If the Honolulu noodle universe has a master, it must be Hidehito Uki. He’s young, he’s earnest and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of noodles. He’s also the biggest noodle maker in Hawai‘i: He founded the Sun Noodle Co. in Honolulu in 1982 when he was 20 and spoke barely a word of English. As Uki gives me a tour of the factory, I get the impression that there’s nothing he doesn’t know about noodles. Then I stump him with a simple question: How many miles of noodles does Sun Noodle make in a year?
Pho at Pho777 Restaurant
“Miles?” he asks. He has no idea. But soon we’re upstairs in his office, a ruler lies beside a noodle on his desk and he’s tapping numbers into an old adding machine. It turns out that Sun Noodle makes 3,200 miles of noodles a year—in other words, enough noodles to stretch from Diamond Head to El Paso, Texas. At that rate, in less than eight years Uki’s noodles could stretch around the planet at the equator.
But, of course, noodles already span the globe. From pasta to pad thai to spaetzle to good old-fashioned chicken noodle soup, noodles connect the kitchens and cultures of the world. They date back to Neolithic times, and they’ve been taking new forms, appearing in new dishes and riding new trends ever since. Noodles have been called mankind’s original fast food, a legacy that lives on in every container of Cup Noodles. Yet they can be haute, too. Think of a simple plate of chilled zaru soba adorned with a sprinkling of dried nori and prepared by a soba master trained with the same rigor as a sushi chef. Soba, which is loaded with vitamins and minerals and even antioxidants, has been a popular Japanese health food since the 1800s, when the Japanese navy realized its rich thiamine content protected sailors from beriberi. So whether junk food, superfood or something in between, noodles are nothing if not versatile.
They’re endlessly adaptable, too. Wheat and rice happen to be the most common noodle ingredients, but all sorts of other starches and grains will do just as well. Soba and Italian pizzoccheri are made with buckwheat (which isn’t a wheat at all but a relative of rhubarb), and there are Korean noodles made from acorns, kudzu, mugwort, even pumpkin. The slippery cellophane noodles in the chicken long rice at the lü‘au are typically made from mung beans, though cassava root, potato starch or the stems of canna lilies also work just fine.
Pan-Asian noodle culture has become an integral part of Honolulu’s culinary landscape. Sure, the city has some great Italian restaurants, but nobody thinks of Honolulu as a pasta town. Honolulu is a city of Asian noodles. By comparison my hometown of Hilo is a noodle desert. So I’ve come to O‘ahu for a few days to explore Honolulu’s noodle scene, meet noodle makers and slurp my way through as many noodle houses as I can.
At sleek and orderly Inaba Restaurant on South King Street, I enjoy a serving of cold house-made soba with a bit of wasabi and a light dipping sauce on the side. When I finish, the waitress sets down a small pot of the nutrient-rich water the soba was cooked in, and I mix it with the leftover dipping sauce and drink it like a soup. At Jimbo Restaurant, also on South King, a local favorite where the udon is made early in the morning and the portions are huge, I tuck into a hot mound of stir-fried udon with spicy beef. At dark and fashionable Go Shi Go on Ke‘eaumoku Street, I suck up a bowl of cold udon with shrimp tempura while anime plays on a big-screen TV. At Rai Rai Ramen on Kapahulu Avenue, I walk into a restaurant that’s empty except for the cook, who’s napping with his head down at one of the tables. He gets up and makes me a delicious bowl of miso ramen, then puts his head back down on the table and goes back to sleep. And at Menchanko-tei, a boutique ramen shop in Waikiki, I share three bowls of ramen with the master of the Honolulu noodle universe.