Honolulu's Freshest Noodles
Meet the noodle makers rolling out the Island’s nicest noodles by hand... and foot!
For a city that loves noodles as much as Honolulu does, it’s surprising that more eateries don’t offer the genuine, fresh, made-from-scratch variety. But there are a handful of places where such a noodle is the norm, and HONOLULU went behind the scenes with the noodle makers to see how it’s done.
Shige’s Saimin Stand
Shige’s Saimin Stand in Wahiawa makes its saimin noodles from scratch because that’s the way the Shigeoka family has always made its saimin.
Ross Shigeoka’s grandparents sold saimin for 25 cents a bowl at the Haleiwa saimin stand they opened in the 1950s. As a kid, Ross saw his grandfather produce batch after batch of noodles from a little, Japanese, tabletop noodle-making machine. Shortly after Ross and his wife, JoAnn, opened Shige’s Saimin Stand in 1990, they found a vintage 1950s noodle-making machine. It is almost identical to Ross’s grandfather’s, only much larger. It stands on the floor, as big and sturdy as an engine block, and it makes considerably more noodles at one time.
A batch of Shige’s noodles begins with eggs, water, a 15-pound bag of Gold Medal all-purpose flour and JoAnn’s small but powerful hands. She plunges into the ingredients up to her forearms, working and kneading until she’s got a wheel of dough shaped like the flat bottom of her enormous mixing bowl. She then flattens the dough so that it’s long and thin enough to feed into the machine for even more flattening. Instead of a rolling pin, she uses a heavily weighted piece of black plastic plumbing pipe, which is longer than she is tall. Ross’s grandfather used a bamboo pole at this stage, but modern plumbing material is far more durable.
Years of making dough this way have left JoAnn with nicely toned arms and shoulders. “People always ask if I go to the gym, and I say, ‘No, I make noodles,’” she says.
The Shigeoka’s noodle-making machine predates the age of putting finger guards on dangerous machinery, and ever since the machine crushed three of JoAnn’s fingers, she has left the next step in the process to Ross: feeding the dough through the machine’s rapidly spinning rollers. Ross runs the dough through the rollers more than a dozen times, until he’s got one very long, noodle-thin strip rolled up on a spool.
He then affixes a cutting attachment to the machine, feeds the dough through the rollers one final time and uses scissors to snip the emerging strands down to noodle length.
The bucket Ross fills with snipped noodles then goes to the sorting table, where Ross’s mother and father are stationed, with their television. The elder Shigeokas separate the noodles into three-ounce, ready-to-cook servings, never seeming to take their eyes off their Korean soap operas or game shows as they work.
Ross once experimented with a cutting attachment that creates a thinner noodle, but his customers complained that the saimin didn’t taste the same. He hasn’t messed with tradition since. The customers seem to like it that way, just as they must like Shige’s time-warp prices: $4.25 for a small bowl of saimin, $2.10 for a hamburger, $1.80 for a grilled cheese sandwich.
Some of Shige’s regulars are second-generation customers, the children of people whose own parents brought them there when they were kids. Shige’s is in such an out-of-the-way location, with zero street visibility, that if it wasn’t for this kind of loyalty, nobody would ever eat there. As it is, that isn’t a problem.
“We could put this place in a gulch,” Ross says, “and people would find it.” 70 Kukui St., 621-3621.
The sign above Jimbo restaurant, the popular udon house on South King Street, reads “Fresh Noodles Daily,” and it’s not kidding. Jimbo makes udon by hand seven days a week, though, since the traditional way to prepare udon involves stomping the dough, you could also say Jimbo makes udon every day by foot.
One of Jimbo’s cooks dedicates an entire eight-hour shift to producing the ropey, white noodles that lunch and dinner customers slurp down by the bowlful.
The dough has just two ingredients: salt water and wheat flour. The flour has a high gluten content, but if it’s not prepared just so, the udon won’t have its characteristic chewiness. The stomping process is, pardon the pun, a key step. Skip the stomp and the noodle won’t hold up to the bite. Stomp too much and you might be chewing it forever. So after the dough is mixed and left to rest, but before it’s rolled and cut into actual noodles, the cook slides a five-pound blob of it into a plastic bag, drops it on the floor, and gives it a stomping.
“For him, five times step,” says Jimbo proprietor Naoki “Jim” Motojima, referring to his 200-pound Micronesian cook, Martine, who gives his dough precisely five good stomps. Smaller cooks have to stomp a little more.
Motojima opened Jimbo in 1994, after spending two years in his native Japan learning how to make udon. He started as an apprentice to a master udon maker, who, Motojima says, was brilliant with noodles but had a wicked temper and a horrible gambling habit. After a few months of verbal abuse, and wondering if he would get paid, Motojima went to work for a big Japanese chain that specializes in udon. In his spare time, he embarked on a quest to expose his palate to Japan’s many udon variations, and find what he liked best.
As with ramen, each region in Japan puts its own spin on udon. Motojima ate all of it, identifying the subtle variations and developing opinions. The differences throughout Japan can be extreme. The city of Ise, for instance, makes a noodle as fat as a thumb and so soft you can gum it without teeth. Kagawa Prefecture, on the other hand, makes a noodle so chewy it wears out your jaw.
Motojima prefers the middle ground, chewy but not too chewy. “Too soft I don’t like, but I don’t want to 36 times bite one noodle,” he says. “My teeth is not strong.”
Motojima says that his udon is most similar to that of the island of Shikoku, where udon is eaten every day. His broth resembles the Osaka style, though it’s not as sweet. His dipping sauce, for cold noodles, is most influenced by the black dipping sauces of Tokyo and Osaka. In effect, Jimbo’s udon is unique unto itself, a South King Street hybrid.
“For me, my target is udon to make happy for Island people,” he says. 1936 King St., 947-2211.
Each evening Town restaurant in Kaimuki offers a hand-cut pasta dish on its ever changing menu, and each day the sauté chef who will be preparing the evening’s pasta dish comes in early to make the noodles.
“We just kind of feel that anything we make in-house, we would probably be able to produce better than anything we would be able to buy,” says Dave Caldiero, Town’s chef de cuisine and head noodle maker.
Caldiero brings to Town the pasta pedigree of an Italian kid from Queens raised on his grandmother’s homemade noodles. While he was too young at the time to pick up any pointers from her, he did sleep on the couch for the cause. “When my grandmother came over she wouldn’t have anywhere to dry her pasta, so she would dry it in the sheets of my bed,” he says.
While the cut of pasta on Town’s menu changes nightly, the recipe for the dough generally remains the same: equal parts coarse semolina flour and fine type 00 flour, one egg for each cup of flour, extra virgin olive oil and water. After the dough’s mixed and rested, it’s fed through a shiny stainless steel electric pasta machine, which, after several passes, produces a single band of dough several yards long.
Using a knife, the chef slices the noodles directly from this band. The width of the cut depends on what the noodle will go with. If it’s something hearty, perhaps roasted eggplant and dandelion greens in a chili-flake tomato sauce, the cut may be about a centimeter in width, creating a fettuccinelike tagliatelle. If it’s something delicate, like a bottarga made from the roe of mahi-mahi, then an angel-hair-thin tajarin might be in order. In the fall, when the ragu and bolognese sauces appear, the one-inch-wide pappardelle noodles do as well.
Whatever the case, the pasta noodle at Town is no mere starch component. It’s the star of the pasta show.
“The main thing that you’re eating pasta for is the pasta,” says sous chef Alika Chung, one of Town’s regular noodle makers. “Sauces and condiments are the supporting actors.”
With the joy of fresh pasta also comes a certain challenge for diners—eating it all while it’s still hot. Fresh pasta soaks up sauces more quickly and thoroughly than dried pasta, and, if it’s not eaten right away, the dish can turn bricklike.
“It’s not like eating other pasta,” Chung says. “It’s a completely different experience. It’s a sin to let pasta get cold. When it’s served, the best thing to do is shut up and eat until your pasta is gone.” 3435 Waialae Ave., 735-5900, townkaimuki.com.
Ying Long Look Funn
As the name implies, the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory makes look funn, the broad, flat rice noodle. This is the only noodle the factory produces, although it does it in three different ways: plain, with green onion and char siu, or with green onion and dried shrimp. Ying Leong’s look funn is served at nearly 100 Chinese restaurants around Honolulu, including Legend, Fook Yuen, and the Panda Express at Ala Moana Center. There’s a good chance that, if you’ve eaten Chinese on this island, you’ve crossed paths with this noodle.
The noodle making here is old school and labor intensive. It involves four to eight workers, all from China and mostly women. They start at 4:30 a.m., setting four cauldrons of water to boil, preparing orders made the day before for delivery, and making the cheong, the milky slurry of rice, water and corn starch from which that day’s look funn will be made. They work in hairnets, white aprons and well-coordinated flurries of activity. “They’re all synchronized,” says Daniel Chee, son of the factory’s long-time director, Foo Ying Chee. “Basically, they’re like a running machine.”
The only actual machine involved is the industrial grinder that pulverizes the raw long grain rice that goes into the cheung. Workers ladle the cheong onto sheet trays slathered with melted Crisco, then stack the trays into tall towers over the boiling cauldrons. A hood resembling a grain silo hangs by a rope-and-pulley system over each cauldron, and once the trays are stacked the hood is lowered and left in place for 15 minutes.
After the trays have been thoroughly steamed, the workers roll up the rectangular sheets of look funn, brush them with more melted Crisco (who says a noodle can’t be a fat bomb?), and pile them up like so many extra-long burritos. Unless a restaurant requests otherwise, the look funn is delivered like this, to be sliced into noodle widths just before going into whatever dish it’s destined for.
The factory’s output ranges from about 800 to 1,200 pounds per day, with individual restaurants placing orders for anywhere from eight pounds to more than 100 pounds of noodle at a time. You can also buy look funn over the counter, $1 for plain or $1.40 for the char siu or dried shrimp.
When the factory opened in the 1940s, it was located around the corner on King Street and it had a different name. Foo Ying Chee took over in 1968, when the original owners grew too old to continue, renamed it after himself and his father, and moved to the current location in 1973. When illness sidelined Chee last November, his wife and son stepped in to run the operation. They don’t plan to make any changes.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you get a machine to do this?’” says Mrs. Chee. “But that’s not as good. Our way makes it more tasty.” 1028 Kekaulike St., Chinatown, 537-4304.