Susend Tran was a pioneer in the evolution of the Taiwanese-style hot pot in Honolulu, streamlining and speeding the process with ingredients stocked in self-serve refrigerators.
The former owner of Sweet Home Cafe, where diners called her “aunty,” now personalizes the process at her new restaurant, Aunty’s Ramen, at McCully and Young streets.
Expanding on the build-your-own concept championed by burger and fast-food eateries, Aunty’s lets you create a bowl of noodles to your liking. It’s a blessing for germaphobes who never really liked to share a hot pot (but never wanted to tell anyone at risk of offending their friends).
1110 McCully St. (at Young Street)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays to Mondays (last call at 9 p.m.)
Cost: $7.50 per half pound of ingredients (about $12 to $25 per person with minimum)
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – excellent;
*** – very good;
** – average;
* – below average.
It’s also a no-waste proposition for those with friends who are fussy eaters. The food at most self-serve operations often comes plated to be shared, with several meat or seafood balls, shellfish portions, etc. But sometimes you just want a couple of pieces to sample, and the rest is wasted if none of your friends want the same thing.
Perfect for the “i”-generation: I can just grab a plastic bowl and start filling it only with the food items I want. Yes!
About 80 ingredients — from greens to gyoza — are stored in plastic bins in refrigerated cases lined up in an orderly row so diners can make their picks in single file when it’s busy or scoot around other customers when it’s not. It was great to see children getting an early culinary education as their parents pointed out various ingredients and allowed them to make their own choices.
You can choose as many ingredients as you like, but you’ll be paying by weight, at $7.50 per half pound, and it adds up quickly.
Some ingredients are obviously heavy, such as any type of seafood ball, chunks of taro or purple sweet potato, and slices of corn on the cob. Enoki mushrooms may look and feel as insubstantial as air, but their clustered stem systems may hold weight equivalent to a water-filled sponge. You can feel the heft as you’re dropping them into your basket.
I was a little shocked to pay so much more for my bowl than the gentleman in front of me, who had one basket he was sharing with his young son. His bill was $10.47. My udon and yellow curry soup with lamb came to $20.87. On another visit, my bowl was $24.50, the ingredients adding up to about 1-1/2 pounds.
After you’ve filled your basket, there’s another line for the cashier, where you’ll be making several more decisions. This is where the system bogs down at busy times, as people dither over myriad choices. Aunty’s tries to cover all bases, offering a range of popular broth styles.
The miso soup contains Taiwanese white miso with fried egg flakes, onions and celery. Aunty’s Golden Soup is a creamy crowd pleaser that starts with a seafood base, kabocha, celery, onions and garlic. Other choices include beef and seaweed soups, as well as pho broth.
If you like a bit of heat, try Aunty’s Red Soup, a beef-based broth with chilies, or ask for spice in the golden soup. Yellow curry permeates Aunty’s Yellow Soup, a seafood base with coconut milk and red curry.
Next up is your choice of noodles. Egg noodle is the ramen option. The others are udon, saimin, bean thread, rice noodles or long rice. To each his own. My favorite is the thick and chewy udon because it holds up well against the broth.
You can also choose from about a half dozen side dishes for $5.95 each. They include dynamite seafood balls crusted with spindly kataifi that has a tendency to go up your nostrils no matter how you try to maneuver around them.
There’s also fried chicken, gau gee with cheese, fried calamari and shoyu pig ears. If you like shrimp, the side order of garlic-butter fried shrimp is a better option than the shell-on shrimp in the buffet line. The whole shrimp is tempting and seemed like a good addition to my basket, but it’s not fun to think about pulling it out of the hot soup and peeling it. There’s no way to be dainty about it or keep your hands clean when all you have to work with are chopsticks.
Near the cashier you’ll see little buckets holding slips for the meat choices, at $2 per 2-ounce order. Choose from thin-sliced beef, beef tongue, pork belly, a beef-pork combo or lamb.
Once you pay, help yourself to the condiment bar stocking cilantro, green onions and a range of chili, garlic-butter, sesame, black bean and garlic-soy sauces.
There’s one last build-your-own option: shave ice. Start by filling your bowl with fresh fruit, fruit and coffee jellies and custards with the flavors of green tea, almond tofu, taro (it tastes more like lychee) and mocha. Your selections are layered with shave ice, condensed milk and brown sugar syrup for the best kind of finale — dessert your way.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com. For more photos from this week’s restaurant go to takeabite.staradvertiserblogs.com