Chiba-ken / Chiba-ken is a quiet garden in Dante’s dark wood of outer Waikiki, just over the bridge and the crawling Ala Wai canal. (It’s in Inferno; look it up.) This ‘Ena Road gem–small, secluded, friendly–holds court with locals’ favorites such as the Irish Rose Saloon, Hideaway and Arnold’s, but it’s one big step above any of those other ghetto-fabulous drinking holes and the streetside eating that accompanies them. Not that there’s anything wrong with a midnight hotlink, but sometimes one prefers to relax and enjoy the tourist fringe in a slightly more upscale establishment, and Chiba-ken fits the bill.
First of all, Chiba-ken Japanese Dining, (full name), has outdoor seating. For a place as consistently sunny and warm as Waikiki, there is a shameful lack of outdoor seating, especially on non-beachfront property. But Chiba-ken knows what people want: a plastic chair on a shaded lanai and Christmas lights year round. There’s even a proper lava rock wall to shield you from the sidewalk traffic and really make you feel like you’re in Hawai’i. It’s rustic, but real, and it has a mean people-watching scene.
The big question in Chiba-ken’s neighborhood is, can I drink there? An emphatic yes to that. They offer a wide selection of Western-style drinks, and if the special hoop-de-doo wine cooler in the vestibule is any indication, they probably serve a mean glass of grape. This being a Japanese restaurant, however, the true star of the show is the sake. They have over a dozen selections ranging from very sweet to very dry, though the management recommends the dry Sugei, or the “drinking whale” sake ($7 a serving). Do whales drink sake? If they did, this would be their first choice. The golden little number packs quite a punch, and it comes served in the traditional cedar box. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. The sake steward places a tall shot glass in the vessel and fills the cup to overflowing goodness. Really it’s two drinks for the price of one, because once the glass is empty, there’s a whole other shot waiting in the wooden container, now suffused with the delicate aroma of your grandmother’s hope chest. Oh, the memories of Grandmama’s girlhood dreams and secret drinking habit …
It’s hard to go to a Japanese restaurant and not want to stuff your face with sushi, but before that, try something more exotic. Chiba-ken offers grilled skewered chicken livers at a ridiculously low price ($1.90) and they are pretty darn tasty. Liver is, of course, an acquired taste, and if the very thought of it makes you wince, it’s probably not for you. But for those of us who grin for gizzards, the chicken livers are just right, charred on the outside and dense as a chicken diamond on the inside, just oozing with nutrients. It’s the sort of thing Rocky eats before the big fight, only they never showed it on film because it wasn’t as impressive as the raw egg thing.
And the sushi. Is there anything better than sushi? Only sushi made like it’s supposed to be made, like Chiba-ken makes it, which is perfectly bite-sized with just a tiny mouthful of rice under a slice of fish you don’t have to gnaw in half to get down. Very little in the food world is as annoying as having to cram an oversized nigiri into your mouth like a squirrel with too many nuts to take home. But Chiba-ken’s sushi and nigiri are gloriously proportioned, no cramming necessary. The Ichikawa combo ($17.50), good for two people or one outrageously hungry person, comes with all the favorites: six small “spare tire” tunas, and one each of ahi, salmon, yellowtail, mackerel, shrimp, octopus and flying fish row. The fish is all fresh, even the pungent mackerel, and the ahi in particular is deep pink and tender.
Quick lesson: “nigiri sushi” refers to a small pat of vinegared rice topped with something like a strip of raw fish. Those California rolls you can get at Foodland are not nigiri sushi, they are “maki sushi.” While Chiba-ken offers both, true aficionados of raw seafood will do better ordering off the nigiri menu. You get two small pieces of succulent ocean fare for a reasonable price, leaving plenty in your stomach and your wallet to try more. Supplement the nigiri in the combo with a delicacy such as ikura or salmon roe ($5.50), which comes piled high on rice, barely held in by a crispy strip of seaweed. Each fat egg is a flavor bomb. Orange and oily as a Waikiki sunset.
For something more contemporary, try the house specialty sushi, Firecracker Balls. There’s no part of that phrase to dislike. The Firecracker Balls ($8.50) are eight eyeball-popping pieces of tempura-fried spicy tuna rolls, drenched in that mysterious three-sauce concoction they drizzle over specialty platters in Japanese restaurants. It’s crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and feels, appropriately, like a firecracker going off on the tongue (though it tastes a whole lot better; less gunpowder in the aftertaste).
Speaking of aftertastes, ice cream never hurts. The only desert Chiba-ken offers is ice cream, in three flavors: azuki bean, green tea, and vanilla. If you order all three, you can make the Italian flag, red, green and white. Best of all was the azuki bean, not too sweet, but sweet enough to feel like a treat.
So there you have it: reasonably priced delicious sushi in a great location with a spectacularly helpful staff, a fancy wine fridge, Christmas lights and a drinking whale in a cedar box. With your favorite dining companion, the perfect evening is just around the corner before you can say “Banzai!”
Chiba-ken Japanese Restaurant
468 ‘Ena Road (808) 941-2800 Hours: Sun–Thu, 5:30–11:30pm; Fri–Sat, 5:30pm–1:30am Payment accepted: AmEx, MC, V