nuka japanese restaurant in ha‘iku: welcome to a true neighborhood hot spot

NUKA signMy friend Roger knows his Japanese cuisine, having lived in Japan for five years. So when he told me I needed to dine at Nuka in Ha‘iku, I paid attention. And I’m extremely happy I took Roger’s advice: this sophisticated little gem of a restaurant in the heart of a sleepy town is nothing short of a winner, and definitely worth venturing out from Maui’s resort areas for the evening.

Tucked away next to the Post Office on Ha‘iku Road in what used to be Ha‘iku Mart, Nuka has just 10 tables plus 12 seats at the sushi bar. The ambiance leans towards chic industrial, with plenty of stainless steel, polished aluminum chairs, and concrete flooring that’s tempered by a cozy slatted wood ceiling. The vibe is friendly, welcoming, and lively, and the evening I dined there the place was packed with a hip but casual crowd engaged in animated conversation.

Nuka is the Japanese word for rice bran, and the folks at Nuka (the restaurant) source and mill their own rice. The polishing process partially removes the brown rice bran, leaving a nutritious “embryo” with the taste, texture, and digestibility of white rice. They also cook exclusively with rice bran oil, which contains vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients, and is trans-fat free. Its high smoke point makes it particularly suitable for deep frying, and it’s said to be the secret of good tempura. To seal the deal in the tempura department, as well as their other deep-fried delicacies, Nuka’s owners purchased a special fryer from Japan.

Speaking of Nuka’s owners, two of the three restaurateurs are familiar faces in the Maui restaurant scene: Moon Greene and Yuri Soledade also own the iconic Pa‘ia Fish Market. Together with DeWitt Lickle, they opened Nuka in March of this year. It’s Lickle’s exquisite Gyotaku fish prints that adorn the imperial plaster walls at Nuka. Executive Sushi Chef Hiro Takanashi is a veritable sushi legend, with more than 30 years under his belt, and Nuka’s other executive chef, Gabriel Begin, among other talents is a master of the Japanese art of pickling—you can sample his “nukazuke,” a salty, tangy, sour pickle loaded with probiotics.

Nuka is an izakaya-style restaurant, a term that loosely translates into English as “pub fare.” But don’t let the label fool you. While Nuka has an appealing selection of beer, wine, sake, and mixed drinks, the menu pages dedicated to food outnumber the one containing beverages five to one.

But when one is at an izakaya-style restaurant, one must have a drink, no? The pomegranate and liliko‘i cosmo ($11) made with locally distilled Ocean Vodka is nicely balanced, and goes down easily. If I didn’t have to drive home, I’d be tempted to have another! Beer selections are Japanese and American (there are even two from Maui Brewing Co.), and there’s a non-alcoholic Clausthaler. Wines are by the glass or bottle, and are primarily from California. Sake is cold or warm, and there’s also shochu, which can be enjoyed as an aperitif, as a complement to your meal, or as an after-dinner drink.

Nuka’s menu devotes a page and a half to otsumami (small plates), meant to be shared. Server Labela particularly recommends the panko crusted fish ($11), and who am I to argue? I also order shrimp and vegetable tempura ($11), teriyaki chicken yakitori ($6), and Asian french fries ($6), which have me intrigued.

But first, I must sample the Nuka pickles ($2), along with cucumber sunomono (a salad composed of Japanese cucumber sliced paper thin, served with wakame, and dressed with sweet vinegar—$6). The pickles are made with cucumber, daikon, and carrots. They provide a pleasant, salty bite with a slightly fermented taste. The cucumber sunomono is crisp and refreshing, and delivers just the right balance between sweet and tang. It’s served atop a tasty whole butter lettuce leaf, and garnished with sesame seeds and a slice of fresh lemon.

The panko crusted fish (uku—white snapper—this evening) is an instant favorite. Seasoned with shi-koji (in place of salt) and deep fried in the magic frying machine, the delicate, moist, golden brown fish is served over shredded cabbage, and accompanied by a positively wicked wasabi aioli. The grilled chicken yakitori skewer is nicely charred, and the dark, glossy teriyaki sauce is smooth and delicious. The yakitori pairs especially well with Nuka’s freshly milled rice ($3), which has a decidedly “clean” taste.

The tempura is an interesting combination of shrimp, shiitake mushroom, pumpkin, green bean, and onion. The rice bran oil and its deep fryer colleague work beautifully together to achieve the lightest tempura batter I’ve ever tasted. And the french fries, seasoned with furikake and served with the aforementioned wasabi aioli, are flat out addictive. The huge portion of fried goodness rests on butcher paper, presumably to absorb any excess oil. I seriously doubt there is any, however.

And now, lest I feel as though I’ve been suddenly transported to Japan, a gentleman with dreadlocks passes by the window I’m seated next to, so I know we’re still in Ha‘iku.

A visit to Nuka wouldn’t be complete without partaking in one of Chef Hiro’s sushi rolls. The Hawaiian Roll ($10) catches my attention. Its made with tuna, avocado, and cucumber, and the white rice on the outside is sprinkled with roasted macadamia nuts. It’s visual and culinary perfection on a plate! White ginger in place of the usual pink is a welcome touch. Chef Hiro definitely has earned his stripes in the sushi department.

In addition to the Hawaiian Roll, Nuka offers 13 other delectable sounding sushi rolls, ranging in price from $8 for the Veggie Roll (sweet picked daikon, avocado, cucumber, and pea sprouts) to $19 for the Haleakala Roll (baked California roll, salmon, dynamite sauce, tobiko, eel sauce, and bonito flakes). There’s also an extensive selection of sushi, sashimi, and rolls (for a dollar more you can substitute soy paper for the nori). A nine-piece sushi platter (hamachi, salmon, tuna, snapper, and shrimp) runs $27; an 18 to 21-piece sashimi platter (tuna, hamachi, salmon, snapper, tako, ika, and hokki clam) runs $38.

Nightly food and drink specials are hand written on a whiteboard by the sushi bar—this evening there’s Yuzu Garlic Kaua‘i Shrimp with wakame salad for $15; sweet corn miso soup for $4; and a Dew Drop Martini for $12.

Labela tempts with this evening’s special dessert: tempura black sesame ice cream ($12), which she describes as “ice cream kicked up a notch.” And that it is! Nuggets of deep fried ice cream that has a decidedly peanut buttery flavor are accompanied by a gob of decadent freshly whipped cream topped with a blueberry, and the plate is decorated with swirls of rich chocolate sauce dusted with powdered sugar. As I blissfully work my way through the confection, Labela passes by with a knowing smile. “Anything is better fried, don’t you think?” she asks.

On the back of Nuka’s menu it states the owners created the restaurant out of a love for food and culture, as well as a respect for the power food has to bring people together. They have long admired the natural simplicity and unique artistry of Japanese cuisine, and believe that food tastes best when prepared simply with fresh ingredients. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

–heidi pool


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