Awaji Izakaya

By / Photography By & | April 27, 2024
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A scene from the often busy front bar.

In January of 2023, chef Richard Ly quietly opened Awaji Izakaya and simultaneously tightened up local sushi standards that had been on the slide.

He didn’t do it in a cool downtown locale or in an entertainment district carved out of historic buildings. Ly built his izakaya, named for an island on Osaka Bay’s southwest coast, out of ancient Godfather’s Pizza bones surrounded by a sea of bedroom communities closer to Okarche than Norman.

Awaji opened before JK by Chef King, and together they’ve helped local sushi fans cope with the loss of Tsubaki Sushi and Gun Izakaya during the pandemic.

Despite a location nowhere near where the cool kids hang, Awaji is booked solid on weekends. A little over a year since taking the biggest leap of his life, the 50-year-old Ly is hosting omakase dinners and drawing the attention of the city’s top chefs at the unlikely culinary hot spot of Rockwell and NW 122nd Street, without selling chicken-fried steak.

In Japan, izayakas are the local tapas bars and happy hour haunts. Awaji serves the expected otsumami plates like yakitori, Furikake Fries, and a Tuna Tartare that shows up on several shareable plates. It also offers signature cocktails, classic Japanese highballs, and the beer and whiskey expected at an izakaya.

Awaji adds a full sushi program, but location dictates the restaurant must appeal to families for survival. It does that with hearty noodle soups, entrees, a kids menu, and five kinds of dessert. The Beef Short Rib Udon built on a dashi broth and umami-fied by shii-take mushrooms isn’t to be missed. Ly’s menu also includes Beef Tenderloin Teriyaki, Ahi Tuna steak, filet mignon, and a surf and turf option.

Ly came to Oklahoma City in 2013. That was the same year Tsubaki opened in a tiny space less than two miles from where Awaji stands. Despite being adjacent to a gas station, Tsubaki reset local sushi standards and a boom followed; a boom Patrick Mok wanted to join by opening Café Icon in Edmond. To do it, he recruited Ly from Dallas.

Ly was with Café Icon three years before he took a job at P.F. Chang’s. Four years there didn’t improve his sushi game, but it did hone his operations skills. When Hal Smith Restaurants tapped him to install the distinctive sushi program at Jimmy B’s in 2020, he was armed and ready.

“I ended up as executive chef and general manager,” he says. “That got me ready to do my own thing better than anything else could.”

Ly grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and landed in the food-service industry after a brief period selling computers during the PC boom of the 1990s. He proved himself managing a Chinese restaurant that turned into an opportunity to learn sushi technique from chef Kazuaki Miyagi at Kampai Sushi and Grill in Addison, Texas, back in 1999. He was four-years deep at Umeko in Plano, where he learned lobster sashimi technique, when Mok called.

“After I left Café Icon, we were gonna move back to Dallas but found it too expensive,” he says.

Ly first learned classic Okinawan-style sushi from chef Miyagi. Running his own kitchen for Miyagi from 2002 to 2006, he expanded his arsenal of techniques.

“I had nobody above me, nobody to tell me what to do, except when I had questions, I’d just call Miyagi,” he says. “So, I really learned traditional Okinawa-style sushi. The Okinawa style is different from Tokyo. The press-style sushi we did at Jimmy B’s is from Tokyo.”

He remains close with his mentor at HSR, corporate chef Brad Johnson.

“He texts all the time and is in here a couple of times a week,” Ly says. “I learned a ton from him, still do. He hired me because he knew I had knife skills, but now if he’s trying to work out a problem with Asian flavors, he calls me.”

Ly has a partnership with a husband and wife who are both aerospace engineers. They designed the restaurant and handle social media. Plans for long-term growth exist, but Ly’s sights are set closer.

“I started with a two-page menu, and now it’s a four-page menu,” he said. “We were really slow at first, and that was a way to just get the kinks out before adding more. I still feel like there are kinks to work out. We’re in no hurry.”

The most Oklahoma item on Ly’s menu is the Volcano Roll. Whether you call it Volcano or Red Canyon, we’re talking about a classic California Roll covered in crawfish and shrimp dressed in spicy mayonnaise. Sushi aficionados turn their nose up at it. However, Ly’s version is so objectively delicious only the willfully obtuse would turn it down.

The high point is no doubt the Nigiri rolls, among the 30 or so sushi presentations Awaji offers. Not since Tsubaki have I come across rice seasoned as beautifully as Awaji’s.

“As far as sushi, I try to strive for just being different,” says Ly. “I do what I know best, branch off a little bit and hope for the best.”

> Awaji Izakaya, 12305 N. Rockwell Ave., Oklahoma City, (405) 367.7360,


Photo 1: Awaji Izakaya’s cozy tables.
Photo 2: Tuna Tartare, Rainbow Rolls, Crawfish Volcano, Pork dumplings, and Beef Short Rib Udon Noodle Soup.
Tuna Tartare, Rainbow Rolls, Crawfish Volcano, Pork dumplings, and Beef Short Rib Udon Noodle Soup.
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