At Payao, the fish is as fresh as it gets
There are plenty of quality seafood restaurants in Okinawa, but the freshest fish around comes from a guy named Tuna.
Welcome to Payao, a small restaurant that shares a building with Awase’s fish market in Okinawa city, nestled among the bins of striking red, blue-green and yellow fish on ice, buckets of blue crab and shelf upon shelf of the freshest seafood around.
It is not uncommon to see fish and crabs being weighed, gutted and cleaned on your way to your table.
“The sushi is something you should not forget to try,” said Payao’s manager, Katsuo Higa, whose first name literally translates to “tuna.” “It is very fresh.”
Payao has been just off Route 85 for about 20 years, serving up heaping portions of lobster, sushi, tempura and fish soup to approximately 1,000 customers daily, Higa said. The restaurant is a favorite haunt of locals looking for quantity and quality at a low cost. It is equally popular with foreign visitors who want the true Okinawan culinary experience.
Because of the sheer numbers they serve, Payao sends out meals at a lightning pace. It is not unusual to collect your change from the cashier, only to look down to see your food steaming, already waiting for pick-up. The key is to wait for a table, which can be hard to come by, both indoors and out, before ordering.
The fish served at Payao comes directly from Okinawan waters. The tuna and mahi-mahi come from a nearby artificial reef called Phayao, which lends its name to the restaurant.
The most popular item on the menu is bata yaki, a thin fish that’s deep-fried in butter, Higa said. Price depends on the daily market rates.
Fish soup is popular among the locals and comes with most sets. You can also order it by itself for 800 yen.
The 1,500-yen sushi set is as good as you can get on the island, and features staples like tuna, squid and shrimp. The fish was light and seemed to melt in my mouth. It was apparent it had never known a freezer.
In typical Okinawan belt-busting fashion, the sushi set also comes with batter-fried squid and fish tempura and soup.
Fish soup and a tuna bowl for 1,300 yen will provide you with more food than any one person can handle. The tuna was delightful, coming in large chunks, slathered with soy sauce and served on a bed of white rice. Like the sushi, it was light and seemed to melt away once it was introduced to my palate.
The soup was delicious, with a robust and flavorful broth spiced to perfection with white fish that fell off the bone.
The local lobsters are most popular with the throngs of Chinese tourists who come through Payao’s doors each day. Lobster can cost anywhere from 2,300 yen to 5,300 yen depending on the set and how many people plan to dig in.
Not into the raw fish? Payao also serves seared tuna plates for 1,200 yen, tempura plates for 850 yen and tempura and fish soup for 1,600 yen.
It also offers bowls of fish mixed with egg, rice and vegetables.
You can also pop in for take-out of sushi or tempura from the market.
English menus are available.
Payao and its market are closed during typhoons, but are open most other days. They close for the three-day New Year holiday and for the two days after Okinawa’s Obon festival.
Payao isn’t the greatest restaurant in the world and feels a lot like a cafeteria at a pier; however, the quality of its ingredients speak for itself and are hard to compete with.
Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. October through March and until 6 p.m. in the summer. The fish market opens at 10:30 a.m. each day.
Prices: Meal sets are generally under 2,000 yen (about $20) per person. The exceptions are sets containing local lobster, which can cost anywhere from 2,300 yen to 5,300 yen.