A Hidden Gem Opens up in the Honolulu Medical Arts Building
The popular Yataimura vendor Junpuu serves its own brand of tonkotsu ramen and house-made gyoza.
The tantan men is one of the more popular bowls at Junpuu, which opened this week at the Honolulu Medical Arts Building.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
It may seem like an odd place for a restaurant, on the bottom floor of the Honolulu Medical Arts Building on the corner of King and Victoria streets.
For 14 years, it was Le Guignol, a quaint French eatery with classic dishes like boeuf du jour and foie de veau. And then it was occupied by the farm-to-table restaurant W Bistro for about a year.
And then last week, a new ramen-ya quietly set up shop there, serving a unique kind of tonkotsu, a rich, creamy pork broth from Japan’s Kyushu region.
Junpuu was one of three ramen-ya—not including the occasional pop-ups—at Shirokiya’s Yataimura food court. But, with Shirokiya moving to the ‘Ewa Wing of Ala Moana Center this year, Junpuu’s owner Eiji Kato decided to find his own space.
Fans of the ramen-ya will be happy to know that Kato is serving the same dishes at this new spot, including the popular spicy miso ramen, tomato ramen and spicy cheese gyoza.
He spent three months renovating the restaurant, which now has a spacious, modern feel. The indoor seating area has five tables and a long communal table that seats 10, all made from wood and iron pipes—very steam punk—by a local designer. There are a few tables outside, too.
The interior of the ramen-ya is spacious and modern. The focal point is the communal table, which seats up to 10.
We got to the restaurant at 6:30 p.m., after browsing the Honolulu Farmers Market across the street at the Blaisdell Center. There was just one other couple, already finished with their bowls of ramen. Kato’s family occupied another table. John Mayer’s rendition of “Free Fallin’” wafted from an iPhone connected to a speaker.
We ordered the two most popular ramen dishes—spicy miso ramen ($10.50) and the tantan men ($10.50).
The base of the dashi for the ramen served here is pork bones simmered for 16 hours. (“I haven’t gotten the gas bill yet,” Kato says, laughing. “I’m kinda worried.”) The result is a rich, buttery, creamy broth that’s intensely porky and slick with fat. It’s the perfect meal on a cold, windy night (like last night). The chewy noodles are all custom made by local manufacturer Sun Noodle.
The spicy miso ramen is a great bowl of noodles, with bamboo shoots and tender char siu squares that boast ample fat and flavor. The miso flavor is mellow and balances the chilies, though spicy-food fanatics wouldn’t consider this very spicy at all.
The spicy miso ramen was a favorite when Junpuu was at Shirokiya. It’s served here, along with the shop’s signature char siu.
The tantan men here has that bold goma (sesame) flavor I love, smooth and almost peanut buttery. Instead of char siu, this bowl has bits of spicy pork and spinach.
For $10, you get a hefty portion of ramen that’s sure to satisfy. But, if you want more, you can upsize to a large for an extra $1.50. And you can add more toppings and extras, such as the ajitama egg ($1.50), blackened garlic oil (50 cents) and extra char siu ($2).
We wound up getting served our appetizer—spicy cheese gyoza ($6 for six pieces)—last, which was fine with us. It took so long because the gyoza—like everything here—is house-made and cooked to order. The delicate, pork-filled dumplings are pan-fried, then topped with spicy pork (the same mixture from the tantan men) and slightly melted Parmesan cheese. It was a delicious combination.
Who knew spicy pork and melted Parmesan cheese would work on gyoza?
Tonkotsu purists might scoff at Kato’s offerings, calling them inauthentic. And that’s partially true. Kato, who grew in Tokyo but has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, came up with his own brand of ramen from his experience working at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka and just experimenting on his own.
“I love eating good food,” he says, “but [living on the Mainland] I had to cook that myself.”
He moved to Hawai‘i 12 years ago, after living in Vermont and Texas. He got a job working as a server, then kitchen manager at Shokudo Japanese Restaurant & Bar for four years. He wanted to learn how to make authentic Japanese ramen, so he worked in the kitchen at Santouka for a year before branching out on his own.
The almond jelly is everything you love about an almond float but with the consistency of haupia. The goji berry on top is a nice touch.
The Junpuu menu is still evolving, he says. He plans on adding more appetizers and desserts. We sampled the almond jelly ($3.50) that his wife had made. It has the consistency of haupia, smooth and light, but with that distinct almond flavor.
If his additions are anything like what he’s already serving, his menu will only get better.
And with free parking—Junpuu offering validation for up to an hour in the adjacent lot (after hours is free) and there’s also street parking—we’ll definitely be back.
1010 S King St. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday.