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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 8, 2005

Yakiniku Toraji offers stylish, accessible experience

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Toraji presents yakiniku-style dining with both a relaxed atmosphere and the feeling of an upscale eatery.

Photos by Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

Yakiniku Toraji

945 Kapahulu Ave., No. 1


Limited parking behind restaurant; free parking available at old KC Drive Inn; street parking

Open nightly; Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-midnight

Reservations strongly recommended

Limited bar: shochu, sake, wine and beer

Very good

Fire captivates the cave dweller in us, and cooking foods over an open flame is a primal urge. But the contemporary image has shifted from Homo sapiens huddling in a cave with a carcass over a blaze to a group of noshers sitting around a yakiniku grill sipping wine.

On the corner of Kapahulu and Kaimuki avenues, Yakiniku Toraji draws guests into its rustic-is-chic dining room. To avoid a long wait and a polite request to come back in two hours, make reservations.

This is not your average yakiniku restaurant; there are no Naugahyde booths. Instead, it reminded me of one of those slightly upscale eateries you see on Korean soap operas — not too fancy, but the protagonist with money goes there for a casual meal.

Toraji has a hip, relaxed atmosphere where not only Hawaiiana pictures hang on the walls, but strands of garlic, too. The ambience is Asian country house with dark wood furnishings and playful touches such as dried chili pepper chopstick rests and stemless wine glasses. A row of wine bottles meets you at the entryway, followed by a thundering greeting from the staff as you are led to your seat. Grandparents and families with children fit into this scene as easily as young urbanites.

Yakiniku Toraji capitalizes on what the smart-set dining public craves right now: an assortment of sharable dishes combined with a decent drink menu served in a style-conscious venue. Like Gyu-Kaku, another modernized yakiniku concept, Toraji is riding the same wave as the reworked izakayas (Japanese pubs) currently washing over Honolulu.

"Yakiniku" translates to "grilled meat" in Japanese and is also known as Korean barbecue. It is said that immigrant Koreans introduced this method of cooking to Japan. Yakiniku gained popularity during the post-war period, booming in the 1960s. It adapted to Japanese tastes, and an Osaka specialty is the use of offal, particularly "horumon" (large intestine of beef or pork), believed to increase the diner's energy level.

Unlike some local yakiniku establishments, Toraji is not a raw buffet; except for three set menus, everything is ordered a la carte, including kim chee and namul vegetable side dishes.

In the past, yakiniku eateries often intimidated novices with menus short on description and staff whose English skills were no match for the kinds of questions the uninitiated might ask. Unfamiliar dishes were simply too foreign to be tried, leading to the kind of humorous scene played out in the film "Lost in Translation," in which the main characters leave a yakiniku restaurant after being confronted by a menu full of meat photos.

You needn't worry about this at Toraji, where an eight-page menu acts as a guidebook. Courteous, approachable staff also helps make ordering less painful. The menu even thoughtfully explains "how to eat yakiniku" in a cartoon.

However, the lengthy compendium contains unnecessary and confusing overlaps with the same dishes described sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese. Desserts, for example, are listed in two separate sections, though not in the same order and with slightly different descriptions. In general, the menu could be better organized to avoid constant flipping back and forth.

Do-it-yourself cooking at your table is entertaining but requires work and a little organization. Usually someone becomes the "chef." My advice: Don't grill everything at once; remember to regulate the grill to properly cook different foods and pace your cooking so the meal remains leisurely and enjoyable.

Orders arrive quickly at Toraji, but waiters aren't as fast to clear the dishes. Stagger your menu selections or your table will disappear under a sea of plates and bowls. You can rely on the staff to change grills after heavy use and to offer menu suggestions. In one instance, they went so far as to adjust the air conditioning and bring in a fan to an over-warm nook in the dining room.

Toraji's staff and detailed menu can help even novices navigate the array of choices that define yakiniku dining.
Toraji's grills use real charcoal and gas rather than the plain gas versions. It's hard not to succumb to the lure of the grills with the wide assortment of ingredients available.

Spam ($4.75), beef horumon ($5.75) and mino ($5.75; beef tripe) are on the menu. But choices such as juicy, tender salt-marinated beef tongue ($7.75) and dark-miso-marinated, boneless kalbi beef short ribs ($8.75) were appealing enough for my dinner companions. A tzubozuke mix of meat marinated in an earthenware pot (medium $9.75; large $15.75) has pineapple chunks that caramelize nicely on the grill. Big shrimp ($7.75), assorted vegetables ($5.75) and assorted mushrooms ($6.75) are colorful additions. Ishiyaki dishes, cooked in a stone pot ($3.75 to $9.75), are impressive, too, whether they are soups or rice bowls, staying warmer longer and creating a chewy rice crust.

There are only two desserts ($5.75) besides free Jell-O pudding pops. The better option is the Korean kare mochi rice cake, reminiscent of toasting marshmallows. Repetitive, loud, tinny-sounding music that doesn't shuffle is another shortcoming but tolerable if you can handle listening to an entire Boyz II Men album with a loop back.

Korean-Japanese owned Yakiniku Toraji is the latest addition in a chain of 27 restaurants, the rest all in Japan. If they continue to deliver quality service and make improvements to accommodate customer demands as stated on their menu, it's easy to imagine even more of them.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.