When I was in college, ramen was one of my favorite things to eat (along with Coco Ichibanya Curry House), because it was a new thing to me, and something I had never tried before. I know Oahu has had ramen restaurants for forever, but on Kauai it's a relatively new thing. We've always had saimin, and I think a lot of locals here think that ramen and saimin are the same thing.
They most certainly are not.
Saimin was born from plantation camp life, and is a mixture of different cultures coming together to contribute to one pot to be shared together. Imagine Japanese broth, Chinese charsiu, Filipino pancit noodles. Stuff like that. That's how saimin came to be. Think of every single saimin place you've been to. Hamura Saimin, Kako's, even Zippy's and McDonald's has saimin. They all look similar, right? Kamaboko, charsiu, green onions, dashi stock. That's basically the saimin standard. The toppings can vary, but it's the same kind of broth. Ramen is different in that your toppings, your noodles and your broth changes. There are all different styles of ramen, and every region in Japan has a specialty ramen. Basically what I'm trying to say is, ramen is far more diverse than saimin. You can walk into a restaurant and say, "one saimin," and get exactly that. But you couldn't walk into a restaurant and say, "one ramen."
The first ramen place opened up in Ele'ele a couple of years ago, and I hear that place is decent. I haven't tried it yet, because I have absolutely no reason to go to Ele'ele. But lucky for me, a ramen place opened up inside the mall!
I don't know who owns Aloha Ramen, but the majority of workers appear to be Chinese. You can hardly call this place a restaurant as there is no seating inside. This place is so small it's basically a counter, fridge, and a kitchen. You have to sit outside in the food court area to eat, which is noisy and hot and full of flies. That's a turn off for me. The menu is displayed on two TV screens and includes ramen/udon, fried rice and curry of all sorts.
I got my hopes up when I saw the menu because they had ramen that I liked, specifically tan tan and tonkotsu. Tonkotsu is my absolute favorite! I love how it's fatty and porky, I love the white color that the broth has, and I love the sticky feel it leaves on your lips. Truly luxurious. The first time I went to Aloha Ramen (I went twice, I'll get to that), tonkotsu was the first thing I had.
Let's go into detail about what tonkotsu is, first, because I have a pet peeve about this. The word tonkotsu is very close to tonkatsu, which is a breaded pork cutlet, right? Everyone is familiar with that. Tonkotsu is a stock made from pork bones. It has nothing to do with breaded pork cutlets, and it does not have a slab on tonkatsu on top of it. On a related note, the menu at the ramen restaurant in Ele'ele lists a tonkatsu ramen with exactly that. A slab of breaded pork cutlet on top of the noodles. I think they were confused.
This stock is made by stewing pork bones and other aromatics until you have this beautiful, milky-colored broth that is full of porky flavor. A lot of people think that this stock looks like dishwater, but if you can get past the color, it will be the best stock you have ever put in your mouth. So naturally I was very excited to know that I could get it on Kauai!
The stock color was alarming. This was really, really white. It also lacked that glistening fat, and I was not surprised when it tasted like utter disappointment. There was no fattiness to it at all, it lacked all flavor. It honestly was like they just took hot water and sprinkled in packets of pre-made flavoring into it, like instant ramen. It was a total disappointment.
Just for reference, this is what a real tonkotsu ramen should look like:
Do you see how the fat just glistens on top of the stock? Yes, it sounds disgusting. But like I said, it is a luxurious stock. Now look back at that other picture. Do you see how that stock just looks like dish water? I can see how some people have looked at this and found it completely unappetizing.
I always like to try something twice. I feel like, unless it was a truly horrible experience, food should always be given a second chance. I went back a second time yesterday with some friends and tried something new. This time, I got the tan tan ramen.
Doesn't look bad, this one. It actually has some fattiness to it, and the color is appealing. The flavor was better than the tonkotsu, and I enjoyed the menma especially. I could do without the kamaboko, though. This isn't saimin. *coughsnobcough*
Kevin ended up getting the tonkotsu (which he called tonkatsu. Smh), and my other friends got the char siu ramen:
And the kimchi ramen, which I'm pretty sure is just tan tan broth with kimchi and bean sprouts on top.
The ramen comes with either your choice of ramen noodles or udon. The ramen noodles appear to be fresh (not as in homemade, but fresh boiled noodles, not freeze dried), and you have to appreciate the prices, which range from $8.50 to $10.95. There is also a keiki ramen for $6.75. The fried rice and stir fried noodles range from $8.50 to $9.25 and come in kimchi fried rice, pork, chicken, etc. The curries come in regular size or mini, ranging from $6.95 to $9.25. They include flavors such as chicken katsu curry, mochiko chicken curry, and they even have curry croquette.
This time around, I think we all enjoyed our meal. You're definitely not going to get an authentic taste of Japanese ramen at Aloha Ramen, but it's not awful, and I'm glad that Kauai is expanding its horizons and is embracing a new type of food. Just don't order the tonkotsu ramen.