On a Friday night at Ogo Ono-Loa, a cozy fifth-floor restaurant in the steel-and-glass canyons of Tokyo’s posh Akasaka district, a group of poker buddies sits at a back table conversing in the unmistakable pidgin English of the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian music plays on the sound system. A few Japanese women nibble on spicy tuna poke, but most of the restaurant’s seventeen seats are filled with Hawai‘i expats tucking into steamed laulau, sashimi-grade lomi salmon and other Hawai‘i comfort foods. In Japan’s hypersonic capital, Ogo’s, as it’s called, is a mellow reminder of home.
This is exactly how Ryoji Soranaka, the owner and chef, envisioned it. Looking more like an affable sumo wrestler than the former ‘Aiea High School linebacker that he is, the bilingual Soranaka grew up on lū‘au, adobo and everything else in the multiethnic panoply of local cuisine. Noticing Japan’s ongoing obsession with all things Hawai‘i, he gave up a career in the travel industry to open Ogo’s in 2003. “Music and dance are important in promoting Hawaiian culture, but food is vital,” he says.
Business was slow at first, Soranaka says, but that quickly changed once the people from Hawai‘i who worked in the neighborhood caught the whiff of kālua pig in the air. Soon Ogo’s was catering parties for hula hālau (troupes), baby birthdays and the Hawaii State Bar Association’s informal Tokyo chapter.
In the land of sashimi and tonkatsu, fresh fish and pork are easy to come by. Soranaka procures other ingredients any way he can. His mother-in-law grows the taro leaves for his laulau in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. While skin diving off the Chiba coast, he once came upon some ‘opihi—those rock-clinging mollusks that are so prized in Hawai‘i. “I was like, ‘Wow, ‘opihi!’” he says. He quickly swam in, grabbed a butter knife then returned to pry some off the rocks. Soranaka even has poi, which he brings back with him from trips to Hawai‘i then freezes. It kills him when first-timers leave half the starchy paste uneaten. But now you know: If you’re craving poi in Tokyo, call Ogo’s a day in advance and Soranaka will make sure to defrost some for you. Just be sure to eat every spoonful.
Story by Mari Taketa. Photos by Steve Morin.