Without so much as a blip on our radar, Tsukada Nojo quietly closed its doors in May 2018 for renovations. Nine months later, the farm-to-table izakaya is back with a new menu and a new name: Minori Craft Japanese Tavern. The focus pivots to elevated local Japanese comfort food which, along with kamaaina-friendly prices, just might be their key to success.
Tsukada Nojo's locavore bent is still there — most notably in their all-you-can-eat, locally grown salad bar. Minori's selection includes leafy greens, okra, cucumber, tomato, watermelon raddish, tofu and six other toppings with three Japanese-style dressings — no Ranch or bacon bits to be found.
While available ala carte, the salad bar is also included with orders of the Minori Beautifying Hot Pot ($19-29, depending on protein), a Tsukada Nojo fan favorite that comes in a variety of broths that incorporate chicken collagen, a protein that supposedly improves skin elasticity and mositure while reducing wrinkles.
Gone are the raddish chicken tacos and green kale beer. New items are a little more familiar like their spin on soy-glazed #BrokeDaMouthChicken wings (that's the real name and it's $7.80 / $6 at happy hour) or the Minori Juicy Gyoza ($7.80 / $5.50 hh), a sizzling skillet of six juicy, thin-skinned pork topped with a crispy skirt. The spicy ahi sushi bombs ($7.50 / $5 hh), cone sushi pockets filled with rice and spicy tuna, are a hardline appeal to the local palate.
With each menu section, we found ourselves ordering a little bit of everything not only because of the mouthwatering names but because dishes were priced well, especially at happy hour. There are two, by the way, from Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 12 a.m.
The drink list is extensive and covers all budgets. Beers range from $5 / $3 happy hour for Kirin Ichiban to $6.50 / $5 happy hour for Waikiki Brewing Skinny Jeans IPA on draft to fruit-flavored cocktails like the pineapple Minori Sour for $8 / $5 happy hour and a spicy margarita called the Ichimirita for $10 / $7 happy hour. Tempted by the wines-by-the-glass at $7-12 / $5 happy hour, we settled on the $10 / $5 happy hour house sake glass and a shochu on the rocks for $5 / $3.50 happy hour.
Starting off light, we went for the izumidai carpaccio ($9.80 / $7 hh), whose healthy dose of onion and calamansi worked well with the shoyu on the delicate sashimi.
The homemade bacon potato salad topped with #SmokedEgg sounded oddly familiar — it's a standout at another izakaya across town. We were let down by both portion size and taste, or lack thereof. Although I found a bits of suspended bacon, the potato salad was bland and lacked proper seasoning, while the egg had no trace of smokiness. Sorry Minori, but Zigu has you beat 100 times over on this.
A (sort of) carryover from Tsukada Nojo is the chicken paitan tsukemen dipping noodles ($14.80 / $11.80 hh). You'll likely realize that two decent portions can be had when it's split, especially if you're sharing other dishes. I just wish you luck in trying to separate the uncharacteristically warm, sticky ramen noodles into managable bites. Paitan, the chicken-based cousin of tonkotsu broth, is rich, tasty (if a bit salty) and sticks to the curly ramen noodles with each dunk.
The winning dish of the night by far was the sizzling stone pot pepper beef rice ($12.80 / $9.80 hh). The aroma of beef tallow melting into the rippling hot stone bowl as it was mixed tableside with cracked black pepper, butter and green onion would be enough for me to reorder it. I'd pair this with a couple of grilled meats for a sassy little meal by myself.
As a finale, we asked our server to recommend a dish that wasn't featured on happy hour and she pointed out the local vegetable tempura ($9.80). The assortment included two okra, two sweet potato and a mess of kale with tsuyu and matcha salt. The kale was an oily bite, but the other two veggies were delightful and crisp, only made better by the mild matcha salt. I wished for more variety, but I'm guessing it changes based on availability.
You might also be happy to know the most famous dish from Tsukada Nojo, a kakigori shave ice styled to look like a kawaii polar bear ($9), lives on at Minori.
With a killer happy hour offering, a few solid menu items and a rather impressive alcohol selection, Minori Craft Japanese Tavern is starting to win me over. My only reservation is the terrible parking situation which has improved since the restaurant changed names. In additon to the handfull of stalls it shares with Maru Sushi in front, Minori now offers diners two hours of free validated parking across the street at Century Center when it previously had valet service.
The restaurant's grand opening is scheduled for Feb. 1 but it has been open for limited hours since late December. Happy hour business has been slow to start, but once word gets out that there are deals to be had, it has the potential to fare far better than its predecessor.
Minori Craft Japanese Tavern
1731 Kalakaua Ave.
Tues - Sun lunch bento pick-up 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner 5 p.m. -12 a.m.