Well off the beaten path, this one-room kitchen belongs to a bygone era. The word “okazuya” is Japanese for “side dish shop” and refers to the days when bachelors left for work on the sugar plantations with rice in tow and in need of tasty sides to spice it up. They picked from piles of delicious, preprepared meats and vegetables — fast food — at an okazuya.
Few of these nostalgic to-go shops remain on Maui, and this one’s definitely the best — even though it has terrible parking and nowhere to sit. When we’re hankering for chicken katsu, we head to Wailuku and join the line out the door at Ichiban. Chicken katsu — for the uninitiated — is chicken meat that’s been breaded in panko (ultra-light, flakey bread crumbs) and deep-fried until dark golden. Pieces are then sliced into two-inch chunks and served with katsu sauce — a sort of glorified ketchup. Admittedly, fried chicken is hard not to love, but this version, crispy on the outside and bursting with moist flavor inside, is lip-smacking good.
Don’t be shy when you push past the screened wooden doors to get to Ichiban’s counter: the staff is friendly and will crack jokes at their own expense. Point to what you want. Everything is sold by the piece, so you can get as many or as few of the shrimp tempura as call you. (Hooray!) Pans are piled high with tempura of every sort (we also love the sweet potato and asparagus), firm noodles, nishime (a savory vegetable stew), and broccoli steamed to its emerald peak of color. The fried, fluffy tofu balls are sweet and creamy — almost like dessert — and sell out early. If you want the best selection, get here before noon. And if you don’t know what something is, ask.
It’s easy to miss the list of fish on the right hand wall, but it’s worth checking out. The cooks will speedily pan-fry your choice of ahi, teriyaki salmon, or misoyaki butterfish. We regularly order the salmon and pair it with warm hijiki salad. The teriyaki is mild (rather than syrupy-salty, like at some places) and the fish is perfect. The dark flecks of hijiki seaweed are warm, having been sautéed lightly in sesame oil with shitake mushrooms and carrot.
Everything at Ichiban is made that morning or while you wait. Nothing has ever been stale, greasy, or over-salted here, which is more than we can say for most plate lunch places. Top your plate off with spicy kim chee, then head to a nearby park or beach to dig in. We recommend heading to Kanaha Beach by the airport, or up to Iao Valley; any further and your tempura will get soggy.
Address: 2133 Kaohu St., Wailuku, Central Maui
Location: Turn from High Street onto Kaohu.
Dinner Hours: Daily 10am-2pm (lunch) 4pm-8pm (dinner)
Parking: very little street parking