, spicy cod roe or pickled plum.
Other chicken parts finds their way onto the robata, or grill, menu as well. Gizzards are $1.80, cartilage is $1.80 and more of the ground chicken, stuffed into a shiitake cap, is $2.
For those who love onion rings and/or tempura, two Kahuku shrimp and slivers of onion are deep-fried, Nagoya style, to create a tempura tower ($9.75) that is marvelous to see and taste. Don't bother with the Nagoya-style Buffalo wings ($5.50). America still has an advantage in this area.
Fans of mayo will love the grilled king crab with dynamite sauce ($15.75). The crab retains all its sweetness, and the briny flavor seeps into accompanying enoki mushrooms that add a chewy, crunchy contrast to the crab meat.
Another dish not to be missed is the house-made zaru tofu ($8.50) served with a spot of yuzu relish spiked with pepper. A little of the relish goes a long way, but it's very addictive if you love the taste of citrus.
Desserts are more varied than usual on Japanese menus. Available are sweetened annin tofu ($5.25) topped with fruit cocktail, cheesecake with sweet bean paste ($7), fresh-cut fruit ($8.50) and yummy fried bananas ($6.50) served with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.
You will definitely want to try more than your budget allows and more than you can eat in one sitting, but be patient, Tsukuneya is here to stay.