Ohana Hale Marketplace has come a long way since its slow start a couple of years ago. Housed inside the former Sports Authority at Ward Village, it's one of Hawaii's most diverse collections of microbusinesses and restaurants under one roof. We told you about the vibrant Laotian cuisine at Asian Flavors and the killer omakase at @sushi. Now a new restaurant with a single-item menu (two if you count both size options) is quickly gaining buzz.
See also: Hidden gem in town: @sushi
Nana Ai Katsu opened Aug. 11 against the mauka wall of OHM and it is already a destination for katsu fans. The first time I went, the last bentos had sold out minutes before I found the stall around 5 p.m.. Lesson learned: Go early or phone your order in.
Looking like a rustic izakaya with lanterns and noren curtains advertising tonkatsu, Nana Ai stands out among its neighbors. A small counter accommodates up to four guests in one party, but if it's occupied, takeout is not a compromise.
A hefty bento ($14) that contains a 150-gram (5 ounces) kurobuta pork katsu with Koshihikari rice, potato salad, cabbage and side dishes like kabocha and gobo kinpira turns out to be quite a luxe experience. You can request ponzu and daikon oroshi on the side for dipping. If you order the larger 300-gram portion for $24, expect an additional cutlet packaged separately over more shredded cabbage. I like that they include an oshibori moist towelette, a nice touch.
Tucking in, I'm reminded of Kimukatsu, the Tokyo-based tonkatsu chain that once had locations in Waikiki and the original Shirokiya Yataimura. Kimukatsu was renowned for cutlets made with 25 layers of pork sliced like deli meat, which made it so tender. They came flavored with black pepper, cheese, ume and garlic, but the original was my top choice.
Nana Ai's katsu is similar, with at least seven layers of pork in each cutlet, but the difference is Nana Ai uses all Berkshire pork, OK Poultry's Waimana eggs and fresh flaky panko crumbs. The result is tonkatsu with surprisingly silky layers of pork glistening with fat, wrapped up in a delicate crust. It basically melts in your mouth. I ordered the large, but I found the standard size to be just enough.
Owner and chief katsu maker Michael Jones started preparing this style of katsu at home. His young daughter Nanami really enjoys katsu but has a difficult time eating tougher pork loin, hence this layered style. As the pandemic affected their family business in Waikiki, Jones' wife Lei Anne told him to give this katsu restaurant a shot. A few months later, Nana Ai Katsu is an early success. It's amazing to see this kind of resilience in the face of uncertainty.
See also: Something crispy: Tonkatsu Tamafuji
The Joneses plan to add menchikatsu and other menu items and I can't wait to give them a try. Compared to spots like Tonkatsu Tamafuji and Ginza Bairin, Nana Ai presents a good value for the money — you might not get miso soup or unlimited rice and shredded cabbage refills, but the taste, quantity and presentation of the katsu are right up there.
Nana Ai Katsu now accepts bento pre-orders at least 24 hours in advance online with curbside pick up from Ohana Hale Marketplace.
Nana Ai Katsu
Ohana Hale Marketplace
333 Ward Ave.
Mon-Sat 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-6 p.m.