My first impression at Honokowai Okazuya & Deli was that I should have gotten take-out. The inside is a cramped corridor very reminiscent of those New York delis that don’t mince inches at Times Square rent. There is a row of stools at a long table against the wall, which seem only to have been built to accommodate people adamant on eating there, and a couple tables outside.
A single counter separates the customer from the cash register, kitchen and prep line. Three or four cooks work their magic in a tight space, amid a hodgepodge of skillets, pans and food containers.
This cloistered feel makes ordering an in-and-out experience. Most other customers on the busy Friday afternoon seemed in the know, darting in and grabbing their bags of lunch, then heading back home, the beach or wherever.
The menu put everything in layman’s terms with categories like lunch & dinner, salads, pasta, hot sandwiches, deli sandwiches and broiler sandwiches. Cold and hot sandwiches and salads ran from around $7 to $9, pasta dishes $9 and plate style chicken, beef, steak and fish dishes from $8 to $12. Sensitive to the vegetarian appetite, they had a handful of veggie options with rice and salad between $7 and $9. An undeniable bargain.
The very friendly cashier looked expectantly at me when it was time to take my order and I impulsively got the turkey and cheese melt—if that’s not spontaneity I don’t know what is. It came on a soft, fresh wheat Kaiser roll with mac salad and a nice, crunchy pickle. Nothing complex, but wonderfully good. One bite led to the next, and eventually I had the uncomfortably stuffed feeling that only means one thing: the sandwich was too worthy not finish at all costs.
My friend Galya loved the panko-fried Mahi-Mahi, a meal that came with a baseball-sized scoop of white rice and flavorful stir-fried vegetables. Galya was visiting me from Moldova, a small European nation above Romania, and I have exposed her to Maui’s island cuisine for about a week. Of her meal she said simply (in perfect English with a heavy Russian accent), “This is the best Hawaiian food I tried.”
There really was no shortcoming to our meals, and it occurred to me that this deli proved that sometimes less is more. As I dined outside, I thought about how such a little no-frills place could make the concept of producing good food seem so stupefyingly simple.
Sometimes I love when restaurants transform food into an experience through atmosphere, entertainment and cushy service. But this okazuya reminded me that you also need a straightforward deli, where duty begins by asking what you want and ends by handing you food in a plastic box and wishing you a pleasant day. After all, it’s the food that counts, right?
And because the goods are so satisfying and the price so reasonable, you leave thinking how astute the owners are for not distracting themselves with things like seating, dessert, having to wash dishes, etc. Just like mayonnaise on a tuna melt, a restaurant can’t spread itself too thin or it loses its character.
Honokowai Okazuya caters to meat-lovers, veggie-lovers, fish fanatics, budget eaters and pretty much anyone who doesn’t need a white tablecloth or a silver spoon. It’s the kind of place where you can grab lunch or dinner again and again without feeling like you’re splurging financially. You can even take it out, bring it home and pretend you prepared it yourself. MTW