The Hawaiian word “hapa,” roughly translated to “part” or “half,” is often used to describe mixed-race residents with some Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. For Michael and Sarah Littman, it’s also a part of their identity — and their business. “Sarah and I are both hapa — we’re both half-Asian, half-Caucasian,” says Michael Littman, the owner of the ramen food cart and restaurant Hapa. “And when you’re in Hawaii and you’re hapa, there’s camaraderie in that.” The word became a running theme through both of their lives: The two love a band called Hapa, got married on Hapa Road, and when it became time to open their first food cart, the choice of name became obvious.
Hapa, the restaurant, has been opening on-and-off since last week with a limited menu: It’s partially a Japanese ramen shop, but also a whiskey bar, with traditional Hawaiian poke on a small menu of snacks. The two developed a reputation in Portland for their distinct take on ramen, which they first started selling out of the Hapa food cart in 2013: Beyond the cart’s selection of classics like like shio, tonkotsu, and shoyu, the two made a splash with a singular style of ramen, the “G-Special,” developed by Sarah Littman’s brother, Galen — It’s tangy, with a splash of vinegar, topped with super-flavorful marinated mushrooms and sprouts. Because the ramen comes from a cart, the noodles also set themselves apart from other ramen shops: The “mana wave” noodle, an exclusive recipe from the oft-used Sun brand, is a chewy, sturdy noodle meant to withstand travel. The noodle combined with the broth makes for a ramen that’s unique to the cart.
At the restaurant, Hapa’s ramen menu will be very similar to the original, serving Japanese ramen made with Hawaiian ingredients. Some additions will appear, however; the Hapa restaurant will debut the cart’s first vegan ramen, made with buckwheat noodles and fried seitan.
But the restaurant also goes beyond ramen, serving one of Portland’s only Hawaiian-style pokes. Often, when Portlanders order poke at restaurants around town, they get something closer to a salad, with various vegetables, grains, and sauces; Hapa’s version is extremely simple — tuna, onion, salt, and sesame oil — with the option of a “poke shoyu” with the classic soy sauce and sesame oil marinade. On a happy-hour-style “chichai” menu, the restaurant will offer other izakaya-style snacks, like pork belly and karaage.
Although Hapa isn’t exactly an izakaya, it will have a Japanese whiskey selection with several of Michael Littman’s favorites — everything from the sought-after Suntory Hibiki 17-year to the award-winning Nikka Coffey Malt. He’s a big fan of whiskey with ramen — the high proof helps cut the richness of the broth — so visitors who are interested can get a whiskey pairing with whichever bowl they order. For the less invested, Hapa also has a list of classic whiskey cocktails and sake, not to mention Asahi to drink at the restaurant’s small, burnt-wood bar.
With the help of the Littmans’ friends and contractors John Wesley Lemon and Jason Hamasu, the former Shut Up & Eat space has completely transformed, with burnt wood walls, a small bar space for sipping hard-to-find Japanese whiskeys and sake cocktails, and an open-format kitchen looking onto a number of small tables. Because the bar is lower than the usual bar height, the two used dark colors and vertical wood paneling to give the restaurant the illusion of high ceilings. Still, the restaurant isn’t exactly a den: The building’s tall windows flood the space with light, especially a long line of chef’s counter and window seating. Hapa will be open Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., before it opens next week from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; the restaurant will be reliably open with a full menu on September 27. Take a look inside the restaurant below:
• Hapa [Official]
• Hapa [Instagram]
• Inventive Ramen Cart Hapa Is Opening Its Own Restaurant in Southeast [EPDX]
• Previous Hapa coverage [EPDX]