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…
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
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
Sunday & Monday
The Tasty Island rating:
(2) Good. I’m glad I tried it. (Ono)