FOR THE PAST YEAR, THE SIGN OUTSIDE TAKENOKO SUSHI STATED, “WE’RE FULLY BOOKED LUNCH & DINNER JAN. 1-DEC. 31, 2019. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
Well, if you want a seat at the popular Hilo restaurant, mark your calendar for Nov. 26 when the reservation book opens for 2020.
“Last year, I opened at 6 a.m. but people started lining up at midnight,” recalls chef Mitsuru Igarashi. “[Telephone calls were no better,] we usually have over 200 messages.”
The average wait time just to get a reservation was three hours. So, this time, Igarashi and his wife, Pam, are trying a new system where people can sign-in with their name and number, then go home and wait for a call to confirm their reservation.
Why the popularity? Igarashi humbly answers, “I don’t know, I think Hilo people like sushi.”
Located across the street from landmark Big Island Candies, Igarashi opened the intimate 10-seat sushi bar in March 2013, offering traditional, Japanese-style nigiri. Ninety percent of the seafood comes in twice a week from Japan, such as toro (blue fin tuna), uni (sea urchin), botan ebi (sweet shrimp), hotate (scallop), shako (mantis shrimp), abalone, mirugai (giant clam), kazunoko (herring roe), sakuradai (red snapper) and more. They also use koshihikari rice, a short grain rice that is sweet and soft, and special ordered from Japan. Prices for nigiri sushi range from $2.50 to $7.50 per piece.
The menu also features a nice variety of appetizers, salads and signature specials. Among the customer favorites are Butterfish Belly with misoyaki sauce, Avocado Crab Salad with tobiko, King Crab Miso Soup and Baked Avocado with scallops and crab.
Born and raised in Japan, Igarashi remembers wanting to be a sushi chef from when he was a young boy. “I liked to eat sushi,” he explains. “My [family] not rich, so I can eat sushi only on special days.”
He followed his dream and got trained in Yokohama. Then in 1982, he moved to New York City and worked at Hatsuhana sushi restaurant, relocating to its Chicago location a year later, followed by Los Angeles a year after that, and then to Honolulu, where he helped open its restaurant at Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.
Then, after two decades with the company, he decided to pursue his other dream of starting his own restaurant and opened Takeya in Waikiki. Then in 2010, he and Pam moved to her hometown Hilo, and took a break from the business. “I like the country,” explains Igarashi. “There’s no traffic and the homes are reasonably priced.”
But when an opportunity came about for them to open a restaurant in the brand new Manono Street Marketplace, the couple decided to go for it.
“Takenoko means bamboo shoot, and the bamboo is a strong plant,” notes Pam on the restaurant’s name.
“Wherever it’s planted, it survives, and we were hoping we can endure, whatever comes about.”
The restaurant is designed like a traditional Japanese sushi bar with counter seating only, and is open for lunch and dinner Thursdays through Mondays.
“I can only handle 10 seats because it’s only me making sushi,” says Igarashi. “Before, I trained plenty people in Honolulu, then they come good and, ‘bye-bye.’ But now I’m happy. I can see each customer’s smile and hear them say, ‘oishii, oishii.’ ”
Takenoko Sushi, 578 Hinano St., Hilo, 933-3939