By Léo Azambuja
Every once in a blue moon, I come across a recently opened restaurant that got it just right from day one. Everything seems spot-on; the service, the ambiance, the prices, and more importantly, the food.
And that’s exactly how I felt when I left Kenji Burger, Kapa‘a’s newest hotspot, serving the best grass-fed good ol’ all-American burger, all dressed up in — you’ve got to taste it to believe it — Japanese flavors.
“I wanted to create a burger joint that had a Japanese flair to it, and people have been loving it,” said Erik Tanigawa owner of Kenji Burger.
The menu has six burgers, three rice bowls, chicken wings and a few surprises, such as a Kaua‘i-made mochi dessert and the ultra-exclusive Lucky Cat light lychee soda — Kenji is the only establishment in the entire state of Hawai‘i to carry this rarity of a drink from Japan.
Some of other “interesting fun facts” about Kenji, as Erik put it, are the locally sourced grass-fed beef from Sanchez in Wailua and the burgers’ buns; taro brioches baked exclusively for Kenji Burger by the folks at Passion Bakery in Kinipopo. Nowhere else you’ll be able to eat those buns.
Another highlight is the Japanese Sushi Burrito, a fat sushi roll cut in half, easy in the hands and deliciously complex in the palate.
The lanai, with a balcony facing the highway, gets crowded everyday right after rush hour. It is a fun place to sit down and do some people-watching while talking story with your friends or family. The inside has only two tables, but a balcony follows the entire perimeter of the dining room, making it easy to accommodate a crowd. Erik said he has plans to build an additional seating area out the back.
Erik set up mostly everything to be take-out. So you can either sit down and kau kau, or you can take your food home in a bento box, complete with your burger or rice bowl, a drink, dessert and furikake fries. Let me say it again: furikake fries! And I’ll leave it at that.
Kenji Burger’s instant success is no accident. Erik may look young, but he has vast amount of knowledge in Japanese food, both from home and from professional experience.
Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Erik started as a dishwasher at Kintaro in Wailua when he was only 15. He worked his way up to the kitchen there and in other Japanese restaurants, including on Oahu. Then he landed a job at a Japanese restaurant at the MGM hotel in Las Vegas, Nev., where he worked for 13 years. He only quit to open his own Japanese catering and food truck in Vegas. He recently moved back home, with his wife and young child.
With all that professional experience, he still values — and validates — his family roots. Erik is half-Japanese and comes from a family of Japanese migrant plantation workers on Kauai’s Westside. A lot of what goes into his recipes came from home.
“It’s always a mix of family ingredients and things I learned working at Japanese restaurants,” he said of his menu. Ask him about the Tokyo Chicken Wings.
The family affair goes beyond the food. Erik’s father helped to remodel the building to match the vision of the business. His grandfather passed away a long time ago, but he is definitely present there: Kenji is Erik’s middle name, but the real reason he named it Kenji Burger is because it was also his grandfather’s name.
Kenji Burger is at 4-788 Kuhio Hwy., across McDonald’s in Kapa‘a. They can be reached at 320-3558. Visit www.kenjiburger.com for more information.