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Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: TsuruTonTan

Restaurant Insider

November 15, 2020

Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO

Dining Innovation president Takuma Lathrop, Anne Lee and TsuruTonTan executive chef Kenta Tada sit down for a meal.

ANNE LEE speaks with president of Dining Innovation, which owns and operates TsuruTonTan TAKUMA LATHROP

When I first met Hawaii-born Takuma Lathrop, his last name threw me for a loop, as Lathrop is not a traditional Japanese surname. He’s a second-generation Japanese, whose father is full Japanese. After Takuma’s grandpa passed away, his grandma married Mr. Lathrop and the family took on the last name.

Takuma knew he wanted to go into hospitality at a young age. While in college, he wanted to work at The Kahala Hotel & Resort, but they required at least six months of prior experience. His friend helped him find work at Gyu-Kaku instead. He ended up loving it and started from the ground up, and is now the president of Dining Innovation.

Check out assorted bentos and sets โ€” both paired with an udon of your choice.

He and his wife had their first child in March, and their executive chef Kenta Tada and his wife are expecting their first child in December!

This busy restaurant had a mainland expansion plan in place, but with COVID, everything was put on hold. Through all of the challenges though, there are some exciting highlights Takuma wants to share with readers.

AL: When did the restaurant first open?

TL: Our company’s owner was the founder of Gyu-Kaku Restaurants, and he brought this concept to the U.S. from Japan. Our owner always wanted to bring Japanese food and culture to the U.S. When we sold Gyu-Kaku, he wanted to bring another new and exciting concept, and at the time ramen was popular. You would see ramen shops popping up everywhere on the mainland, and udon was similar but different. Regular udon wouldn’t be that popular, so bringing TsuruTonTan to the U.S. would offer the creams and ikuras and different flavors to enhance the udon, as well as fancy ingredients. We opened in Hawaii in 2018 as a franchise, and have the exclusive rights to TsuruTonTan everywhere aside from Japan.

For the lunch special, bentos and sets, upgrade to Mentaiko Cream Udon or Cold Mentai Caviar Udon for $4.

AL: How has COVID-19 affected your restaurant?

TL: Ironically, when we were open for dine-in, we did not allow takeout as an option. The reason for this was that we make our noodles in-house daily and wanted to make sure the noodles had the same consistency and texture that our customers had grown to love. There are no preservatives in the noodles, and the freshness also makes the shelf life shorter. To boil the noodles, it takes over 20 minutes. We can only let it sit for a maximum of 20 minutes. Any longer than that and the noodles will lose the consistency.

Due to COVID-19, we had to offer takeout/delivery as an option, and pack the noodles and broth separately, although it’s best to eat it fresh. We keep the noodles chilled to keep the texture intact longer.

AL: Where does TsuruTonTan get its meaning?

TL:Everything about the name and decor has intention. โ€œTsuruโ€ is the sound of slurping noodles. โ€œTonโ€ is the sound of kneading and shaping udon. โ€œTanโ€ is the sound of cutting udon. Slurping noodles is encouraged when eating noodles.

Our interior also has something to do with noodles. When you enter the restaurant, there is a white wall to your right; we refer to it as the rope wall. It signifies udon noodles cooking/swimming in water. The wall to your left is authentic Japanese denim, and it represents the udon-making process โ€” when you flatten out the dough and hang it out to dry. In the private room, we have square boxes that adorn the wall, representing the mold in which we place the dough.

AL: What makes the restaurant stand out?

TL:We make our noodles and soups from scratch daily, with ingredients flown in from Japan. From salt to flour and all of our shoyu, all of our ingredients are not available to buy here locally. We wanted to give our guests the closest experience to actually dining in Japan. Even the water we use to boil the udon is specially filtered to mimic water used in Japan.

AL: Tell me about your lunch special and bentos/sets.

TL: There is a weekly lunch special that changes every week. Monday-Friday we will feature a special mini donburi with your choice of a full-size udon (kake, hiyashi, curry or cream) for only $9.95.

We are also offering a menu of various bentos and sets. Prices you see on the menu for takeout are at about half-off. All of our bento/sets also come with a choice of full-size udon. We offer Nigiri Sushi Set ($20), Chirashi Sushi Set ($20), Sushi Roll Set ($20), US Wagyu Sukiyaki Set ($20), Unajyu Set ($20), Tonkatsu Bento Set ($12) and a Chicken Karaage Bento Set ($12).

Customers that want a little more can upgrade with udon replacement choices ($4 additional charge). Two of the items that we featured here are Mentaiko Cream Udon or Cold Mentai Caviar Udon. There are also additional toppings and some a la carte items.

AL: What are some of bestsellers?

TL: We do not have these for takeout, but the Tan Tan Udon or Sukiyaki Udon. The flavor profile and quality would not be there if these were on the takeout menu. But we do offer our signature mentaiko dishes on the upgraded takeout menu.

AL: What is your favorite part of your job?

TL: I have been in this industry since I was 18. I really enjoy making people happy. When people are celebrating, you usually do that with friends and family, and a restaurant is part of that equation.

I saw that throughout the years, I was able to do something to add to that enjoyment, a memorable meal they won’t forget.

True happiness stems from making other people happy. It’s a domino effect.

AL: Anything else you’d like to share?

TL: We want to thank everyone for the support. We also wanted to do what we can, as everyone is hurting during this time in their own way. That is why we decided to offer the best possible value to customers.

In addition, we are open for takeout, and offer delivery through DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grub-hub. For a quick pickup option, there are reserved stalls on the third floor of the parking garage. We offer three hours of validated parking.

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