It's no secret that Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, is home to some of Japan's most celebrated foods. Tonkotsu ramen is a specialty of Fukuoka in the north. Chicken nanban, a vinegary fried dish, had its start in Miyazaki on the island's east coast. Tonkatsu, spicy mentaiko pollack roe, motsu hot pot and even shochu, the national spirit of Japan, all trace their origins to Kyushu.
So when Izakaya Danji popped up on Beretania with specialties from Kyushu, I was intrigued. Full-flavored and sometimes spicy, many of my favorite Japanese foods are from Kyushu, so before I start planning my next trip across the Pacific, I had to see if Danji was worthy of repping this region.
Izakaya are all about drinking and snacking after work, so slowly making your way thru the menu with something to sip is encouraged. Start off with a plate of the fried corn, which gets a dunk in a sweet soy-vinegar sauce. It's easy to eat with your hands – just pick up and bite off the kernels.
Another otsumami or snack to eat with alcohol is the sliced yamaimo or mountain yam. Normally it's grated into a slimy pulp with other sticky foods like natto and uni, but here it comes sliced and served with ponzu, wasabi and nori. It has a pleasantly crisp crunch not unlike jicama and is a good palate-cleanser between rich dishes.
Motsunabe, or beef offal/intestine hotpot is a relatively new dish to my palate. I love its uniquely bouncy texture and deep, beefy flavor. It is a specialty of Fukuoka, and at Danji they simplify the experience with motsu stew ($5.50). Served in a bowl with sesame and chili inflused oil, the motsu has already simmered on the stove, making it tender to the bite. Not everyone will be a fan of this dish, but it's not at all gamey and I suggest your try it at least once because it's true to the Hakata experience.
As you work up to bigger dishes, you'll notice that prices here are reasonable for the quantity and quality of food. Take the $10.25 chicken nanban, easily shared between two. The boneless, juicy, karaage morsels are fried, bathed in a sweet soy and vinegar nanban sauce and topped with housemade tartare sauce that skews more eggy than you might be used to. Still, you'll probably want to scrape every last lump of it off the plate.
If you're gluten-averse (heaven forbid), you CAN still enjoy a crispy fried chicken. Danji's chicken karaage ($12.50) is a half-bird coated with potato starch rather than wheat flour before taking a dip in hot oil. The result is a dark golden bird that's then cut into managable pieces at the table with scissors. The crispy skin is flavorful with the right amount of seasoning. The flesh is juicy and cooked perfectly through.
It's traditional in izakaya dining to finish off with a starchy dish, which helps settle the stomach after drinking. I recommend the spicy fried rice with mustard greens ($7.50) and the fried ramen ($12.50). The former is reminscent of a kimchi fried rice with its assertive kick of mustard greens and chili, while the fried ramen is completely different from what you'd expect fried ramen to taste like. It is more like Nagasaki champon, a Chinese-influenced noodle stir-fry that's thickened with corn starch to create a gravy-like consistency. These ramen noodles are tossed with pork, cabbage and shredded pickled ginger, a nice dish to round out the meal.
If you're like me and eat alone from time to time or have a penchant for nabe on a whim, Danji has ohitori-nabe or solo hot pots. (Many izakaya will enforce a minimum of two orders for hot pots.) Of the two on the menu, I went for the full-flavored tan tan taki nabe with fresh chicken and pork gyoza. The broth is another Chinese-influenced specialty with lots of pork, sesame and spice. The other nabe was a mizutaki chicken soup, which was unavailable on my subsequent visit, made simply by stewing chicken and bones in water to bring out its natural flavors. Vegetables and other items are added just before serving.
I was able to scoop four to five good-sized bowls from this nabe. It's super satisfying for $18 and would make for an excellent zosui or ramen if you added rice or noodles at the end, which I think I need to do on my next visit.
So is Izakaya Danji worthy of promoting Kyushu cuisine? It sure is. With a rather extensive menu of dishes and a decent drink menu to complement, Danji is right on track to make a name for itself on Honolulu's izakaya scene.
As for service, I've noticed they are still getting their footing, but it has been consistently good and attentive. They've been flying under the radar for the past week that they've been open, so i've been able to walk in for a table or seat at the bar. Once word gets around that tasty Kyushu dishes have arrived in the neighborhood of Dew Drop Inn and Auntie Pasto's, that will change.
1095 S. Beretania St.
Monday - Saturday 5 p.m. - 12 a.m.