It’s hard to say what my favorite local dish is since I’ve moved to Hawaii. There are really too many things that I love to really nail it down. But the one I think of most often, and the one I make at home most often, is saimin: a thin Chinese style noodle served in a light broth with (usually) spam, egg, and green onion. Despite the ingredients having roots from all over the world, you will only find saimin in Hawaii.
In the days of the plantations, a multitude of workers were brought to the islands from all over the world to work in the fields—China, Japan, Phillipines, Korea, Portugal, even Puerto Rico! They worked together and lived together. Most accounts of the era make note that there were separate areas for each ethnicity but nobody was far apart from each other. For the vast majority of these people life was hard: they worked long hot days and made very little money. As a result of this, bonds were formed between neighbors and, in many cases, communal meals became a normal practice. As friends would gather each would bring what they had to the meal. As the story goes, soup became a very popular dinner since it was easy to prepare. The legend says the Japanese families made the stock, the Chinese families made the noodles, the Korean families brought cabbage, the Filipino families brought the onions, and the Portuguese families brought the sausage. All these things came together to make the perfect meal and that meal has persisted for well over a hundred years. Many dishes in Hawaii, no matter how accepted they become, retain their original ethnic identity—for example, kal bi is considered a staple in local cuisine, but it still retains its Korean identity. Saimin doesn’t have those roots—it was born here in the islands. Despite all the changes in the world, and the evolution of the recipe it has remained a symbol of the mingling of cultures that has become the everyday life here.
For all that history, there’s no real right or wrong way to make saimin. This, for many people (myself included), is the fun and the beauty of the dish. The framework is always the same: noodles, broth (referred to locally as dashi (DAH-shee)), and some sort of meat and/or vegetable garnish. Everywhere you go has a unique flavor and every bowl you try is deeper than it looks—both literally and figuratively. Over time the dish became so popular it would be sold in makeshift stands all over the islands. Those stands became restaurants and those restaurants became mainstays in the community. And one of those restaurants is Shiro’s Saimin Haven.
For our first visit, we decided to go for a late lunch. Our daughter had gotten up late that day so everything was running a little later than normal so we got to Waimalu (home of the original Shiro’s location) around 2 pm. Lucky for us this was after the lunch rush so we had plenty of parking options and plenty of seating in the restaurant. Sometimes a late start can be a blessing. Now it was time for the fun part, though, and I started checking out the menu. The saimin variety is almost overwhelming. Options for all tastes are ready for selection. Every protein you can think of is represented, as well as a multitude of classic flavors from all over the island. You can find Chinese roast pork, char siu, Kalbi, pork adobo, fish cake, shrimp, chicken katsu, oxtail, and many, many others. You can even substitute your broth for miso or spicy flavors for a fully customizable experience.
What’s TOO Good?
Since I’d never been there before, I wanted to really get a feel for what they do. That’s when I found the Dodonpa, The Ultimate King of Saimins. Stepping in at number 58 on the Saimin menu, theey say this one is created and owned exclusively by Shiro’s and served nowhere else in the world. It includes a whopping 10 garnishes! Those include fried shrimp, roast beef, char siu, won tons, char siu (char-syoo, Chinese roast pork), luncheon meat, imitation crab, egg roll, mushrooms, and vegetables. These are in addition to the spam, sliced egg, and green onions that go into every bowl. This would definitely show me what the place is made of. What can you say about a dish like this. It’s like a one bowl buffet of goodness. This thing just doesn’t stop. The broth has a light flavor and the noodles take it on nicely. Each garnish was prepared well. The highlights for me though we’re the char siu and the cabbage leaves but let’s be honest, I ate them all up equally.
Jacqui went with a more traditional option: the country style fried saimin. It’s a dry stir fried noodle dish very similar to yakisoba. The fried saimin was tasty and definitely a solid win for Jacqui and our little one. I agreed on the flavor but I had so much to handle in my bowl that I didn’t get into the fried noodles much. Needless to say, we deemed this meal a success and decided more visits were in order.
We have no been to Shiro’s many time since then—both the Waimalu and the Ewa Beach location—each time trying something new. One of my favorites was the saimin with pork adobo. A side of the soy and vinegar pork dish is served with a classic version of the noodle soup. I took the liberty of adding the pork and gravy directly into the bowl for truly unique food experience. I highly recommend it as It was heavenly. When Jacqui orders samin she tends to stick with the classic style and will dip her noodles into a mixture of Chinese hot mustard and shoyu (soy sauce): she describes the flavor of the mustard diluted by broth and noodles as one of the most prominent flavors of her childhood and reminds her of her Grandmama (maternal).
I’m also on a personal mission to try every oxtail recipe on the island so I figured I might as well try this one now. Once again everything was exactly what it should be. The oxtail broth was think but spiced nicely with star anise and the cilantro on top really lightens the experience. It comes with several pieces of super soft oxtail and also gau gee (a Chinese dumpling with filling similar to won tons).
But don’t worry, if you’re not feeling up for noodles, Shiro’s has a bunch of other non-noodle options! My little troublemaker loves their classic Hawaiian beef stew, which is tomato based. They also offer other kid friendly options on their keiki (KAY-kee, Hawaiian for child) menu, such as chicken nuggets. Another option that seems to be a favorite amongst the locals is having a burger with your saimin. Shiro’s uses only grass fed local Hawaiian beef, so Jacqui and I made sure to try their Hula burger and Supa Teri burger I thought a burger sounded delicious and I got a Supa Teri Burger to go with our noodles. They both hit the spot. The patties are substantial and the Teri sauce was just the right consistency. The burgers are also served with mayo and lettuce. Together with the saimin it’s a decadent bite. A side note: the mac salad is made with spaghetti style noodles. The flavor is delicious but it caught me by surprise.
Where Can you Try Ono Oahu?
Shiro’s has 2 locations that offer both take out and dine in service: Waimalu and Ewa Beach.
Waimalu. This is the original location and can be found in the Waimalu Shopping Center at 98-020 Kamehameha Highway, also referred to on GPS as 99. There’s plenty of parking spaces, but this is a busy area during lunch time so you may end up circling a couple times before finding a spot—or you may just have to walk a little if you find a spot on the other side of the lot. Traffic is one way in this parking lot which means you’ll bear right when entering the parking lot from either entrance. There’s quite a bit of construction happening around the area due to the rail so you may have to sit in some traffic, but it isn’t any worse than any other construction area. This location is somewhat central for both the east and west side. Pro tip: if you’re turning into the shopping center from Kamehameha Highway (99) turn onto Hekaha St then you can avoid having to make a left turn into the shopping center; if you’re coming from Moanalua Road turn into the shopping center from Kanuku St to avoid making a left turn (this route is unlikely to come up on your GPS, but at least you know just in case it does).
Ewa Beach. This location is located at 91-919 Fort Weaver Road in the Ewa Beach Shopping Center. There is plenty of parking and does not seem to be as busy as the Waimalu location during lunch. The entrance faces Papipi St at the south end of the shopping center.
While both locations have done me right, I actually give the edge to the Ewa Beach location. The ambiance was a bit more lively and somehow the whole experience was just a little bit better. I may be splitting hairs here but it’s my blog so I can do that. I’d say without a doubt, this is a must see for anyone staying on the west side of Oahu.
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