The underground maze is just off Kalākaua Avenue, not far from Waikīkī beach: a warren of ramen shops, tempura and sushi restaurants and kiosks selling rice balls and green tea parfaits. At a bar in the middle, customers sip Asahi beer and Hakushu single malts. For Japanese visitors, Waikiki Yokocho Gourmet Alley (yokocho is the Japanese term for side streets crowded with tiny shops and food stalls) is a taste of home; for others it can be sensory over-stimulation. Opened last November, Waikiki Yokocho is a culinary greatest hits of modern Japanese cuisine, all in one spot.
In the basement of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, the sixteen restaurants are organized thematically. All four of the shops in“Ramen Road” are acclaimed: Volcano Ramen’s bowls are boiling when they arrive under towering red covers. Tsujita’s California location is already a rock star on the Los Angeles ramen scene. Baikohken is listed in Hokkaido’s Michelin guide. Bario is a known tonkotsu purist, starting its creamy broth with only water and pork bones and letting customers add their own fresh minced garlic and chili paste.
That’s just the ramen. Japanese staples like sushi, deep-fried kushikatsu skewers, shabu shabu hotpots and tempura bowls line “Noren Street.” And then there are Nana’s Green Tea’s parfaits, layered with red beans, mochi, cornflakes and gently loamy matcha ice cream made with premium Uji green tea. “People have already read about us on Yelp,” says the manager of Nana’s Green Tea, Wakiko Ashida. “They come in, order the parfaits and soft serves and Instagram them.”
With the exception of Tsujita and Marion Crepes, the restaurants are all the first Hawai‘i outposts of these Japan-based chains; all but four are the first US locations.“We wanted new, and we wanted authentic Japanese food and experience,” says Koichi Hozumi, a consultant who helped select Waikiki Yokocho’s restaurants. “Department stores in Japan have food stalls in the basement and gourmet restaurants at the top; this is like the top floor.” For Japanese, at least. They stroll nonchalantly, familiar with the offerings. Locals, too, head straight to their favorites. It’s the Mainland and other visitors who wonder at the mouthwateringly realistic plastic food displays before venturing in—which, inevitably, they do.