On an unassuming block in Honolulu, hidden in plain sight among office buildings, gas stations and dry cleaners, a small, slate-gray building churns out some of the most sophisticated and glitzy cuisine locals have ever experienced. Inside awaits a world full of plant-based cuisine, incredibly fresh produce and an explosion of flavors. Restaurant Ten Vegan Izakaya, Hawaii’s capital city’s first and only strictly plant-based sushi and izakaya. And here, the nigiri, specialty rolls, and classic ramen—all without the fish, meat, and eggs—rival even the city’s best seafood restaurants.
How Chef Qin Lui Got Started
Lush green, bluest skies, and white sandy beaches—these are the stunning backdrops to the mountainous, volcanic city of Honolulu that more than 350,000 people call home. Among that lucky number is Hong Kong-born chef Kin Lui, who began his career on the sun-soaked island. Louie’s resume is as extensive as it is impressive. After moving to Hawaii at age 15, he got an after-school job at Pizza Hut that helped lay the foundation for a career in restaurants. First, he was a busboy at a fine-dining restaurant in Waikiki—then a server at a local Japanese restaurant. Soon after, he moved to San Francisco where he would hone his signature izakaya skills while staying at Kyo-Ya, one of the city’s most expensive sushi restaurants. Not long after, he met chef Raymond Ho, who would become a fast friend and, eventually, a business partner when the pair decided to create their own venture.
Chef Qin Lui (left) and Ten Dal (right)
While brainstorming for a new type of food, a sudden realization came through a newspaper article. “One day, during lunch during my shift, I saw an article about how bluefin tuna will become extinct if we don’t change the way we eat,” Louie recalls. “After lunch, I still had to go back and serve the bluefin tuna to the customers. So we decided to open our own sushi bar.” The restaurant will focus on “sustainable fish,” a topic that nationally recognized environmentalist and author Cason Treanor has built his career on. Trenor consulted two chefs on their menu, San Francisco’s Tataki , helped them open “America’s first sustainable sushi restaurant,” which will be a big hit with the city’s locals and visitors alike.
After third position and a Time Magazine “Heroes of the Environment” award in 2009, the trio wanted to pursue a completely new concept for the opening of their fourth location. “We wanted to do something that no one had done before,” says Louis. At the time, Tataki had a one-page vegetarian menu for those who avoided seafood. Louis wanted to run with the idea, but Traynor challenged him to take it a step further and make the menu entirely plant-based, with no eggs or dairy. The venture took a year to complete, but from the hard work, Shizen, one of the world’s most acclaimed vegan restaurants, was born in 2015.
Three years later, after building the vegan establishment from the ground up, Louie decided it was time for a change of scenery. The 42-year-old chef always knew he wanted to open his own restaurant in the hometown that nurtured his love of cooking, so he packed up and moved back to Hawaii. After an entire year of location hunting proved fruitless, Louis gave up all hope, booking a flight back to the Bay Area. Silently, the day he returns, a friend from high school mentions a Japanese restaurant for sale on the island. Louis went back to space that same night and found his home just like that.
Ten seeds are planted
Hawaiian word “unit“It translates to “seed” and no one takes that more literally than chef-owner Louie. Although the concept bears similarities to San Francisco’s Shizen, Ten Vegan Izakaya sprouted entirely from Louie’s own hard work and ingenuity—the personal connection to the sleek, contemporary interior. Since then he’s worked with nearby farmers to help fill his restaurant with plenty of fresh, local produce. It’s this mix of painstaking intent and luck that ensures the fishless izakaya on an island full of seafood shops can not only survive but thrive.
Another serendipitous moment came in the form of Philippine-born Catherine N. Palazzo, a pastry chef who found herself in Hawaii looking for a fresh start. Palazzo had no prior Japanese cooking experience, but Louis saw talent in him, so he took him under his wing. The partnership was more than just a gig—he found a mentor whose expertise he admired as much as his philosophy. “It’s not about making a name for yourself and being famous,” Palazzo says of Louie’s work ethic “It’s about reaching people around the world – whether they’re vegetarian or not – and helping them realize that vegetables can taste so much better than meat.”
While the sushi chefs go to the fish market every morning to pick fish for their dinner, Louie and the team go to the farm to pick the produce, rather than ordering from customers. “Hawaii is very diverse, and we wanted to use a lot of local produce from small farms. We work closely with our farmers and support the community,” says Louie. “It’s a seed — a philosophical idea.”
That seed blossomed into beautifully designed spaces that harken back to nature, inviting diners to a warm, unforgettable experience. Before entering, polaroid photos of happy diners hang on the side wall, a testament to how important community is to food. Inside, guests are bathed in a soft red glow from string lights hanging above. Casual diners can sit out front, watching the stunning Hawaiian sunset while savoring their meal, or at the sushi bar near the front, where the magic happens before your eyes. For those embarking on an intimate date night, the sleek centerpiece emits a warm, subtle yellow glow for two to enjoy quiet conversation and flirtatious giggles between bites, with an entire wall display of the best sake available. If you’re celebrating an event, the back area is reserved for large groups for a night to remember. Whatever the occasion, be sure to make a reservation, as spots fill up quickly, especially on busy weekends.
Tane’s vegetarian menu
Guests who enter as skeptics are guaranteed to leave as believers. A believer in the power of vegetables, that is. Juicy, hand-picked tomatoes become the complex, integral part of an uramaki-style roll; chewy, bouncy noodles tossed in yuzu shoyu and tossed with fresh cucumber, carrot, nori and rice crackers in a refreshing cold soba salad; And earthy torched miso eggplant bursting with intense flavor lends a convincingly fishy texture to a simple nigiri.
When you first pull in, it’s best to enjoy the full menu with friends and eat family-style. For starters, a classic miso soup will warm you up, while a poke salad with marinated fried tofu, red onion, cashews and scallions tossed in a yuzu-kombu-shou sauce warms the palate. On a shared plate, shita is stuffed with mushroom shredded tofu and sprinkled with matcha salt; agedashi tofu with hand-cut daikon; and panko-dusted, marinated katsu. Search for a few or order them – you can’t go wrong. If you need comfort food, one of four ramen noodle bowls should do the trick. Each — delicate shio, complex shoyu, rich roasted garlic miso, and boldly spicy garlic miso — uses a variety of flowers, seaweed, and mushrooms to flavor their aromatic broth, guaranteed to soothe the soul.
But of course, the star of the show is the gourmet sushi. In Louie’s nigiri, grilled enoki mushrooms stand in for the fish, their natural umami contrast and highlighted by a drizzle of sumptuous ponzu and garlic oil. It’s then carefully placed on a bed of vinegar-seasoned rice with buttery ripe avocado, an appealing smoked beet aioli and a drizzle of lemon zest. “The details make the dish. When we are making it, we enjoy what we prepare and that translates to our customers,” explains Louis. “We believe they can feel the love we put into our food.”
Like any sushi restaurant, Tene’s makes classic rolls, from the simple California roll to the spicy “tofuna” roll. But the most explosive flavors come via the specialty rolls, all named after famous beaches in Hawaii and California. Adventurous eaters should try the Manila Dune, an unusual blend of spicy burdock, crumbled tofu, avocado crema, spicy chili and lotus root chips. Or choose Kailua, a ginger-shouyu tomato with pickled mango, marinated shiitake, and asparagus topped with sweet mustard shoyu, wasabi mustard, and rice cracker pearls. Catch your breath in a roll with a beer from local brewery Kona Brewing Company, or try one of the many sakes imported from small family breweries across Japan. When you’re ready to get back to eating, go for the Half Moon, a sweet potato tempura roll topped with smoked bean curd, pickled mango, tomato, yuzu, shiso, and jalapeño. Then, share the crowd favorite The Wedges featuring spicy tofu tempura, scallions, shichimi togarashi, spicy aioli and sweet shoyu. Craving something sweet? Chef Palazzo’s pastry skills shine through on the menu with unique dessert specialties like his Orange Olive Oil Cake with Ricotta and Pineapple Galette topped with scratch-made ice cream with miso caramel.
“We are grateful that the island’s vegan community has been so supportive. They’re bringing their friends who aren’t vegetarian and most of them are hearty,” Palazzo says. “The moment they take their first bite, it’s like an invisible light bulb. You see a glow in their face, and they say, ‘I didn’t know that. An okra or eggplant or tofu might taste like that.’
Ten’s future plans
As with many things in Ten—a matter of right time, right place—Louis and his partners found another perfect place to grow the seed. Tane opened its second outpost in Berkeley, CA last year, further connecting Louie’s homeland with his beloved Bay Area. But whether you pull up on an island or a bay, the mission to share the plant’s power and expertise with anyone and everyone goes deeper. “You have to believe in what you like and what you love to do. We want to share this food and philosophy with anyone who enters,” says Louie. “Hopefully one day, we can grow this seed in different places where people can still enjoy the roots from here.”