Dining options on Okinawa remain limited for service members barred from indoor dining thanks to the coronavirus.
Co-Lab Kitchen, short for “Collaboration Kitchen,” is next to Legend Sports Heroes at the Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom in Kitanakagusuku.
Like a siren song, a large sign out front advertising cheap, all-you-can-drink specials beckons weary consumers and Americans looking for a pandemic pause. The restaurant patio is a rare oasis in what has become a virtual food desert.
From the outside, Co-Lab is underwhelming and a bit confusing. Its sign reads “sports and dining” and on a night in mid-November, a football match played on overhead television sets spread throughout. But the decor also includes streetlamps, pirates’ portraits on the walls next to burlap coffee sacks and a massive, fake tree rising through the center of the restaurant. A ping-pong team banner hangs in one corner.
In the plus column, the restaurant seems brand new. It was well-lit, warm and cozy with stained woods, shining surfaces and nooks spread asunder. The massive front window opens into the dining room, so those seated outside don’t have to feel completely shut out.
Flipping through Co-Lab’s expansive menu, it’s easy to see they fancy themselves as the local pub, a gathering place where large groups can share small plates and drink together. In normal times, that spirit hits the spot for pretty much any demographic.
Co-Lab specializes in grilled meats and Mediterranean-style tapas: mushrooms, pickled peppers and radishes, bruschetta, horse meat and salmon carpaccio, prosciutto, pate, canapes, tofu, ajillo and skillets. They also offer pizza, pasta and fried appetizers. The other half of the menu is dedicated to alcoholic beverages.
The assortment appetizer for 1,480 yen was as tasty as it was diverse. It came with pate and saltines, prosciutto, smoked salmon, mushrooms in a delicious, savory dressing and homemade pickled vegetables. It tasted like it had come from an authentic Italian kitchen.
The bacon and mustard potato salad for 480 yen had ample bacon and packed a flavorful mustard punch. Sea urchin and kimchi varieties are also available.
The Co-Lab pizza is personal sized for 1,080 yen. Half-and-half pies are available.
We tried half salmon and cream cheese and half teriyaki chicken and mayo. As far as Japanese pizza is concerned, it was really good. Both sides were clean and crispy, cooked to perfection.
The salmon and cream cheese offered a flavor that was new to me and quite delicious. The chicken teriyaki, not surprisingly, tasted of teriyaki, but with no sauce or mayo to be seen, just a balanced profile of flavored meat, cheese and crisp crust.
The rump and aitchbone steak, part of the sirloin, for 1,380 yen was soft and juicy, cooked medium. It came on a board, sliced, with rock salt and Japanese steak sauce. But the star of the show was the grilled pork miso for 980 yen. It was tender, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth succulent, with a tinge of savory miso flavor, the best piece of pork I can ever remember eating.
Co-Lab’s pork is the result of a collaboration between the eatery and the local Fukumaru Farm, according to the menu. Fukumaru has long experimented with feeding its pigs different things to influence the taste of the meat. It found that a diet of sugar cane, purple sweet potatoes and herbs, all local to Okinawa, gave the meat beautiful marbling and a special flavor. It made the fat almost gelatinous when cooked so that it melts in the mouth.
Fukumaru calls it Kibimaru-Ton, which has since won Japanese food awards. It more than lived up to its reputation.
The cheapest cut on the menu is the braised roast Kibimaru-Ton pork for 780 yen. Co-Lab also offers mixed grill platters for between 2,980 and 5,780 yen.
Salads include items like crab and prosciutto and cost up to 880 yen. A variety of pasta dishes with clams or eggplant cost up to 1,280 yen. Soft drinks, cocktails and wine range from 480 to 580 yen. Co-Lab also offers set menus starting at 2,980 yen per person that include eight food items and two hours of all-you-can-drink, until 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Sitting outside the restaurant made me long for the days of normalcy, the days before the pandemic. Yet it also made me thankful for places like Co-Lab, where I can pull up a chair, share a laugh over a good meal and a drink and forget the world for a while.
Location: Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom, Higa, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami District, Okinawa 901-2305. GPS 26.314869, 127.797595
Directions: You’ll find it in the northeast corner of the island’s most acclaimed mall, at the intersection of Routes 330 and 85, between Camp Foster and Kadena Air Base.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Prices: The average dinner bill per customer is between 2,001 yen and 3,000 yen, according to the Co-Lab website.
Information: 098-923-2622; Online: colab-kitchen.owst.jp/en