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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What I mean by monodimensional is this. The first bite is wow wow wow. The second just one wow. Every subsequent bite is more of the same—a warm nutty burn, nice in its way, but fatiguing to the palate.

Now that Goma Tei also serves a tantan broth, the owner of Goma Ichi, Hiroyuki Kimura, has come up with a new soup, sunghonmen. There’s a base here of tantan, plus rich undertones of pork bone and chicken, but also the zing of vinegar.
 
The two restaurants are quite similar—which may be the source of passionate disputes over which is better.

Sunghonmen has an array of flavors like a Chinese or Thai hot and sour soup. It’s far from monodimensional, it just keeps bouncing around, refreshing your palate.

A bowl of zasai sunghonmen also has great textures. While the tantan has a bit of char siu or bland chicken breast, the zasai sunghonmen is topped with crunchy Chinese-style pickles (zasai), chopped pork and memma, seasoned bamboo shoots, all of which add something toothsome or crunchy.

That isn’t even counting the wonderfully al dente noodles that Sun makes to the shop’s recipe.

For $8.50, zasai sunghonmen is one of the most entertaining things I’ve eaten in a long time. It has one other benefit. It allows you to sidestep the argument whether Goma Ichi or Goma Tei’s tantan is better, because who cares? Order the sunghonmen.


Goma Tei Ramen Restaurant
1200 Ala Moana Blvd.  // 591-9188 // Monday to Saturday lunch 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards

Of all the noodle shops in this town, Goma Tei wins the beauty contest, with its sharp little track lights, its curvy, asymetrical wooden counter, its textured white tile walls.

The location’s easy, near Borders in Ward Centre, with plenty of parking. To add another layer of convenience, it takes credit cards.

But does it have the best tantan broth?  There are those who passionately swear it does—it’s actually a milder version, with the sesame oil having a tendency to separate. The broth is not quite so monodimensional as Goma Ichi’s, but not quite so fervent either, though certainly better than the plain shoyu version with its metallic undercurrent.

But devotees of Goma Tei talk about the broth only briefly—then begin to wax rhapsodic about the char siu.

Char siu—sometimes given a Japanese spelling, chasu—is inevitably an option in a Honolulu ramenya—if not an automatic topping on the bowl.

At Goma Tei, the tantan ramen, $7.50, comes with one slice of char siu. The char siu tantan ramen, $8.75, comes with three thick slices. Order it. This may be the best char siu you’ve ever tasted.

There’s none of the red food coloring or sugar you get in Chinatown char siu.  Goma Tei’s char siu is rolled and tied, marinated, browned, marinated again and roasted, then thick sliced.
 
The spiral slices are the softest,  most opulent cut of meat ever floated on broth.
 
Char siu tantan here is not simply a bowl of soup. It’s a meal, especially as it comes with a nice portion of choi sum instead of bean sprouts.

The noodles at Goma Tei are vermicelli-thin, made by Sun Noodle. At Sun, I asked Uki why?  He shrugged and gave me his standard answer about having to fit the noodle to the broth.

My guess?  The noodles are not thick and chewy so they don’t distract from the char siu—which is the point here, first and last.
 
 
Tenkaippin Ramen
617 Kapahulu Ave.  // 732-1211 // Monday to Thursday lunch 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday until 11 p.m. // Limited free parking, cash only

There are four kinds of broth available at Tenkaippin. We ordered all four. The waitress looked at the three of us. “One more coming?” she asked. “No,” we said. “We just wanted to try everything.”  She scowled, protested, finally gave in.

Of the four, I preferred a broth called assari, roughly translated “light.”  This is essentially a chicken broth with a deeply flavored Yamasa shoyu, topped with plenty of char sui, green onion, bamboo shoot.

The paitan broth has more pork  bones (tonkotsu) than the assari. It came cloudy with emulsified pork fat, and topped with garlic chips and beni shoga (red pickled ginger), both of which made it difficult to discern what the broth might taste like unadorned. Still, we liked it far better than the miso broth, with its heavy dosh of bean sprouts, and its sour edge.


The fourth broth, the house specialty, the kotteri, was as yellow as the sunny walls of the restaurant. The menu billed the kotteri as “healthy chicken base soup so rich and unique it’s habit forming.”  It’s extra thick with, as the waitress explained, collagen from the joints of chicken.

 

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