Palace Saimin (Honolulu, HI)

While I’ve talked about many of the dishes that demonstrate the ethnic fusion of Hawaii, few of them embody the multicultural fusion of Hawaiian cuisine as much as “saimin”. Saimin is basically a noodle dish that is a mild fusion of elements taken from each the major cultures of Hawaii’s plantation era: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian, and Portuguese. The resulting dish is a noodle soup that bears a lot of resemblance to Chinese “mein” and Japanese “ramen”, usually with some other ethnicities adding ingredients, such as Spam, gyoza, udon, or wontons. In any case, much of the Kahili neighborhood had Saimin joints popping up during the middle of the 20th century, usually run by recent Okinawan families. And pretty much everyone I know that grew up in Hawaii has told me stories about how much saimin they ate as a kid, either as soup, or as the related “fried min” (pan-fried noodles with the same sorts of toppings). Oahu has dozen of Saimin places, and one of the older, more classic, and, quite frankly, no-frills places is Palace Saimin.

You know the saying “Location, Location, Location?” Well, Palace Saimin doesn’t really have that. Indeed, it’s nestled between a carpet store and the “A Klass K-9 Kutters” dog grooming. But it’s also in Kalihi on King Street, which, aside from the rather eclectic mix of businesses, really is ground zero for local food from the Japanese tradition, and quite a few of the businesses have been here a rather long time (Palace Saimin open in 1946, and the similar Old Saimin House across the street opened in 1963). But the very crowded nature of the parking lot, and the fact that usually several people are waiting to go inside, serve as a testament to the popularity of the place.

Stepping inside, Palace maintains the no-frills effect: the decor is basically “tan-painted cinder block”, and the seating is primarily a handful of tables that could serve approximately 30 people at a time, max. Food is served up through a small window, drinks from a cooler, and water from the water fountain. Seated, you are immediately served up with a fork, chopsticks, and a bowl of hot mustard for each person (the mix of hot mustard and soy sauce is one of the standard condiments of Hawaii), leaving you to look over the menu and place your order.

The menu at Palace Saimin continues the no frills approach. There are three sizes of soup. Each has a choice of plain saimin, wonton, or udon, or a combination thereof (such as the puzzling “saidon”, until you realize that “saimin + udon = saidon”). Otherwise, there’s exactly one other menu item, the “barbecue stick”, a simple skewer of teriyaki beef. So there’s not a lot of choice here, but sometimes that’s the way of tradition (Well, one of my favorite burger joints has a menu that’s essentially “hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, onion rings”, so who am I to complain?).

A few minutes later, you will find yourself staring at a fresh bowl of soup, saimin noodles in a basic pork and shrimp dashi-style broth, topped with char siu pork and some green onions. Palace Saimin sources their noodles from Eagle Noodle Factory, like several other saimin houses around the island, and here they cook them a little softer than most places. The broth is quite good, with notable notes of pork, shrimp, and possibly a little dashi as well. Add in some fairly flavorful char siu and you’ve got a rather nice bowl of soup. Nothing fancy, but good.

The barbecue stick? I didn’t grab a picture of one, but it’s basically a skewer of lightly-seasoned teri beef, with a decent sear on it (hearing a propane torch fire up a few times in the kitchen, I think that’s how they get a decent char). Add in a dab of mixed soy sauce and mustard, and, like the soup, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s a great complement to the soup.

Overall, I can see why Palace Saimin remains an institution: the saimin is quite good, very generous, and quite affordable. If I come back, I’ll have to try something with the wontons in it, since those seem like they would pair well with the soup.

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