I live in Liliha, where the passage of time can be measured in the disappearance of mom-and-pop restaurants. In that environment I’d grown to believe that the saimin restaurant is a particularly endangered species.
In light of having been eclipsed by more prolific ramen restaurants, with their varied broths and myriad toppings, as well as an onslaught of glitzy fusion, and contemporary burger and pizza joints, how’s a scrawny plantation-era noodle supposed to compete? It’s served the same way it’s always been, layered with char siu, kamaboko and dotted with green onions, with very little variation, in a time when social media mavens are all on the lookout for the next new thing.
As if that isn’t enough strikes, the whole anti-simple carb movement a while back sent people running from any type of noodle and bread. The diet was temporary for many, but not all.
The newly open Tanaka Saimin, in the former Weyerhaeuser warehouse building, next to Party City, dispels any prophecies about saimin’s demise. The new restaurant’s cred is rooted in a familiar name on the saimin circuit, Boulevard Saimin on Dillingham Avenue, which dates to the ’50s and has been re-dubbed Dillingham Saimin.
Both establishments remain true to the Boulevard ethos of hearty, affordable local fare that extends well beyond saimin into breakfast and plate-lunch territory, but Tanaka Saimin does so in an extremely glossy, contemporary way. It’s a sparkling palace for saimin, with cozy booth seating and a bar for onesies seeking quick service. Even with its large size, it’s been packed every afternoon by both fans of Boulevard and commuters, who, having watched it being built, were hungry to check out the new addition.
Because it’s crowded, don’t just wait at the entrance for assistance. You have to be proactive in adding your name to the clipboard on the bar, then wait for your name to be called.
Boulevard saimin was a favorite haunt of mine while in my first journalism job, when, after making rent and car payments, I had about $100 left for food each month (and $20 for video games). After discovering its fried saimin, I never went back to the soup version. Coupled with a meat stick, it was a be-all, end-all dish.
It still is at Tanaka’s, named after family patriarch Kazuko Tanaka. It’s that bit of oil from stir-frying the noodles that makes it so satisfying. The basic fried saimin plate is $6.25. It’s $7.45 with a slice of teriyaki beef or pork, or yakitori chicken.
Some may think it dry, but anyone who’s kept up with my columns knows I’m not a big fan of heavy sauces or gravies, not even with Thanksgiving turkey.
I haven’t had the soup version for years, so it took me a while to get back into the swing of things, before my old rituals came flooding back, such as dousing the bowl with black pepper, and remembering to mix the shoyu into the yellow mustard, which has all but disappeared from most Chinese restaurants over the past decade, in favor of chile sauce.
A plain saimin starts at $5.45 small and $5.85 for large. Won ton min is $6.05 and $6.45, respectively, the home-style won tons comprising pure ground pork. I opted for the Portuguese sausage saimin with won tons, at $7.95, with four pieces of sausage that you can have on the side. I was told most people don’t want to muck up the broth with oil. Instead of the beef stick side ($2.40), I opted for a piece of shrimp tempura, with a thick, fluffy pancake-style batter, unlike any other tempura in town.
Another flavor from the past was the combo ketchup/mustard mixture on the hamburger ($3.85 or $6 on a platter with choice of fries, tossed greens, macaroni-potato salad or choice of soup). That mac-potato salad is mostly macaroni, sprinkled with a dash of paprika.
If it’s breakfast you want, it’s available to closing at 9 p.m. I also loved the home-style shrimp omelet ($7.85) with a few pieces of green onions that perk up the dish. You can also build your own omelet ($7.35) with a choice of two ingredients from a list that includes kim chee, ham, Portuguese sausage, onion, tomato, mushroom, luncheon meat and cheese. Add $1.60 for additional items.
There’s a full list of sandwiches ranging from a BLT ($4/$5.40 platter) to grilled mahi ($4.80/$6.95) that wasn’t actually grilled, but battered and deep-fried. That wasn’t the only inconsistency. One waitress was a little shocked when I started putting in single orders of mushroom, sweet potato, eggplant and zucchini tempura, at $1.85 to $2.50 per two pieces. I was expecting small, delicate, Japanese restaurant-style portions, but I forget the supersize aspects of local-style restaurants. Each order comprised three colossal slices in thick, crisp armor. It turned out to be much more than we could eat. If I were you, I’d just try one to start, or just go with the excellent onion rings ($2.95).
As for hot plates, all the basic diner favorites are covered, including barbecue short ribs ($8.80), teriyaki beef ($7.85) and teriyaki pork ($7.85).
For dessert there are slices of pie made on the premises, including rich sweet potato-haupia, lilikoi chiffon and banana mac nut.
There will always be some people who expect cuisine as glitzy as the restaurant’s appearance, but that’s not what this place is about. True to its history, the new Tanaka’s is still an old-fashioned mom-and-pop at heart, attuned to the comfort and simplicity of saimin culture.