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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
We all agreed it was odd, but two of us said they would also order it whenever they came here, because it is so different. I found it cloying.
Near the end of the meal, the waitress pointed out a small pot amid the condiments. Take off the top and blam!—chopped garlic and red chilis. It improved the kotteri immensely, though it’s hard to imagine any broth that wouldn’t be made less boring by the addition of a similar mix.
McCully Shopping Center // 1960 Kapiolani Blvd // 946-2900 // Mon to Tue, Thurs to Sun Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner 5-11 p.m., except Sunday until 9 p.m. Dinner. Closed Wednesday. // Free parking, major credit cards
The restaurant’s called Yotteko-Ya. However, the big sign over the door reads “Kyoto Ramen.” So my friend Ben the Weatherman called me from outside, asking just where we were supposed to meet.
Inside is less confusing. The bright red dining room looks like a restaurant, hanging paper lanterns, tables for four.
We settled in for a few beers and a leisurely dinner, not expecting health food.
You see the word “healthy” on many ramen menus. But Yotteko-ya is the only place that makes an explicit health claim for its soup. After noting that the restaurant’s broth simmered for more than 10 hours with “choicest pork” and “freshest chickens,” the menu asserts, “This meticulous process produces a uniquely thick collagen rich stock that will actually help prevent aging of the skin and joints. So, please enjoy our soup to the last drop and look younger!”
Even though there were only two of us, the promise of renewed youth made us want to order all three available broths.
The waitress refused. “Too much food,” she insisted.
We compromised. If we ordered two bowls of ramen and ate them, then, she grudgingly admitted, she would let us order a third.
The three broths were shoyu, paitan and (after we finished the first two) tonshio. Tonshio is the clearest of ramen broths, it’s usually referred to as “salt-based.” This one at least was powerfully salty. The paitan had the rich cloudy layer from tonkotsu bones.
The winner here was the simplest, the shoyu. “Ah, this tastes like soup that’s been simmered all night on a wood-burning stove,” Ben said.
The char siu was scant, but the toppings were interesting added texture—raw cabbage, sliced black fungus, bean sprouts, blanched broccoli, white sesame seeds.
We enjoyed dinner. Still, I am sad to say, neither of us looked a minute younger at the meal’s end.
255 Beach Walk // 926-0255 // 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily // No parking, major credit cards
Matsugen is different: It’s expensive, it’s in Waikiki, and it serves soba noodles. Soba noodles are nothing more than ramen noodles with the addition of about 30 percent buckwheat flour.
Much has been made of the fact that Matsugen has a station where a chef will occasionally hand-make soba noodles. However, when you calculate how many portions of soba are sold here, it’s quite unlikely they all get made on the premises.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t good noodles. Soba’s often served cold, on a bamboo tray. The noodles shouldn’t arrive dry, though Matsugen’s are wetter than I’d prefer, glistening with the cold water that arrests the cooking. Normally, you want just enough residual water to keep noodles from sticking together.
You wet down soba with tsuyu, a dipping sauce of dashi, mirin, sweetened shoyu. Good as the classic tsuyu is here, there’s also a sesame alternative (marked “goma” on the menu), reminiscent of tantan broth, which I enjoyed even more.
Matsugen also serves a hot soba, ramen style, in a thinner version of its dashi-based dipping sauce. Order the Kamonan, which comes topped with duck breast. This was perhaps the best bowl of noodles I have ever tasted, though I am sure I was swayed by the six perfect slices of duck. It was also, at $17.80, the most expensive, since a bowl of ramen in Honolulu typically costs about $8.
903 Keeaumoku St. Suite c101a // 955-8860 // Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. // Limited free parking behind restaurang, enter on Liona St. // Cash only
We’d been eating a lot of high-end ramen, so we found that the ramen in broth at Taishoken uninspiring. The shoyu was too light. The pirikata, the hot version, wasn’t at all like tantan. It didn’t warm you with sesame oil, it just shrieked at you with red pepper.
However, Taishoken specializes in tsukemen. Tsukemen is ramen noodles served cold, with a bowl of hot soup on the side. The dipping broths are thicker than a ramen broth, a little more like a sauce than a soup. The local-style curry is particularly hearty, with chunks of beef, carrot and onion.
And the noodles—oh Lord, they were long, thick, al dente. That makes them an adventure to eat—lift with chopsticks, dip in soup, navigate to the mouth. But they were great noodles—chewy, yet yielding to the bite.
There’s a noodle making station in the restaurant—empty and clean. I’d apply a certain amount of skepticism to any claim that a ramenya in Honolulu makes its own noodles.
But, if I were you, I’d be far less skeptical about my claim that, served cold, these are some of the best ramen noodles I’ve ever tasted.
It took me a lot of noodling to get here.
John Heckathorn has been writing restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984. In 2007, he won a bronze medal from the City and Regional Magazine Association for his food writing.