An Upper Tumon mainstay, Benii has reigned as one of Guam’s best-loved Japanese restaurant for more than a decade. Opening in 2006 with just 24 seats, the restaurant was a quick hit and lines were soon out the door, prompting multiple expansions, now landing Benii at around 160 seats with a formidable menu featuring just about every Japanese dish you can think of.
Helmed by local architect Jae Ji and head chef Cayama Okitaka, the pair’s expertise is evident from the moment you walk in. With antique teapots lining the walls, soft white paper lanterns bobbing overhead and a sushi rotary spinning in the middle of it all, Japanese culture and cuisine is at heart of Benii, thanks to two head chefs hailing from Guam’s neighbor across the Philippine Sea.
Both Cayama and fellow chef Ryota Nakajima are originally from Japan. Cayama brings a well-rounded skill set to the restaurant after leading the kitchen at another Guam restaurant before opening Benii. He also spent years in culinary training in Japan, where he learned about all sorts of cuisines, including French and Italian. Nakajima on the other hand is a hand-rolled sushi expert, Ji shared.
Ji, originally brought on as the restaurant’s architect, is a co-owner, but refers to himself as the “secretary,” as he takes care of the administrative side of the restaurant, leaving Cayama and Nakajima to focus on their food.
“I do mostly development and construction,” Ji said of his background - Benii is his first and only foray into food and beverage. “They asked me to help them ... design and build the original one-bay space, which only had the 24 seats, and I did, and they had problems getting a contractor so then all the sudden I helped build out the space and when all was said and done, I said I don’t mind being a business partner.”
Ji spoke highly of his business partner, saying that the restaurant’s success was all Cayama’s doing. Though if you ask Cayama, he’ll say it’s all because of Nakajima, who brought his expert sushi knowledge straight from Japan.
Says Ji of their humble beginnings, “I liked the chef, Cayama-san, so I said look, I’ll be a partner but I’m not going to do anything in the restaurant,” but, “I’ll probably be the best customer.”
“And by the way I’m not Japanese,” Ji noted. “(Cayama and Nakajima) are Japanese, I’m Korean. Hence I don’t know how to - well, I don’t know how to cook Korean food either,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t cook if my life depended on it ... . “It’s all about the chef.”
The rest was history - in a matter of months Benii took off, with people lining up outside for a seat in the 24-seater. Ji soon got back to work expanding the restaurant, which can now comfortably seat approximately 160 people.
The menu is as extensive as their current seating arrangements, and the dishes follow suit with generous portions, with salads and sushi rolls that could easily feed two.
You’ll find ramen, bento boxes, Japanese curry, teppanyaki, sashimi and every kind of sushi roll imaginable at Benii.
“We have pretty much all of the traditional foods,” Ji said. “Yakisoba, udon, ramen, as well as set dishes. And also other fusion cuisine items that are specific to the restaurant that Cayama-san has created.”
The Dragon roll is a mouthful, with crispy shrimp tempura and avocado wrapped in sushi rice and seaweed, all topped with barbecued eel, a sweet and smoky addition that adds a pop of flavor to the dish.
Benii offers several tempting vegetarian options too, including the Tofu Salad (just request it without the tuna on top), featuring a soft, white tofu reminiscent of the texture of mozzarella cheese atop a bed of crunchy iceberg lettuce.
Benii’s biggest seller, however, is “anything tempura,” according to Ji. While Ji says he stays away from fried food, tempura, at least at Benii, sits much lighter in the stomach compared to most battered foods, instead adding a delicious buttery flavor and slight crunch to shrimp, veggies and even onion rings.
Unsurprisingly, Benii is a hit with everyone. Ji said their customer base is an even split among locals, the military crowd and tourists, and that they are seeing more and more families stop in during their vacations. It seems Benii will continue to reign in Upper Tumon for many more years to come.