In this edition of Off the Beaten Turf, UrbanTurf takes a peek into Hana, the Japanese grocery store/travel agency at 17th and U Streets NW. We promise that in the next installment, we will expand beyond ethnic grocery stores.
Every day, hundreds of pedestrians walk down U Street and unknowingly pass a smorgasbord of wasabi, pickled plums, udon, aloe juice and sushi-grade fish. Hana, at 2004 17th Street NW (map), has been quietly satisfying a precise niche in DC’s marketplace for years: Japanese groceries.
“Weekly someone comes in and says ‘I didn’t know you were here!’ “ co-owner Ikuyo Chisaka told UrbanTurf recently. Her husband, Yoshio Tanabe, was stocking shelves in the back, wearing a kimono that bears his cartoon likeness, which is pinned to the bulletin board at the front of the store (“Question? Ask the manager!”). Until about three years ago, Chisaka ran a travel agency from the location. When everyone started going online for their trip planning, Chisaka expanded the business with a few partners and created a Japanese grocery store. She still maintains a travel agency in the back.
Hana is small and the shelves are packed to the gills with mostly Japanese ingredients; young professionals with bulging shoulder bags come close to knocking Pocky sticks and dried seaweed off the shelves as they browse.
“We get some Japanese and Asian customers, but mainly Americans,” Chisaka said. “We have to educate people on how to cook the food. We have free recipes at the front of the store; any questions they have, we try to teach them. Then they come back and tell us how it went.”
Japanese ingredients that are difficult to find outside of Hmart fill Hana’s shelves; the owners get vegetables like daikon, shiso and mizuna from a West Coast supplier every week, and from Suzuki Farms near Ocean City when the season is right. Yelp reviewers laud a rare miso paste and the wide varieties of tofu in the fridge.
While Hana can satisfy someone looking to maintain a Japanese diet, wanderers excited by the Asian-looking script sometimes come into the store expecting food from China, Korea and Thailand. “They come looking for all kinds of Asian food, so we started stocking Thai ingredients, even though we don’t know anything about Thai food,” said Chisaka.
Frequent customer Hugh McElroy told UrbanTurf that he always finds tofu, napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and a particularly spongy Udon at Hana.
“But I also find something new or unfamiliar to try almost every time. And they greet me in Japanese.”