Luxe on a stick: Yakitori Hachibei Chinatown

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When Japanese chain Yakitori Glad shuttered its doors on Kapahulu in December, sad were its loyal patrons, myself included, who flocked there for the $3.90 grilled chicken skewer plates and izakaya dishes. Well, just like a hydra who grows two heads when one is cut off, the new year brings to Honolulu two new yakitori hotspots – one budget and one luxe.

Artist rendering of the interior. Photo courtesy Yakitori Hachibei

Artist rendering of the interior. Photo courtesy Yakitori Hachibei

Fukuoka’s Yakitori Hachibei made its American debut Jan. 13 on Chinatown’s bustling Hotel Street, underscoring the chain’s slogan “butabara to the world.” It was so momentous that even the governor of Fukuoka prefecture stopped in. Butabara (pork belly), Hachibei’s signature skewer, in many ways represents the philosophy it places on the yakitori experience – taking simple grilled food and elevating it to a new level.

Hachibei may very well be the pinnacle of yakitori in Honolulu, a juxtaposition of luxe ingredients on rustic skewers. Like J. Ludovico pasture-raised chicken and Pono Provisions pork, local purveyors of some of the best protein around.

Butabara shio ($2.80) - the signature item Hachibei is known for, is well executed. The slices are a happy medium between thick bacon and Chinese roast pork.

Butabara shio ($2.80) – Hachibei’s signature item, lives up to its promise. The slices are a happy medium between thick cut bacon and Chinese roast pork.

I immediately go for the pork belly dressed with salt (shio), to see if it lives up to Hachibei’s claim of a perfected recipe. It does. The pieces of pork belly are crisped slightly on the outside and luscious to the bite.

I also try the tsukune tare or chicken meatball with chives and onion basted with thick sweetened soy sauce; it’s delicious enough to warrant another order. It’s a good amount of meat considering it’s $2.80 per stick. The sunazari or gizzards are wonderful little pops of chicken offal that offer a nice chew.

Bacon and egg maki. It's tamagoyaki wrapped with thin bacon and grilled until crispy on the edges.

Bacon and egg maki. It’s tamagoyaki (dashi-sweetened egg roll) wrapped with thin bacon and grilled until crispy on the edges.

Beyond yakitori, I take interest in menu eccentricities like the bacon and egg maki ($3.80). Breakfast on a stick has to be oishii, and it is. As a skewer it’s small, so if you really love it order two but at that price, I’d try something else in addition.

yakitori hachibei chinatown - sukiyaki

Hachibei’s beef sukiyaki ($5.80) served with a raw egg yolk is one of the more novelty sticks I encounter.

Out of sheer love for sukiyaki, the beef sukiyaki skewer is my favorite. It’s a thin piece of beef wrapped around enoki mushroom that you dip in the egg, much like its nabemono (hotpot) muse. And because it’s served with an egg yolk you have to beat, it has strong interactive appeal.

Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it.

Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it.

To cleanse your palate after the salty skewers, your table will receive plates of chilled cabbage dressed with a delightful ponzu, not unlike the paper-thin slices of ginger you’d eat between courses of sushi. I quench my thirst with a salted lemon chu-hi ($6.30), a shochu highball drink made with fresh-squeezed lemon and a bit of sea salt.

Shiso yaki onigiri (2 for $5.80). A ball of umami makes for a high note finish.

Shiso yaki onigiri (2 for $5.80). A ball of umami makes for a high-note finish.

To finish your meal, several options that are equally appealing include a chicken-broth ramen ($8.80) served in a custom Cup Noodle-esque cup, and an enticing bowl of oyakodon ($9.80). But it’s the shiso yakionigiri (grilled rice ball) that stands out. One order brings two medium-sized rice balls filled with bonito flakes and wrapped with shiso leaves, making for an explosion of flavor. I also enjoy the huge pieces of highlighter yellow takuan; it cuts the umami with salty acidity.

There is serious buzz surrounding Yakitori Hachibei, evident in my 30-minute wait at 8:45 on a Tuesday evening (read: Make reservations). Trendy new restaurant, delicious food, serious buzz: All of these add up to a wait – which, in typical Japanese fashion, ups the buzz even more.

Service is still working out the kinks, but servers were attentive and quick to resolve any issue. However, one bone I’d like to pick is that they charge for hot green tea: $2.20 a cup, no refills. It’s a silly thing to get up in arms about, but especially for a closing note to an otherwise memorable evening, that’s just not pono.

Yakitori Hachibei Chinatown
20 N. Hotel St
Tues – Sat, 5 – 10 p.m.

Hungry for more chicken? Here’s Budget on a stick: Tori Ton.