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Eating Hawaiian in Japan, with or without the pancakes

by Rebecca Milner

Something newsworthy has happened (well, newsworthy if you follow dining micro-trends): A new restaurant from Hawaii has opened in Tokyo and it doesn’t serve pancakes. Maui Mike’s (5-32-13 Hakusan, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3830-0139; www.mauimikes.jp) serves chicken — glistening rotisserie chicken that spends two hours making its hypnotic rounds over open flames.

And from what I can tell, the original Maui Mike’s in Hawaii is not a tourist trap. It appears to be a place that locals actually like. It certainly doesn’t look touristy: It’s a squat building on the side of the highway in central Oahu (so not in Maui, but anyway). Also, it has flames painted on the windows.

Maui Mike’s top selling point is that it uses only natural (as in hormone- and antibiotic-free), never-frozen birds, and the Tokyo shop does too. The Tokyo shop also uses “American-sized” chickens, which the manager told me were very hard to find in Japan. You can order the chicken in quarter or half sizes (to eat in or to go), with a side of french fries, onion rings, rice or corn. The other exciting thing on the menu is the Maui Wowie, a hot sandwich of shredded chicken breast topped with cheddar cheese in a mayo-slicked hoagie roll.

The other selling point is the super-juicy chicken, which I got to try at a press preview last month. The skin was nicely crisp and the whole meal goes down like classic American comfort food — the sort of thing you’d pick up for dinner after a long day while congratulating yourself on choosing a whole chicken over pizza. The management assured me that nothing was altered for Japanese tastes except the size of the sandwiches and, of course, the prices.

The woman sitting next to me, also a member of the press (but who looked like she would be more comfortable reviewing pancake restaurants in Jiyugaoka), announced to her colleague that the chicken “tasted like salt.” I think you could argue that that is exactly what American comfort food tastes like. But there are also a bunch of dipping sauces to go with the chicken, such as honey mustard and ranch, that for some reason were not available to sample at the press preview.

Do I wish Maui Mike’s had not undergone a Tokyo transformation? (By which I mean: Do I wish it did not look like a fashionable Harajuku cafe with “Hawaiian” decorations?) Yes. Flames painted on the windows are definitely superior to driftwood and surfboards hung on the walls. And do I wish it weren’t in Hakusan, which is on the way home from nowhere, and perhaps somewhere more central? Absolutely.

Rotisserie chicken goes by the name of huli-huli in Hawaii (“huli” means to turn over) and is apparently very popular. But Maui Mike’s, despite its Hawaiian origin, looks and tastes like it could come from anywhere in America. For a more quintessentially Hawaiian meal, the consensus is that you have to go to Ogo Ono-Loa Hawaii (Isomura Bldg. 5F, 5-1-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku; 03-3585-5337; www.ogohawaii.net).

Hawaiian-owned Ogo Ono-Loa does classic dishes such as kalua pork (slow-cooked, shredded pork) and laulau (pork steamed in taro leaves). It also does several excellent varieties of poke, a salad of raw, marinated seafood and chopped vegetables. But the restaurant’s strongest point is its lively selection of daily specials that keeps it steps ahead of Tokyo’s one-trick-wonder Hawaiian joints. On any given day you might find chicken long rice (chicken soup with rice noodles), Portuguese sausage stew or li hing mui pineapple (pineapple seasoned with salty dried plum powder) on the menu.

Sean’s Kitchen (4-1-37 Horie, Urayasu-shi, Chiba; 047-729-3567; www.seanskitchen.jp) is another Hawaiian-run restaurant that specializes in local island dishes. I’ve never been but I’ve heard it’s good, and the menu and atmosphere look comparable to Ogo Ono-Loa.

Which brings me back to pancakes: The pancakes at the Tokyo outpost of Oahu’s popular Café Kaila (Gyre Bldg. B1, 5-10-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6427-1310; www.cafe-kaila.com) are indeed very good. They are light and fluffy but not at all vapid; they’re incredibly filling and include a surprisingly generous amount of fruit. We just need something else to replace pancakes as the food of the moment, because no one wants to stand in line for an hour for breakfast.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and co-author of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.