I have a newfound respect for saimin, thanks to the one time I publicly hated on it. Disdained it, actually, resented it even. Compared to all the noodle bowls I love in this world — ramen, pho, naengmyeon, the roast duck noodles at Duck Lee and my greatest love of all, spaghetti — why does saimin have to be so bland? Is saimin anything more, I asked, than a powerful nostalgic deception perpetrated on collective taste buds by memories of small-kid-time saimin with the family and happy post-game bowls with friends?
Actually, that’s what saimin turns out to be. Not the deception part, but the rest: It’s the soul of being local. It’s simple and plain and imbued with comfort. And even if you prefer ramen, you probably still like saimin. I learned this lesson late, but at least I learned it. I eat saimin now. I eat fancy bowls that would qualify as haute cuisine, and bowls topped simply with green onion and fishcake. I eat bowls when I’m ravenous after swimming, when I need something soothing and starchy after a night of sake, or just when I want to reconnect with people and times past.
That’s the thing about coming from an anti-saimin stance. Knowing nothing, with no saimin history to measure against, I have no rules about noodles, broth or toppings. I just like what I like. Here are my favorite bowls.
No. 1: Monkeypod Kitchen (5 of 5)
When Peter Merriman named this as his favorite dish at Monkeypod Kitchen, I had no choice but to try it. And not to read too much into it (who, me?) but it's as if someone enamored of local food put everything he liked into this bowl and then, mindful of his health, threw in a handful of veggies and finally, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts as a giddy coda. Exactly in that order. And ended up with a dish more inspired by saimin than an expression of it, a twist I respect and like so much I'm putting it in this spot.
This is the happiest, most unlikely bowl of saimin anywhere. The noodles, from Iwamoto Natto Factory on Maui, are firm and fresh, and the broth, made meaty and smoky by an abundance of kalua pig, is so barely there it's nearly an afterthought. This one's about the toppings. Bean sprouts and broccoli and peanuts, oh yes, crunchy textures balancing soft noodles in every bite, and did I mention red onions and cilantro? What is this again? My favorite saimin!
— Photo by Melissa Chang
92-1048 Olani St.
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