[Travelogue] Okinawa- Branchu Izakaya, Folksy New Kid on Kokusai

Possibly the most touristy street in Okinawa, Kokusai’s got everything covered! From souvenir shops and pharmacies,  to arcades, cafes, fish markets, convenience stalls, grocery shops, bars and of course, countless restaurants. I try not to get sucked into tourist traps for fear of getting ripped off but Kokusai has got its charm. Shop vendors don’t tout or pester you. So its actually rather pleasant to just stroll along the bustling street and grab a coffee or ice cream from the many Blue Seals (Okinawa’s very own Häagen-Dazs) along the way, especially on Sundays when the road is closed to traffic. Most restaurants are very inviting and well decorated with interesting and fun concepts, attracting heaps of tourists daily. Tucked close to one end of Kokusai Dori is new kid, Branchu Izakaya. This small establishment we stumbled upon one evening sent a different vibe…and totally deserves a shout out!

img_0390The long narrow bar serves up an array of typical Okinawan dishes, cocktails, beers and sakes. It’s cozy, casual…  and except for us, not another foreigner in sight! Owner/ Chef Shiral and his two adorable assistants, Hikaru and Natsumi are a trio of bubbly, friendly and warm individuals. There’s no hard selling here. Just a lot of smiles! Shiral cooked up a storm in the tiny kitchen, including my favorites, Goya Chanpuru and Umi Budo Salad. We also tried some local must-eats like Mimi Ga (pig’s ears), Somen (OMG, this was DELICIOUS!), Rafutee,  Mozuku, and a substantial variety of Awamoris (Okinawa Sake) including the Fear Factor contender,  Habushu. I’m just gonna let the photos tell the story…

From left: Hikaru, Natsumi & Shiral. Despite the language barrier, these three are an adorable bunch!
Mozuku- Unique seaweed harvested only in the oceans of Okinawa. This slimy seaweed is packed with nutrients and is responsible for the good health and longevity of Okinawans! Here, it is simply pickled in tart vinegar… the texture is soft and gooey… the taste, refreshing and appetizing… a great starter dish! Preps your tummy for more good things!
Goya Chanpuru- My absolute favorite and young Chef Shiral pulled off a mean one! Crunchy bitter melon slices, firm tofu, scrambled-in eggs and salty spam… Topped with bonito flakes for an umami kick.
Rafute- Another household dish of Okinawa. Pork belly that’s been simmered in mirin, Shoyu and other ingredients til sweet and tender.
Mimiga- Great with an ice cold beer, these pig’s ears are possibly Okinawa’ answer to fries! The crunchy cartilage is marinated in a zesty savory sauce, and topped with freshly chopped chives for a mild oniony flavor. Don’t be intimidated.. These thinly sliced curly ears are actually quite delicious and makes an addictive bar snack!
Umi Budo Salad- Seaweed caviar, anyone? These little bubbles literally burst with flavors of the ocean! Branchu’s Sea Grape salad consists of bitter greens, sweet tomatoes and firm tofu dressed in a fresh balsamic marinade. The sea grapes add a lovely crunch and saltiness to the salad.
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Somen- Or what’s known as ‘mian xian’ (面线) in Chinese. Branchu’s version, though aesthetically plain, was scrumdiddlyumptious! I took a first bite and could not stop!
Okinawa Sake- Drunk with ice and water, Awamori is as refreshing as it is potent!
Not sure which Awamori to pick? Go for Branchu’s threesome! Featuring 3 of the more popular Awamoris, with different taste and alcohol level. This should keep you happy for a while!

Habushu is named after the habu snake which is part of the pit viper family. The Awamori is mixed with herbs and honey before a habu is submerged and stored until ready for consumption. Branchu serves a Habushu housed in a large unglamorous glass dispenser with Sammy the Snake clearly in sight, so huge it blocks the the spout making it a chore to dispense! His sacrifice was heroic as the spirit wasn’t bad tasting at all. And one would not be able to tell poor Sam’s been sitting in there (for God knows how long!). It seems drinking Habushu has positive effect on the male libido. Don’t know about that but I sure felt strapping after 2 shots!

The crew at Branchu is a delight. The atmosphere is relaxed. The prices are reasonable and of course, the food is great! Such a gem but you can hardly find anything on them if you googled. But if they keep up the great vibe, I’ll bet they will charm their way into many hearts in no time!

Branchu ぶらんちゅ 沖縄国際通り店 @ 〒900-0013 Okinawa Prefecture, Naha City, Makishi 3-9-5 沖縄県那覇市牧志3丁目9-5

 

 

 

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