By Richie Nakano | Illustration/iStock

I ate a lot of noodles growing up.  

When I refused sushi, my parents would feed me udon. When we visited my grandfather, he’d cook us yakisoba. Technically, the first thing I ever cooked was a packet of Oodles-O-Noodles—which if I’m being real, is a much better name than “Top Ramen.” On family trips to Hawaii, if we weren’t eating gyoza at Shirokiya, my sister and I were eating huge steaming bowls of shrimp and pork udon.

Eventually, all of this noodle consumption would infect a corner of my brain, simmering there until I decided to quit my job and open a ramen stand in a farmer’s market. There was only ever one place that fully informed that decision: Palace Saimin in Kalihi, Oahu.

Palace Saimin isn’t a place for tourists. It’s somewhere between Chinatown, the fish market, and the airport, and I discovered it while trailing at Chef Mavro as a young cook. After a night of too many Tsing Taos in a dingy karaoke bar, one of my fellow cooks suggested a visit to Palace in order to get right before work the next day.

The restaurant is hidden in a tiny parking lot with almost zero signage, except for a decal on the door. It’s been around since 1946, first as a stall in a market, then as its current iteration—where it's been for the past 58 years. Inside, there’s a couple of communal tables, surrounded by a few four-tops. It’s screaming hot in the summertime. The kitchen is tiny and steamy, presided over by a trio of older women—one who cooks, one who makes wontons and barbecue beef skewers, and the third who waits tables and finishes bowls of saimin. It’s always just the three of them, and it has been for 40 years. Without a fancy ventilation system sucking up all of the aromas, the whole place smells less like a restaurant and more like someone’s home. It smells like food.

Saimin broth isn’t like ramen broth, or udon broth—it’s somewhere in between. It’s porky without being too heavy, and shrimp-y without being overwhelmingly fishy. The meat isn’t chashu—it’s more like the pink-ringed char siu you get in generic chow mein. It’s uniquely Hawaiian: a Chinese-Japanese hybrid, no-nonsense and no-frills. The deluxe bowl at Palace comes loaded with ramen noodles, udon noodles, char siu, pork wontons, and scallions. It’s huge and satisfying and costs a whopping…seven dollars.

There’s a soulful depth to Palace Saimin that I’ve always admired. The dining room is packed with workers from the fish market, families, and hungover cooks. There’s no music, no T.V. — just quiet conversations, and the occasional sound of cooking coming from the kitchen. It’s utilitarian, but with a warmth that extends beyond the comforting nature of the food. 

Every chef has an a-ha moment where they realize what “their” style of cooking is. That moment for me was on a return trip to Palace, quietly eating a bowl of saimin, and realizing that all of those years of eating noodles with my family had formed who I was as a cook—it was the bedrock of every food connection my brain had.

Those connections have taken on a greater weight as I’ve gotten older, feeding my kids the same foods I grew up on, seeing them enjoy all the same flavors. Listening to them talk to each other about their favorite foods and favorite places makes me hope that someday they’ll have a Palace Saimin of their own. 

Come to think of it, it might already be Palace Saimin.

 

*