In Search of the Ultimate Noodle

There’s no more passionate debate about food in Honolulu than between the partisan supporters of each noodle shop.


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Tenkaippin Ramen serves four different broths with its ramen.  This is the assari, "light," though it's anything but light in flavor.

Photo by Linny Morris

 

The center of Hawaii’s ramen universe is not some boutique noodle house in a major shopping center. Nor is it a narrow counter half-hidden in some back alley. 

The center of Hawaii’s ramen universe is on truck-clogged Colburn Street in Kalihi Kai, near the prison.

Your bowl of ramen starts here, as a 10-inch-wide spool of dough. The spool winds through one, two, three, four sets of rollers, pinched thinner and thinner. Finally, it’s sliced into thin strands. The cutting machine makes the strands a little squiggly, so the noodles appear handcut.

Welcome to the Sun Noodle Factory, turning  out 11,000 pounds of fresh noodles a day. That means that the noodles in virtually every bowl of ramen in Honolulu—even in noodle shops that may make a few noodles in the front to amuse the customers—leave Sun Noodle in a five-ounce plastic bag.

The restaurant rips open the bag, drops the noodles in the broth for two minutes—and there you go. It’s a cultural icon, it’s the movie Tampopo, it’s the world’s international dish, second perhaps only to French fries.

If you’re eating fresh ramen noodles in a ramenya—as opposed to instant noodles in a cup—they are likely from Sun. No fear, however, that doesn’t mean the noodles in every bowl of Honolulu ramen are exactly the same.
Hidehito Uki makes 30 different kinda of ramen noodles at Sun Noodle, each designed to fit a particular broth.

Photo by Linny Morris

 
Hidehito Uki, the owner of Sun Noodle, is nothing if not accomodating. He makes 30 different kinds of ramen noodles, all from basically the same ingredients—flour, water, salt and potassium carbonate.

Potassium carbonate? The yellow color in ramen noodles is not from eggs. It’s what happens when the wheat hits mineral salts, originally from well water, now from 25- pound bags of white powder.

Even saimin noodles—Sun Noodles bought S&S Saimin four years ago—are made from the same  ingredients. However, says Uki, whose knowledge of noodles is encyclopedic, for saimin you need an old-fashioned wheat flour with a higher ash count. For udon, Australian wheat is good; but for ramen noodles, you need high-protein wheat from Canada.
 

Photo by Linny morris

“You have to have right noodle for the soup,” he says. Ramen, he points out, is a heavy, meaty food—“animal” is how he puts it. But soups vary all over town, and Uki is willing to work with any genuine ramenya—though he absolutely refuses to say which shop is his favorite and, in fact, begs me not to name all his customers, some of whom like to give the impression their noodles are housemade.

Still, Uki is clearly Honolulu’s master of the noodle. He’ll make multiple batches in his special test mixer, eat noodles three and four times a day,  till he gets the right noodle for the shop’s ramen broth.

It’s not science, it’s art. He has golden tastebuds. He’s learned over the years: “If I like it, people like it, think it’s good product.”
 
So I went out to discover if those people included me. I hit half a dozen ramenya. Despite the distractions they offered—gyoza, karaage and banbanji chicken, beer, sake—I stayed focused on the soup and noodles.
 
 
Goma Ichi Ramen
631 Keeaumoku St.  // 951-6666 // 926-5050 // Monday to Saturday lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m. // Limited free parking on Makaloa St.  // Cash only

There’s no more passionate debate about ramen in Honolulu than between partisans of Goma Ichi and Goma Tei.

Goma Ichi was the first of  the boutique ramenya in Honolulu, opening 13 years ago. The partners split, one of whom later opened Goma Tei in Ward Centre.

The two restaurants are quite similar—which may be the source of the passionate disputes over which is better. I mentioned to someone that I thought the tantan broth at Goma Ichi was monodimensional. She told someone else and within 10 minutes that person was upbraiding me, both on my lack of discernment and my character.
 
Oh Lord, I thought, it’s just noodles in soup. At least let me explain myself.

Ramen broths tend to have two layers of flavor. First there’s the broth (base: chicken and pork bones, vegetables), then you add something else. To get tantan broth, for instance, you add sesame oil, goma being the Japanese term for sesame seeds. Specifically, you add a healthy dose of red-pepper-infused sesame oil, with predictably warming results.
 
The tantan at Goma Ichi was its signature dish—a rich, burnished orange broth, opaque with emulsified pork fat and sesame oil, a rim of oil around the blue and white bowl.
 
 

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