If you've eaten yakitori in Honolulu in the past two decades, odds are you've seen him and noticed his fashionable eyewear. Takashi Ando, or Anchan as he's known to his regular customers, is the city's senior yakitori master, although he won't admit it. After grilling chicken skewers at other restaurants for the past 25 years, Ando now has a place of his own.
But first, a history this long deserves some backstory. My love affair with skewered meats started in college at Kohnotori, where Ando presided over the grill. The tiny restaurant on South King Street next to Imanas Tei was where I discovered sticks of juicy bonjiri (chicken tail) and crisp kawa (chicken skin), perfectly seasoned and expertly grilled. There wasn't a meal I craved as much as yakitori and a cold glass of draft beer.
I would find a seat, fill out a paper order form with a golf pencil, then wait as skewers bearing all parts of the chicken sizzled to brown deliciousness right in front of me. I watched as Ando jockeyed with the heat of the binchotan charcoal grill, twisting and shuffling dozens of skewers. The visceral experience is seared into my food memory.
Sometime over the years Ando mastered Hakata-style motsu nabe, a hearty hot pot meal with melting tendon-like fatty beef offal, cabbage, enoki mushrooms, tofu and chives in a rich, peppery broth. Fast-forward to a rainy night earlier this year. Ando and Kohnotori had moved to a new location on Piikoi Street. A group of us went there in search of motsu nabe, only to find it had shuttered. Ando was gone — yakitori, motsu nabe and all.
Then in September an intrepid Frolic reader tipped us off about a new yakitori bar opening in the old Country Shave Ice spot on Center Street behind Bank of Hawaii's Kaimuki branch. We promptly booked a reservation. Ando was back!
Now, after several visits I've finally figured out the Yakitori Ando system:
- Advance reservations are mandatory (parties of six or less are ideal)
- Bring your own booze (and some for Ando too – he likes sweet potato shochu)
- Bring cash (about $30-40 per person including gratuity)
- Omakase only — there is no menu, so you eat what Ando cooks
- If you want motsu nabe, request it early in the meal or by phone in advance
Once you're settled in (I prefer the bar, but tables will accommodate larger parties) and your glass of sake or sweet potato shochu is full, the meal begins with a refreshing butashabu salad: thin pork served over baby mesclun greens with a gingery soy dressing. Kimchi, edamame, simmered hijiki seaweed and gobo kinpira (braised burdock root) also begin arriving on little dishes – items to keep you occupied while Ando grills the main attraction: yakitori.
Note: There are days when he has one helper, other times he has two. Service will vary, but your water will be topped off and food will keep coming.
Ando's omakase (chef's choice) pace ensures each skewer is served hot and without much lag time in between. Textures alternate (tender, crunchy, chewy), as do seasonings (salted or sauced) and cuts of chicken (minced sausage, offal, dark meat) to keep your palate entertained. In total, expect as many as 10 skewers ranging from tebasaki (chicken wings) to bacon-wrapped asparagus and chicken hearts, which are the best I've had. Non-chicken skewers can include grilled Kauai shrimp or bacon-wrapped items like mushrooms, quail eggs and cherry tomatoes.
You'll be particularly lucky if you happen to have a stick of bonjiri, flavorful chicken tails cut with a bit of cartilage so they're both tender and crunchy. Same goes for the fluffy tsukune meatballs, flecked with minced onion and awash in tare sauce. I've heard the yaki onigiri is also a hit, but I've never made it to that point after indulging in a bubbling pot of motsu nabe.
Despite being $2-3 per stick or less, a yakitori bill has the tendency to add up as fast as your cart at a dollar store: Before you know it you've spent a fortune! At Ando, the price per person has varied between $25 and $30. If there's a term for the opposite of sticker shock, it's what I've felt every time. There is no breakdown on the bill, by the way — it simply says 'omakase' and the price. It's an insane deal for the quality and amount of food.
Ando says he expects his liquor license hearing early next year, so we could see a formal menu. Until then, it's BYOB and omakase. I don't think I'd prefer it any other way.
1215 Center Street #200
Metered street or private lot parking across Center Street for $2.50 after 5 p.m.