Ranking a hotly contested item like chicken katsu was no easy feat. Since everyone is passionate about their favorite, I ate chicken katsu from Kalihi to Haleiwa to find the best of the best.
I focused solely on local plate lunch-style chicken katsu — not the Japan-style chicken katsu you’ll find at Tonkatsu Tamafuji, Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin, Chiba-Ken, etc. (dang, their chicken’s guuud).
My original Top 5 ranking, compiled in 2015, featured Zippy’s, Sugoi, Young’s Kalbee, Queen St. Café & Grill and Nuuanu Okazuya. Only two of these are still in Top 5 territory three years later. Below are all the places I tried that did not make the list (and by the way yes, I still like chicken):
- Kalihi BBQ Drive Inn
- Northshore Grinds
- Nuuanu Okazuya
- Queen St. Café
- Grace’s Inn
- Joe’s Grill Express
- Gina’s B-B-Q
- Pioneer Saloon
- Island Style BBQ
- Family BBQ
- Best Drive-In
- M&M BBQ
- J’s BBQ
- Sistah truck
- Shokudo Japanese Restaurant & Bar
- Masa & Joyce
- Duke’s Waikiki
- Pearl’s Korean BBQ
Honorable mention: Ted’s Bakery, chicken katsu / mahi mahi mixed plate, $14.76
The famous North Shore bakery serves up some legit plate lunches. Next time you go, don’t just make a beeline for the pies — get a two-choice combo plate, try several items and make the trip worthwhile.
It's fellow Frolic contributor Rebecca Pang who tells me Ted's chicken is juicy, while the katsu breading is nice and thick. She’s spot on. The chicken’s succulent and tasty and the slightly tangy housemade katsu sauce is addictive. Chew, swallow. Chew, swallow.
The auntie sitting one table over interrupts my reverie: “The leftovers taste even better the next morning for breakfast!”
Thank you auntie, but there won’t be any.
Ted's Bakery • 59-024 Kam. Hwy. • Haleiwa • 638-8207
No. 5: Sugoi, Chicken katsu, $11.75 regular, $9.85 on value days
I've always liked Sugoi, but Wednesdays are my favorite days to go because the regular chicken katsu plate comes with a $1.90 discount. It’s loaded with moist, delicious breaded strips that are near and dear to my heart. Sugoi’s thick katsu sauce is delectable, but I’d have no problem eating this katsu plain, it's so flavorful.
If you like mac salad, you might want to get an extra side order of this one. I’m picky about mac salad because I don’t like it with too much mayo. This one I like for its creamy texture and slightly peppery heat. And since Sugoi doesn’t cook with MSG or trans fats, I don’t feel as bad about indulging in fried food.
Sugoi • City Square Shopping Center • 1286 Kalani St. • Kalihi • 841-7984
No. 4: L&L Liliha, Chicken katsu, $6.15 mini, $8.70 regular
Before you give me heat about this pick, let me just say that not all L&Ls are created equal. Some are way better than others — and I’m not necessarily talking about cleanliness. Of all the L&Ls I’ve gotten katsu from (I get the same thing every time), the original location is still my favorite. They’ve got the katsu down to a science: luscious, meaty pieces of chicken with the perfect amount of breading. Texture and flavor are consistent every time, and they don’t skimp on portions — a mini plate is enough to fill me when I’m starving.
The katsu sauce — thick, tangy and flavorful — is the winning factor. I’ve had watered-down sauces from other L&Ls, but never from this one. While it comes in a large container, it’s worth paying 50 cents more for another one (for leftover chicken, if you have any).
Note: Parking in the lot is extremely limited, as is nearby street parking, so takeout’s your best bet. Unless you’re like me and need to eat that katsu ASAP while it’s hot and fresh.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue • 1711 Liliha St. • Kalihi • 533-3210
No. 3: Nico’s Pier 38, Chicken katsu, $12
I know what you’re thinking: “Why are you getting katsu at a place known for seafood?”
I had my doubts as well. Fish and chips is my go-to order, so I have a hard time trying something different. But multiple staffers tell me the chicken katsu plate is one of the most popular orders. The cashier says it’s actually the best-seller after the seafood. I’m a believer after one bite.
The pieces of chicken are super meaty and thick, the panko crust is delectably crunchy and each plate comes with rice and chow mein noodles, which is a nice touch. Though I love Nico’s mac salad, I get ‘Nalo greens with this one since I already have plenty of starch on my plate.
I have no idea what’s in Nico's thick, housemade dipping sauce, but there’s something addictive in there. I want to dip everything in it — rice, noodles, salad, everything.
Nico’s Pier 38 • 1129 N. Nimitz Hwy. • Iwilei • 540-1377
No. 2: Zippy’s, Chicken katsu, $6.55 mini, $8.95 regular
Since little kid time, I've associated Zippy’s with Zip Pacs and chocolate Napples. Now the local chain is synonymous with chicken katsu to me, and it reappears on this updated ranking.
Zippy's panko crust is thin but sufficiently crunchy, and the chicken — no matter what Zippy’s I get it from — is juicy and tender. Consistency is always a bonus. When I’m starving, I get a regular order and polish off the entire thing. When katsu’s for breakfast, a mini is enough.
Both mini and regular come with a bowl of flavorful, gravy-like katsu sauce. First-timers may be taken aback by the amount, but I always end up using it all — and then scraping the bowl.
Zippy's Pearl City • 806 Kam. Hwy. • Pearl City • 453-3715
No. 1 (tie): Meg’s Drive-In, Chicken katsu, $9 regular, $7.25 mini
When the lunch clientele is construction workers ordering numerous plate lunches to go, chances are you’ve struck gold when it comes to ono local grinds. That’s the scene when I pop in at Meg’s, fully intending to get a to-go order as well … but succumbing to the fresh-outta-the-fryer katsu’s tantalizing aroma and call.
Meg’s is famous for the hamburger steak, but you need to try the katsu. While it's not the thickest, it is tender and juicy in its crispy panko crust and made to order, the strips served piping hot in the container. Extras of the housemade katsu sauce are free. Katsu euphoria hits with the first bite and stays on the brain for weeks after. This is the no-fuss, no-frills, local-style katsu you've been searching for.
Tip: Mini plates are $1.75 less than regular plate prices, and still filling without the full-on food coma.
Meg's Drive-In • 743 Waiakamilo Rd. • Kalihi • 845-3943
No. 1 (tie): Gochi Grill, Chicken katsu, $10.50
Known for its contemporary take on plate lunches, Gochi Grill opened in June and quickly took the Downtown lunch scene by storm. This chicken katsu is the most upscale one on this list, but like fellow Frolic blogger Melissa Chang says, “upscale” doesn’t mean expensive. This loaded chicken katsu plate is a prime example of that.
This housemade katsu doesn’t even need sauce. It's made to order, uber moist because the chicken thighs are brined and with a perfectly crunchy crust that's neither oily nor heavy. There’s a hint of wasabi in the cocktail katsu sauce, which is not spicy. And there’s a lot of katsu. Most will eat half and take leftovers home. I devour the entire plate, including three scoops of mac salad, in less than 10 minutes.
Tip: For $2 more, you can get all mac salad instead of rice. And it's to die for. It’s lighter on the mayo with a macaroni-and-potato-chunk combo in a creamy sauce. I could eat tubs of it and not feel even remotely guilty.
Gochi Grill • 1111 Bishop St. • Downtown • 585-8558