Kalihi Eats: The Old Saimin House

We’re back again at the “Center of Hawaii’s Food Universe” in the heart of historic and scenic Kalihi, this time sampling some truly “old school” saimin at The Old Saimin House.

This is actually part 1 of a 3 part series, leading up to a review on S&S Saimin’s new “Old Time Island Style Saimin”. Which makes it seem even more apparent that just like cars, ‘retro’ is the “new cool” in the food industry as well.

Notice on this label it touts “Traditional Shrimp Soup Base”, differentiating it from Sun Noodle’s Hawaii’s Original Old Style Saimin product, which uses the bonito-based dashinomoto saimin soup stock more commonly used nowadays.

That said, the reason this is a series, is that I needed to refresh my palate on what is the benchmark representation of Hawaii’s truly classic saimin taste in order to compare with S&S’s (under parent company Sun Noodle) latest attempt to replicate the “Traditional Shrimp Soup Base” broth flavor. Therefore I chose two old school saimin stands as my benchmark source: The Old Saimin House and Palace Saimin, both almost within a stone’s throw of each other in Kalihi.

How “old school” is The Old Saimin House? Well, they were established by Okinawan nisei (second generation) in 1963. Whereas Palace Saimin right across the street on King was also established by Okinawans in 1946.

Not to forgot the many other classic saimin stands around the island, including Forty Niner Restaurant out in Aiea, who was established around the late 40’s. Then there’s Boulevard Saimin, which has since changed to “Dillingham Saimin”, who got their start in 1955, while over on the Garden Isle of Kauai, Hamura Saimin set up shop in 1952. Not to leave out a few more places still in business that feature saimin as their signature dish, including Shiro’s, Shige’s and Zippy’s.

So we’re here today at The Old Saimin House, which is located at 1311 North King Street (nearby the Kalihi Post Office), in a tiny strip mall next to New Diner’s Drive Drive-In, with another notable neighbor being Kiawe Grill.

Without further ado, let’s check out The Old Saimin House tableside menu…

The Old Saimin House menu (current as of June 2011)

As is “standard” on the menu at most old school Hawaii saimin stands, The Old Saimin House has the requisite basic option of either Saimin or Wun Tun Min (the latter often spelled in various ways), along with a (teriyaki beef) BBQ Stick to go along with it. Think of the BBQ Stick to Saimin as what Gyoza is to Japanese Ramen. From there, the menu can vary quite a bit at each place.

The table condiments often say a lot about what type of cuisine is being offered. Where like most local style food restaurants in Hawaii, The Old Saimin House has the usual Shoyu, Tobasco, Salt ‘n Pepper. While indicating their Japanese/Okinawan influence, there’s also a shaker bottle of Shichimi Togarashi, which is a ground mixture of chili pepper and several other unique ingredients that make its spicy flavor unique…

One thing you hardly see anymore at local eateries on Oahu is Hawaiian Chili Pepper Water, whom Hamura Saimin on Kauai still includes on the tables in their condiments set.

The Old Saimin House was founded by Okinawan nisei Tomizo and Mitsue Ikei in 1963, where today you see their “Uchinanchu Pride” up in the form of a painting of what I’m assuming is their family’s home town of Henza Island in Okinawa…

As for the restaurant space, like most saimin stands, The Old Saimin is rather small, while being very clean, with a rather newly renovated look to it…

There’s a decent amount of designated free parking in the front of this tiny strip mall, although of course it does become tight during peak dining hours.

Getting to my order, on this solo mission, I stuck with the bare bones basic Saimin, this one being the large…

A closer look…

Now this truly is your bare bones basic Saimin, with just sliced Charsiu pork and green onions garnish, and that’s it. Not even Kamaboko nor sliced egg omelet is to be had here, making this a far cry from the “everything, including the kitchen sink” approach at Shiro’s Saimin Haven.

The reason I didn’t order the more popular Wun Tun Min, which is essentially the same dish with the addition of ground pork-filled wun tuns in it, is because I didn’t want the wun tun to muddle or change the flavor of the basic broth.

As for not ordering the usual BBQ (Teriyaki Beef) Stick as an accompaniment, upon asking how they were cooked, my server told they were griddled on a flat top, so I passed. No probs, as this large bowl of saimin by itself was plenty enough to fill me up on this lunch hour visit.

Hai, itadakimasu. Let’s begin with a taste of  what appears to be rather clear-toned, mild looking broth…

And? Definitely yet another shrimp shell based broth, albeit not particular “shrimpy”, while being seasoned with salt (possibly of the Hawaiian rock salt variety), and that’s about it. I don’t think there’s any katsuoboshi stock enhancement or dashinomoto in it, nor pork or chicken bones in the stock-making process. Overall, It’s very much back-to-basics to the core, not being under nor overpowering.

As long as you arrive with your palate in a neutral state (like you didn’t just get done snacking on some chips or anything salty), the broth should be acceptably seasoned without any further enhancements. Yet it is still on the very low key end as far as saimin broths are concerned, leaving the broth door wide open to add that shoyu and/or tobasco and/or Togarashi and/or Salt ‘n Pepper condiments provided on the table to suite your personal taste.

Let’s slurp some saimin noodles…

As others on Yelp have mentioned, the noodles here are on the firmer side of al dente doneness, which I actually prefer over softer-cooked noodles, whether it be for saimin, ramen or pasta.  Come to find out, unlike many other noodle houses around the island who source their noodles from Sun Noodle Factory, The Old Saimin House sources theirs from Eagle Noodle Factory. The latter of which I’ve been told doesn’t use chemicals in their noodles. With that, they’re somewhat neutral in flavor, without any of that egg-like undertone from the potassium and sodium carbonate (Kansui) that Sun Noodle uses.

Only thing left to try here is the rather sparse sliced Charsiu pork and green onion garnish…

The Charsiu was spot-on in sweetness and overall authentic flavor profile, while being very moist and tender. Thumbs-up, except for all that saimin noodles in the large bowl, they need more charsiu to accompany it. I suppose at $5.25 for the large, an additional 50 cents is worth the additional garnish needed to fully complete the dish in and of itself. Or of course order the BBQ Stick to offset the carbo load.

But yeah, this broth is certainly on the low-key side, and it had room for some shoyu to kick it up…

Ah, perfect! The (Aloha) shoyu really enhanced and “umami-fied” the subtle shellfish base of the broth’s flavor profile.

I also tried dipping the noodles and charsiu in the included (Coleman’s) mustard (and shoyu) sauce, which totally makes it taste Chinese.

The large saimin by itself was the perfect portion to sate my lunchtime hunger, while the addition of just a drizzle of shoyu was all it needed to make The Old Saimin House a good choice at the right price. So much so, that I had no problem polishing my bowl…

This was a good refresher start to get a benchmark taste of what true “old school” saimin should taste like. Next stop, right across the street over at Palace Saimin!

The Old Saimin House
1311 North King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii  96817

Tel. (808) 842-7697

Business hours:
Lunch: 11:00 am – 2:00 pm
Tuesday to Saturday

Dinner: 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday

Dinner: 6:00 pm – 11:00 pm
Friday, Saturday

Sunday & Monday

The Tasty Island rating:

(2) Good. I’m glad I tried it. (Ono)


19 thoughts on “Kalihi Eats: The Old Saimin House

  1. Pomai, I am one and so my family love SS saimin noodles for it smooth texture. When at fairs I always look for the booth that sell it.

  2. What was the name of that small saimin stand next door to Tamashiro Fish Market? My wife and I used to go there many years ago. We also use to go to Washington Saimin right next to Washington Intermediate School on King Street.

  3. Pomai, now I crave S&S Saimen badly and head to store to find some. I will stock up also on it. Will make fried saimen with it too. High school fair always sold S&S saimen and was a big seller. Like Kimo it texture of the noodle that so special for it smooth when you eat it in your mouth different from other ramin noodle for sure.

  4. Kelike, definitely pick up a package or two of S&S’ new “Old Time Island Style Saimin”. Highly recommended!

    Alan, the answer to your question is staring right at you. It was The Old Saimin House that was located next door to Tamashiro Fish Market! Click on the link to their website and read their history page for more info’ on that.

    As for Washington Saimin, Diner A and E remember them quite fondly for the most AMAZING “koge-out” Teriyaki Beef, all drenched in teri sauce, piled over a bed of rice. Simple, yet perfectly executed and satisfying comfort food at its best!

    Kimo, I have a post about the Chow Fun served at the annual Maui County Fair by the Wailuku Hongwangi Mission sitting on the backburner. Stay tuned!

  5. I don’t think a CSI team could find much residue in that bowl. Polished indeed.

    Your passion for saimin is encouraging in light of the fancified meals found these days. Such a humble meal, the beauty is in the details.

  6. i know you were going for bare bones, but next time def try the wun tun…of the ones of i’ve had at saimin shops around the isle (palace, shige’s, tanaka etc), the Ol’SaimnHouse has the most flavorful wun tun. i wonder if they make them in house?

  7. Aaaah…shrimp based soup for saimin. Reminds me of my days in college some 40+ years ago. That’s when the instant ramen started appearinng. My mother used to send me the instant saimin packages to snow-bound Upstate New York with the order not to use the soup flavoring packet that came with it (because of the MSG and other stuff in it she said). She instructed me to buy chicken broth and heat with dried shrimp to use after boiling the noodles.

  8. My favorite comfort food, I can and do eat it every day. Most times with a sandwich like soup and sandwich.

  9. MrKfromKailua, I also prefer saimin with a burger (sandwich) on the side, but the BBQ Stick thing works.

    Nate, as far as instant ramen, the shrimp flavor is my favorite, then chicken. PASS on the curry and Kim Chee flavored instant ramen. There’s this one Japanese brand of dry packaged ramen (I forget the name, but they sell it at DQ and Marukai) that’s really high quality, including “wet” soup broth vs. the powdered, dehydrated and MSG-laden soup broths that come with the cheap stuff. The noodles in this brand also taste almost as good as the “nama” ramen type (fresh, refrigerated noodles).

    Fatsy, when I was at Palace Saimin the other week, a “regular” there told me he preferred the Wun Tun Min across the street at Old Saimin House over Palace (here), while he preferred the broth (and prices) at Palace. Namely because the Wun Tun at OSH has a firmer texture and not as “soggy”.

    ArnyB, bowls that come back to the kitchen “polished” like that are the ultimate compliment the owner and kitchen staff can receive. Seriously. Excellent observation, as the “art” of “Saiminology”, as simple as it may appear and taken for granted as it is, is all about the DETAILS. 🙂

  10. I went rush to Eagle noodle factory and pu 5 lbs of saimin noodles…it was so good. They were the perfect old style noodle which I enjoy. They hold their shape and dont get mushy as quickly as others do. I made fried min with the leftovers and it was really ono The texture held up and they crisped up to a golden brown on the edges.

    Thanks for the information. I was at the shop within minutes of reading your post .

    btw Check out the new roast duck place at Aiea sc. I love their roast pork and char siu. but the duck was okay.

  11. da kine, glad the information about Eagle Noodle Factory helped. I’ll have to go there and pick some up myself! I imagine the prices are much lower than retail since you’re buying directly from the factory (although Eagle Noodle doesn’t sell to retailers).

    I wanna’ try and use their noodles to duplicate Sam Sato’s “Dry Mein” dry noodle dish. I already tried Sun Noodle’s saimin noodles, and it turned out great, but I want to compare the two.

    I make my own Charsiu for saimin by doctoring the packaged or bottled stuff with the addition of honey and a little shoyu. Turns out awesome every time, and much cheaper then store or restaurant bought stuff.

  12. Hi pomai, I believe that Eagle does sell to some markets. They were packaging the wrappers when I was there 🙂 I think that Times is one of the retailers.

    Ive grown up with homemade char siu( from scratch, no pkg mixes) and appreciate the flavor of what the aiea sc place serves up. Its very good.

    I think you will enjoy making your own homestyle saimin. It runs about $2 a pound.

    Making another round today and going to marinate my teriyaki soon 🙂


  13. da kine, mahalo for the info on Eagle Noodle at Times. I’m headed to Hawaii Kai today, so I’ll stop by the Kahala location and see if they have it.

    Damned, $2 a pound? That sounds CHEAP!

    As for making Charsiu, never done it from scratch, as I don’t think I’d get it right. I’m really surprised how good the NOH powdered Charsiu marinade turns out, which I tried using recently. Not nearly as good as the superior Lum’s bottled brand, but pretty darned close, especially after I get done doctoring it up!

  14. da kine, I went to Times Supermarket in Kahala today, and they didn’t have the Eagle Noodle Factory brand, and the customer service counter confirmed that (they never even heard of that brand). I’ll call Eagle Noodle Factory tomorrow during business hours and get da’ scoops on their retail distribution (if they have any). Otherwise, I’d just as well do like you and go straight to the source. Mo’ cheap!

  15. da kine, I spoke with the owner of Eagle Noodle Factory today, and he told me they don’t distribute to any local retailers, only to restaurants. Specifically Palace Saimin, The Old Saimin House and Shige’s Saimin Stand. They also supply noodles to a few restaurants on the neighbor islands.

    He said walk-in purchases by the general public direct at their factory are more than welcome. Will check it later.

  16. I must of gotten it mixed up with another noodle place. opps.

    I am fortunate that its so close by for me.

    Hope you can make it to the factory soon.

  17. update 🙂 I knew I had seen Eagle Noodle Factory products in the market…I confirmed it with a friend and she said she recalls buying their products also.

    Apparently they used to sell retail afterall.

    I even recall the label and knew I wasnt mistaken . Just to add to the confusion, there used to be another noodle factory nearby. (not Oahu Noodle factory which is down the street)

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