Honolulu is filled with Japanese food, so if that's your kind of thing, you'll have no shortage of options. They range in price from expensive to cheap and excellent to awful. But Gazen Bar and Grill is both excellent and inexpensive.
If you love Japanese food, you'll find no shortage of options in Honolulu. The problem is finding ones that are both good and inexpensive. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the pricier places, there's just a time and place for them. But for everyday dining, you probably want something more casual and inexpensive. And that's where Gazen Bar and Grill comes in.
Location + Service
Gazen Bar and Grill is located in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kaimuki, right across the street from Kaimuki High School. That places it just outside of Waikiki. And, unlike many of Honolulu's favorite izakayas, Gazen has a decently sized parking lot. In fact, the restaurant itself is quite spacious by izakaya standards too. But it's a popular spot that can fill up, so I'd recommend making a reservation.
As is often the case with izakayas, service at Gazen is great. Even better yet, your orders appear very quickly too. And it didn't matter what kind of dishes we ordered, all came out in a timely manner. Just be aware that dishes come out as they're ready; there is no tempo to the service. And that's the point; at izakayas, you're supposed to share your dishes.
Gazen has a huge variety of drinks, alcoholic and not, which are all reasonably priced. On this occasion, Mrs. Island Miler decided to try the Gazen Royal Milk Tea while I went with a Honey Yuzu Mojito.
We've never seen a milk tea with whipped cream on top, but Mrs. Island Miler liked it. The Mojito is really nice too and was a great palette cleanser.
In true izakaya form, Gazen has an extensive menu of hot and cold dishes. However, Gazen is known for their homemade tofu, so we decided to start with their Signature Tofu Sampler Set.
The set includes plain tofu, tofu in creamy dashi broth, and black sesame tofu, plus plain and green tea salts. The salts are for the plain tofu, while the black sesame tofu is accompanied by a dab of wasabi. And though tofu isn't my favorite thing, this dish is superb. The plain is, well, plain. But the creamy dashi one is really interesting in a good way. Our favorite, though, is the black sesame. Mrs. Island Miler likes it with the wasabi, I prefer it plain.
Mrs. Island Miler likes natto, though I think its nasty. So this next dish was all her: Matsuri Natto. Tuna, squid, ikura, pickled cucumber, pickled daikon, tofu, wasabi, green onion, and egg yolk served with nori. Think of it as make-your-own sushi without the rice. Mix it all up and eat between sheets of the nori.
My cold dish was a special that night: Snow Crab & Avocado Cold "Chawanmushi." I love chawanmushi so I thought I'd give it a try, and it was interesting in a good way. Basically a cold, savory egg custard with dashi gelee, snow crab, and avocado. Briny, creamy, sweet, and salty. An intriguing and delicious dish, though the crab was unnecessary; shrimp would have worked better.
And, of course, sushi. Mrs. Island Miler love sushi, so we can't go to a Japanese restaurant and not have some. We ordered individual nigiri: chuu-toro, moi, ikura, and uni. All were high-quality and perfect. The chuu-toro looks more like maguro, but it indeed had a fatty punch with a melty texture.
There are so many interesting hot dishes at Gazen Bar and Grill that it can be difficult to choose. But we decided to go with what we like and try something new. So first up is the Grilled Toro Beef Tongue.
I know what you're thinking "eww tongue!" But this version looks more like steak, which is what tongue tastes like anyway. This version, however, was like a nice wagyu steak. So soft and melty, yet it has a nice beef punch. It's served with a mound of salty minced ginger and green onion, which helps to cut the richness and punch up the flavor.
Another special we ordered was the Grilled Mochi & Cheese with Nori. This is an unusual dish, which is why we ordered it, but it works! Grilled mochi with nori and shoyu (soy sauce) is a New Year's staple, but adding cheese to it is odd. Especially American cheese! I was expecting cheddar or something; but nope, its plain old American. As far as the tastes go, it's like a grilled cheese sandwich meets New Year's yaki mochi. It's interesting and tasty, and if you like these kinds of things, it'll make you smile.
It was STORMING that night, so I wanted something warm. As a result, I decided to give Gazen's Shrimp Tenpura Inaniwa Udon. Unfortunately, this dish was the one let down. The shrimp tenpura is excellent, and I love a runny egg, but the dashi was a little bland. I prefer a smokier, saltier dashi with my udon and thicker noodles. But it was still a nice enough (and large) bowl of noodles.
Gazen Bar and Grill, Final Thoughts
I don't know what took us so long to finally try Gazen, but I'm glad we finally did. And, I think it's going to be one of our go-to restaurants from now on. The prices are all really reasonable, though the sushi does add up really quickly. But, if you don't order sushi, you can get in and out without spending all that much. And almost everything we had was delicious. Even better, there's so much variety, you could go again and again and not get bored. Though, I'd have a hard time not ordering stuff like the Beef Tongue every time.