Celebrate All Things Noodles at the First-Ever Noodle Fest Hawai‘i on Saturday
Eat dishes from all over the world, race to eat the most udon or see if you can finish a bowl of spicy noodles at this festival at Ward Village.
Shiro’s Saimin Haven will be serving its popular won ton min at Noodle Fest Hawai‘i on Saturday, March 24 at Ward Village.
Photos: Courtesy of Noodle Fest Hawai‘i
The parking lot outside Shiro’s Saimin Haven at Waimalu Shopping Center has never been the best—except now, with half of it under construction, it’s even worse. Nearly half of the stalls are blocked off, and getting in and out of the lot is more stressful than sitting in traffic on Fort Weaver Road during rush hour.
Still, the old-fashioned saimin stand, which opened in 1969 by Franz “Shiro” Matsuo, is still packed at lunch, with loyal customers seeking out the restaurant’s more than 60 different versions of the dish that’s still made the way Matsuo did for decades. (He passed away in 2012.)
“We’re very lucky to have loyal customers brave the parking lot and everything else going on out there,” says Bryce Fujimoto, 36, general manager of this location, catering manager and grandson of Matsuo.
Saimin is a comfort-food staple in Hawai‘i, dating back to the early days of the sugar- and pineapple-plantation era, when immigrant laborers cooked noodles with whatever they had on hand. Saimin stands popped up all over the Islands in the 1930s, serving steaming bowls of this humble dish: curly, chewy egg noodles in a hot dashi made from shrimp and kombu and garnished with kamaboko, char siu pork, Spam and green onions.
While there aren’t as many of these stands today as there were decades ago, the love for saimin—and all noodle dishes—remains strong.
That’s the impetus behind the first-ever Noodle Fest Hawai‘i, presented by Sun Noodle, on Saturday, March 24, at Ward Village. The free festival, which runs from 3 to 9 p.m., will feature a dozen restaurant booths showcasing noodle dishes from around the world. There will be Vietnamese pho from The Pig & The Lady, oxtail ramen from Asahi Grill, chicken pad thai from Maile’s Thai Bistro, pancit from Elena’s Filipino Food and Osaka-style ramen from Tonkotsu Kazan. Shiro’s, which rarely participates in festivals, will be there, too, serving three types of its popular won ton min.
“Noodles just made sense,” says Tyler Hiranaka, president of the Hawai‘i chapter of the Junior Chamber International, which is organizing the event. “In Hawai‘i, we have such a diverse culture … and there are a lot of Hawai‘i-inspired dishes like saimin.”
Sweet Creams is serving this unique Ramen Bowl, a rolled ice cream treat with a Biscoff cookie base, 100 percent Maikai coffee “soup,” “kamaboko” mochi, white chocolate and M&M “eggs," coconut flake “onegi” and Pocky “chopsticks.”
Shiro’s had to shift gears a few years ago when rail construction along Kamehameha Highway started to impact business. It closed its Waipahu location and switched from a high-volume, quick-turnover restaurant to something more in line with its name: a haven.
“We were known as a turn-and-burn; we could turn over a lot of customers very quickly in a short amount of time,” Fujimoto says. “But because of traffic and rail and the parking lot, we can still turn it over very quickly, but we’re now trying to create a place where people can come in, hang out and relax, not feel rushed, a place to escape that traffic and other things that stress them out.”
Fujimoto has tried to make changes to the menu, including adding seafood dishes, but those just didn’t work. He found sticking to what they do best—made-from-scratch noodles and broth still crafted with Matsuo’s original recipes—is what people want. The restaurant still makes a lot of its menu in-house from scratch, including its gravy, teriyaki sauce, hamburger patties, kālua pig, beef stew, roasts and lau lau.
“We tried to do all these creative specials, but I realized that’s not what people were coming here for,” Fujimoto says. “We realized if it ain’t broke, we not fixing it.”