Leave it to a math major chef to bring together two disparate menu elements that equate to more than the sum of their parts. Hatoba’s executive chef and partner Katsuya Fukushima leaned on his upbringing and his education to add traditional Hawaiian dishes to this Japanese restaurant in Navy Yard.
Earlier this year, he got the green light to divide Hatoba’s menu into two parts: its original Japanese Sapporo-style ramen collection, plus a new set of Hawaiian dishes that recall his youth, family, and culture.
Fukushima’s father is a third-generation Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry. His parents met in Okinawa, Japan, where his dad was stationed in the U.S. military (and where Fukushima was born); his mother is from Okinawa. He spent most of his youth in Hawaii.
“Many of the dishes were inspired by my earliest memories from life in Okinawa to Hawaii, and jumping from country to country, as is the typical life of an Army brat,” he says.
While in the kitchen at Hatoba sister restaurant Daikaiya, he’d already introduced a shortlist of common Hawaiian dishes, like poke. After Hatoba transitioned to carryout-only during the pandemic, he seized on the opportunity to revisit the menu for its in-person reopening. The two other owners assented, and this menu was born.
Fukushima kicked off the new menu with what he says are more straightforward and well-known dishes. This included poke, as well as loco moco, a beef patty over rice smothered in mushroom gravy and topped with a fried egg.
In alignment with the noodle-forward menu, he introduced saimin, a style of ramen many believe originated with immigrant plantation workers who arrived in Hawaii around 1850. Its foundation is a clear pork-and-chicken broth with light, thin, springy noodles, plus pork belly (chashu) and egg crepe ribbons.
Located in the Pacific, Hawaii is something of a microcosm of the rest of the U.S., Fukushima notes. Beyond native Hawaiians, immigrants from across two hemispheres call Hawaii home – including from far-flung locales like Japan, China, the Philippines, Portugal, and Spain. These cultures mixed over time, producing a uniquely global yet deeply local cuisine.
“I’ve always wanted to do something Hawaiian,” he says, “and these flavors [at the restaurant] are both familiar and personal.” He also found that Hawaiian food options in the DC area were limited.
Digging deeper beyond the popular dishes, Fukushima reached to a beef mainstay inspired by Hawaiian ranchers. On horseback during the day, the ranchers would sun-dry meat on their saddles; Fukushima takes cues by partially drying short ribs after a teriyaki marinade, finishing them on the grill. “This concentrates the sweet-savory flavor,” he says. It’s served with flecks of Hawaiian lava salt.
One menu special that especially speaks to his family and heritage is the Kahlua pork. “It’s much more native Hawaiian than Japanese,” he explains. In Hawaii, cooks will bury the meat underground, wrapped in banana leaves, and covered with hot lava rocks, leaving the package to barbecue overnight to make the dish “fall-off-the-bone tender.”
Since Hatoba lacks such pits in its kitchen, the staff slow-roasts the pork for more than six hours. The result is similar. Fukushima hopes to pick up a “caja china”, or roasting box, to place on the patio to nearly reproduce the activity. To serve, the pork arrives as it would be in any worth-its-salt Hawaiian café: with macaroni salad, cabbage, and a liberal helping of rice. “My dad would go boar hunting in nearby mountains,” he says, “and then bring back one to cook. There’s nothing like it.”
Hatoba is leaning all the way in on the summery, island vibe, even in the depth of winter. Its cocktails are bright and fruit-forward, cashing in on crops like persimmon, passionfruit, and guava that are native to Hawaii. The cocktails are served on draft, giving them a depth of texture.
With patrons getting use to the island style, he’ll start offering additional dishes that may be even less familiar. One of these is a new poke dish using local blue crab, inspired by a salt-marinade black-crab poke popular in the islands. Another is abalone, a mollusk found among the reefs and shoals in the Hawaiian shores. As a child, he has vivid memories of his father drying the abalone and shaving off pieces as a snack. He wants to share this memory, as unadulterated as possible, to guests, so they can have that multi-sensory experience of growing up in Hawaii.
Melding the two menus made sense to him. By hewing to the Japanese elements of Hawaiian cuisine rather than, say, the Spanish or Filipino, he isn’t straying far from the ramen origins of Hatoba. Yet by broadening the offerings, he was presenting something of himself, too.
Daisuke Utagawa, one of Hatoba’s other owners, agreed. “Hawaiian food is already influenced by Japanese food, so we thought it would make a good addition. Plus, the patio and the space lend themselves to a tropical atmosphere.”