Oh, the virtues of eating in a tonkatsu restaurant: cozy atmosphere, bottomless shredded cabbage and fluid katsu sauce with toasted sesame seeds. But the biggest of them has to be biting into a piece of crispy, fresh-from-the-deep-fryer tonkatsu. That’s what you get when you dine at Nana Ai Katsu near the top of Wai’alae Avenue.
When Nana Ai was at the ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace on Ward Avenue, I could get my katsu bento home pretty quickly to enjoy it warm and crispy. Since moving to Kaimukī in December 2021, still offering take-out only, the effects of the longer commute have made crispiness a gamble. Until last week. You can now dine in the former Vegan Hills space which has been transformed into a playful fusion of back alley izakaya with colorful festival matsuri touches. A rainbow of chochin lanterns and vibrant banners next to beer and sake signs add brightness to the small space.
The 18-seat restaurant eschews the traditional full-service format for casual counter service. Order up front with Lei-Anne Jones, owner of the restaurant with husband Michael Jones, chef katsu, and find a table while they prepare your katsu. The Joneses named the restaurant after their daughter, Nanami, who loves katsu. From my observations, the menu remains the same, with a few specials permanently added to the daily lineup.
My personal favorite is the Uzumaki Shiso Katsu bento ($17.50). Thin slices of pork and shiso leaf are rolled, coated in panko, fried and cut into pinwheels on a bed of cabbage. You’ll also find the Giga Ebi Katsu burger ($9.50) with two large shrimp patties, cheese, lettuce, and tartar sauce on a soft bun that’s more than enough to share. Lei-Anne Jones hinted at the keiki meals they’re working on (think tako hot dog and furikake fries). Limited specials are popular, like the Palolo Don ($18), a katsu tribute to shoyu pork belly and soft-boiled egg donburi from Your Kitchen, and the Japanese curry katsu udon ($13). All promotions are announced on their Instagram.
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Beginners will immediately notice Nana Ai’s attention to detail. It’s in the perfect fluffy rice, the meticulously proportioned sides and, of course, the succulent and tender tonkatsu. It’s in the clean oil they fry with, oshibori napkins and all the extras you get whether you bring it home or stay for dinner.
You might not be able to grind sesame seeds or ask for unlimited mountains of shredded cabbage, but you’ll get a piece of crispy katsu when you finally dine at Nana Ai.
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Open Tuesday and Wednesday 11am-2pm and 4-7pm, Thursday-Saturday 11am-2pm and 5-8pm, Sunday 11am-2pm 3585 Wai’alae Ave., Kaimukī, (808) 772-0146, @nana_ai_katsu