When Chef Katsuya Fukushima saw the location for what would be Hatoba — an old boilermaker building in Navy Yard — he knew it was the perfect spot. Fukushima and his business partner got to work, ready to open the next restaurant for the Daikaya group. But 2020 had other plans, and Covid mixed with the summer heat didn’t exactly attract patrons for a humid, outdoor ramen experience. Through the opening’s hurdles, though, came innovation to the menu.
The slow start to Hatoba allowed Fukushima the chance to add a whole new section to the menu, featuring Hawaiian dishes along with the ramen still offered. It was inevitable that Fukushima would introduce Hawaiian cuisine to one of his restaurants. He was raised on Hawaiian and Japanese dishes, as his father is from the big island in Hawaii, and his mother is from Okinawa, Japan.
“Hawaiian food is like comfort food to me,” Fukushima says. “There’s nothing really fancy about Hawaiian food, but it’s just good bone-sticking food.”
Hatoba now offers poke dishes, loco moco, North Shore garlic shrimp, chicken liver mousse with teriyaki gelee, and pineapple-habanero jam (served with King’s Hawaiian bread, of course), and saimin, among others.
“The food of Hawaii is a very hodgepodge, mixed batch. It is a huge melting pot of Asian cultures,” Fukushima says. “A lot of Chinese influence, Korean influence, Filipino, there’s a huge Portuguese and Spanish influence also, and some Mexican. A lot of travelers hit up Hawaii on their way to other countries, so a lot of cultures were exposed there.”
Take saimin, for instance. The dish originated in the 1800s when plantation workers from various cultures wanted a taste of home. The workers made what they could and used Hawaiian ingredients to replicate a noodle dish that felt familiar. A blend of traditions, the saimin at Hatoba includes pork, chicken, beef, bonito soup, thin noodles, fish cakes called Naruto, egg, and scallion.
“Food is so interesting, with so much history,” Fukushima says. “So much connection; it just brings people together. I love it.”
Fukushima still incorporates what he learns from his parents when coming up with new ideas. His mother taught him a peanut tofu dessert, and his father’s stories of catching tiny crabs, about four to five inches long, salting and eating them inspired Fukushima to use that technique with ingredients local to our area.
“He just cracked them open and sucked the meat out,” Fukushima said. “I thought, I need to bring that, or use that recipe and use it with Maryland blue crabs.”
In this way, Fukushima would add to the ways Hawaiian food has morphed over time. With its history of different cultural influences in the food, it feels natural to add a D.C. twist, using local ingredients instead of food that can’t be sourced from Hawaii directly.
With Hawaiian food, the classics feel novel, and the novel feels classic. One of Fukushima’s favorite dishes to eat is the plate lunch — slow, braised Kalua pig, braised cabbage, macaroni salad and a side of rice.
“I think it’s one of the most comforting foods to eat. With the hot rice and the creamy mac salad and the fatty pork — I could eat that almost every day.”
As one of the first sit-down Hawaiian Japanese restaurants in the District, Hatoba sets a precedent not just in the offerings, but also by focusing on reducing food waste. Pineapple skins are repurposed for cocktails, strawberry heads for syrups, shrimp shells for stock, and canned lichen juice for dressings. All are tips and tricks the average consumer can use in their own household. This reflects a larger Hawaiian ethos: you have what you have, and nothing should go to waste.
At Hatoba, everyone is welcome, new ideas are encouraged, and a hodgepodge of food is expected.
“I’m very proud of the new menu,” Fukushima says. “It’s introducing part of my heritage to D.C., and I hope people come out to embrace it. Give it a shot, give it a try — don’t expect it to be this fancy-shmancy thing. It’s soul food to me. And there’s more to come.”
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