Koko Ichiban Ya: Value Meets Inadvertent Chuckles
Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef. She offers her frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.
By Vanessa Wolf
Koko Ichiban Ya on Dairy Road in Kahului may be a part of the restaurant witness protection program.
Tucked into an extraordinarily nondescript strip mall off a constantly jammed up stretch of Dairy Road, this nearly invisible little hole in the wall looks sketch, but offers some unexpected surprises.
If the digs don’t clue you in, allow us: the grub ain’t fancy schmancy, but tasty and straightforward home-style Japanese.
The Unagi Don provides an ample portion of well-sauced tender eel for $14.40.
Served on a king size bed of fluffy rice, it’s simple but satisfying and a good deal for the price.
Same can be said for the Fried Saba ($9.60).
Although most of the items are pre-made – presumably from a speedy plate lunch assembly perspective – this was prepared to order.
Crisp on the outside but moist and tender on the inside, the fish was piping hot and perfectly cooked. The presentation is beyond simple: plain rice, shredded raw cabbage, chunk of lemon, aforementioned fish.
Be aware that mackerel is one oily little dude. If an hour or two later you realize you can’t quite remember what it tasted like, don’t worry: it’ll be ba-ack.
Saba, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving… all night long.
If you are one of those people that regularly laments that fish tastes too “fishy” then say hello to your worst culinary nightmare.
However, if you happen to like the smaller fishies and proceed with expectations properly in check, you’ll likely be pleased, albeit rooting around in the cabinet later for some Tums.
Along with the ubiquitous white rice, the plate lunches are accompanied by either a very mayonnaise-y macaroni salad, nishime (a Japanese stew made with root vegetables), or steamed vegetables (typically broccoli and cauliflower mix that may have started out life in a freezer bag). There’s no real stand out here. Go with your gut.
Still, sometimes one’s gut fails them.
They see an old friend on the menu and pull the trigger.
It is then they learn their old friend has had some unflattering work done.
Generally speaking, food shouldn’t inspire you to burst out in uncontrollable laughter.
However, if you are of the ilk that buys Hot Pockets just for the irony, this may be your jam.
Roll on into Koko Ichiban Ya, order the fried oysters ($9.60) and get your guffaw on.
These oysters are Japanese the way Godzilla is Japanese: huge, cartoonish and mildly ominous.
What on earth?
It’s seafood’s answer to the corn dog. The only thing missing is the stick.
How one tiny oyster manages to become engulfed in an otherwise hollow three-inch long tube of tasteless fried breading is a mystery for the ages.
And more than ‘how’, they beg the question ‘why’???
Simply put: pass.
The Chicken Katsu ($8.40), however, redeems them all on its own.
The price is more than right.
An extremely generous portion of crisp chicken accompanied by your choice of sides greets you. Tasty and quick, it’s exactly what you expect from Japanese comfort food.
The word is clearly out about this and its kissin’ cousin, the Pork Tonkatsu ($8.64).
As you wait for your less common menu item to be prepared, customers file in one after the other, quickly ordering and taking their katsu bowls and plate lunches to go.
The small space turns out an impressive amount of food.
The restaurant is a family affair. The Japanese parents work the kitchen and their congenial son is in front.
In keeping with its bare bones operations, Koko Ichiban Ya accepts cash only and all the seemingly odd price points round up to solid figures like $8.50, $10 and $15 once the tax is added.
The small space is clearly frequented by regulars, although it seems you, too, can become a regular in very little time, perhaps only because you never order the same thing twice.
Speaking of which, the Tempura Udon ($8.16) is particularly satisfying on a rainy day.
Thick chewy udon noodles bathe/lounge in a savory kakejiru (typically dashi, soy sauce, mirin – and the flavor indicated it was) broth.
The accompanying tempura is a good news/bad news scenario.
Typically, one receives a single tempura-fried shrimp – possibly two – and often it arrives already in the soup and irrevocably soggy.
Koko Ichiban Ya not only provides two shrimp and one piece each of zucchini, carrot and eggplant, but they thoughtfully serve them on the side.
The sad trombone?
They were fried hours before and time, humidity, and life itself have rendered them a bit soggy anyway.
You can’t win them all.
Still, if you’re seeking some quick, simple Japanese comfort food – or a hearty belly laugh – Koko Ichiban Ya in Kahului is a solid bet.
Koko Ichiban Ya is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line – Vanessa(@mauinow.com)