As you may have heard, second-to-the-top in the nation (behind Best Buy) electronics big box Circuit City recently announced that, due to insurmountable debt and unsuccessfully finding a new owner, they’re closing their doors for good after being in business for 60 years. Sad. Very sad, and frightening at the same time, reminding us all of the reality of this current economic crisis.
Fortunately Forty Niner Restaurant in Aiea, which ironically is just a few blocks up the street from Oahu’s Circuit City location, continues to thrive to this day after new owner Will Cordes took over the place back in 2006, carrying on the legacy of Richard Chagami and family who, also ironically, owned and operated it for almost 60 years.
While taking over a single-location mom ‘n pop operation doesn’t seem as grand in scale and cost in comparison to reviving a publicly-traded corporate mega-giant national retail chain in the red and ready to flatline, it requires the same attention to detail and focus on remaining true to the original in order to keep both its established customer base and new ones satisfied.
And that focus in restaurant form would be, next to service, ultimately the recipes and preparation methods that go into the signature items on the menu in order to maintain the brand.
One of which at Forty Niner is their Saimin…
What better choice to go along with a hot bowl of Saimin than a juicy (as you seen in the first photo) Teri Burger…
In sticking with my storyboard, I’d love to continue telling you what other original Chagami items carry on under the new ownership, but to be honest, the gal working the front was so busy serving the dine-in restaurant on the other side as well as the take-out side I was at, that she barely had time to answer any questions I had besides just taking my order. I also forgot to ask Will over the phone what they were.
After reading a few articles online, I believe it’s safe to say that burgers and saimin are at the top of the list. Other favorites listed on the menu include the Forty Niner Bento (Garlic Chicken, Teribeef, Fish, Kamaboko, SPAM and rice), Fried Saimin, Oxtail Soup and Oriental Chicken Salad. I would have loved to try their Oxtail Soup, but refuse to order something like that for take-out. That’s something you need to eat piping hot right there in the dining room or front counter.
So those first two items shown was Diner A’s grindz. Here’s Diner E’s order…
LOL! Reason I’m laughing out loud is that I’m recalling the reaction Diner E had when he first opened the package and seen this. In a slightly bitter, yet more funny way he was kinda’ really upset about this.
See, sometimes when you ask for something, you literally get what you ask for. In this case, notice this is called a “Teri Beef Sandwich”; the operative term here being it’s called a SANDWICH. And when you make a SANDWICH, you use bread, not buns, right?
Well, he got his Teri Beef alright, just not in a hamburger bun like it normally is served (and how he prefers), but in two slices of (plain ole) white BREAD like all sandwiches should be.
I gotta’ tell you, watching him rant on about that was a riot! Imagine taking candy from a kid, then convert that same angry energy into a grown man verbally venting. That’s kinda’ how it was. LOL! A little more on that later.
Also with his order he got a regular hamburger (no teriyaki, no deluxe, just bare bones basic)…
Whew, the burger has a bun! lol
Rounding it all out, Diner E also got an order of fries…
Finally, since Diner E didn’t get this, and I was feeling kinda’ “saimined” and “burgered out”, I decided to take one for the team and ordered the Hamburger Steak plate…
According to the menu, this plate is described as having 2 homemade burgers smothered with grilled onions and gravy. Indeed it is, as advertised.
How was it? Ono. While I wouldn’t quite say it’s “Drive from Waianae to Waimanalo to get some” ono, it’s at least “Drive from town to Aiea to get some” ono. The burger patties were well- seared and had a dense, yet tender consistency to it. Here’s a cross-cut so you can see inside…
The abundant onions were also nicely-caramelized, punching out its savory-sweet character, which also helped to punch out the flavor of the acccompanying beef patties. The gravy wasn’t as deep as I’d have liked and also was a little too gelatinous in a “choke da’ cornstarch thickener” kinda’ way, but still acceptably delici0us.
What really surprised me in how good it was is the “Macaroni” Salad; quotes around “Macaroni”, because if you look carefully, you can see it’s not macaroni at all, but Spaghetti noodles. Yet by golly, it was fantastic! Simple, cool and creamy, just like every good Mac’ Sal’ should be. I imagine them using Spaghetti instead of Macaroni is yet another tradition passed on from the Chagami legacy. In Forty Niner’s kitchen some time back in the 1950’s: “But grampa, that’s not Macaroni”. “Ahh, nevah mind, da’ customah not going mind. Tastes da’ same, and besides, dis’ buggah mo cheap at da’ commissary.” “Oh, OK grampa”.
Forty Niner’s Hamburger Steak plate gets 3 SPAM Musubi from me.
Because (as usual) we ordered take-out, Diner A requested his saimin be packed with the broth separate (so the noodles don’t get soggy), like this…
The Saimin and Teriyaki Burger Combo is very popular in Hawaii. Take a bite of the burger, then wash it down with some of that hot saimin broth, while the noodles provide the starch you’d otherwise get from the fries. Das’ a winnah right deah! In fact, this combo is so popular, Zippy’s added it to their regular menu. Forty Niner doesn’t though, so you simply order it ala carte.
Hey, we could eat this Sam Sato’s Dry Mein style! But nah, Diner A combined it with the broth and ate it as it was designed…
Ironically with this being a signature item, Diner A wasn’t very impressed by it, saying it tasted no better than Saimin from McDonald’s. Ack! He gave me a sample cup of the broth to try, which I assumed first without tasting that it was going to be simply dashi and water. But you know what? I couldn’t taste dashi at all. It tasted more like a soup stock made with shellfish. Like say, shrimp shells (and heads) and/or clams. Soemething like that. If there is dashi in it, there’s very little. It wasn’t that “shoyu-ee” either. It almost reminded me of a tamed version of Chinese Abalone Soup. Aside of that non-descript shellfish base, it was fairly mild and subtle. I didn’t get to try the noodles, so can’t give a personal opinion, but that also didn’t “WOW!” Diner A.
Well, I spoke with Will myself over the phone and he said Mr. Chagami still makes the broth himself, so Will doesn’t even know how it’s made (yet, or didn’t wanna’ say), but did confirm there’s shrimp in it. As for the noodles, they get it from a third-party vendor, so that’s also an outsourced critical ingredient.
You know, I really think saimin stands – just like most other old single location, old school mom ‘n pop restaurants – gain their high praises by their loyal patrons mainly due to, at one time in history, they were the only game in town.
Rewind back to 1940 when McDonald’s was first established by brothers Dick and Mac, that was probably the best burgers, fries and shakes in the world!!! if you lived in San Bernardino, California. Yet today, McDonald’s almost has to reinvent itself in order to stay on top of BURGER WARS.
Hey, they should make a movie titled that! A spoof on working and patronizing burger joints. lol In theaters soon… BURGER WARS
Extremely-hyped Hamura’s on Kauai is another perfect example of that. I tried their Saimin once and, at least on that visit, also was rather unimpressed, thinking it tasted not much better or different than store-bought S&S. Seriously. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if that’s really what it’s supposed to taste like, I’m wondering what tourists from the mainland and Japan think when they wait in line for hours just to get a table there end up thinking when they finally taste it. “Is this it?” Either that, or they’ll end up really liking it not only because they’re so hungry by then (after waiting to get in), or because they simply don’t know what to compare it with. But who do you compare them with on Kauai? Try Google “Kauai Saimin” and see what comes up.
Then again, you’re talking to a guy who – as I’ve said before and will say it again – am an authentic Japanese Ramen connoiseur, so I’m prorobably more critical than I should be when it comes to its mixed-breed offspring, the saimin. Not that I think it should taste like ramen, but I expect a REALLY GOOD SAIMIN served in a Hawaii restaurant – especially one that specializes in it – to have the same level of simple-yet complex character and depth that authentic ramen has if you were to get it from the millions of specialty shops scattered all over the land of the rising sun.
In light of that, Diner A chimed in saying he feels Shiro’s tastes better than Forty Niner’s. I can’t say, as I haven’t had a bowl of Shiro’s Saimin for a long time now. Nor have I had a bowl of Saimin from McDonald’s in recent times, God forbid. That said, Diner A gave Forty Niner’s saimin 1 SPAM Musubi, meaning it’s just average. Not great, not terrible, but average.
Diner A, you better watch out now. Forty Niner old timers and regulars will be knocking down your door yelling at you for saying the saimin is “average”. You know they all think it’s the most awesome-mest best-est-est!
Actually what they’ll probably quickly point out is – like everything else there – you have to eat the saimin dining in at their place, where it’s served piping hot in a porcelain bowl. Not in that God-forsaken, flavor-robbing styrofoam take-out tub. He did nuke the broth, though, to make it hot again.
Thankfully Diner A found redemption in his lunch with his Forty Niner favorite, the Teri Burger. Scroll back up to that first photo and tell me that wouldn’t save the day, even if your mom just made you finish your peas? Man, I just wanna’ virtually stick my face through my monitor and take a bite! Just look at that thick ‘n caramelized Teriyaki glaze oozing all over it. **Drools on space bar key** For this, he gives it a solid 4 SPAM Musubi rating, only missing a 5 because it’s not flame-grilled, but griddled. Something I doubt they’ll ever change in order to keep the same cooking methods as well as recipes inherited from the Chagami dynasty.
Finally we go back to a salty Diner E and his stuff…
What redeemed what Diner E perceived as two dreadfully-plain, don’t-quite-cut-it slices of bread, was the fantastic and generous helpings of Teriyaki Beef. He notes the fantastic Teriyaki sauce (which must be the same one on the burger) was well marinaded into the meat, while thin slices of beef were very tender.
So, still sulking, you know what he ended up doing? Giving the bread to the birds and stacking the Teriyaki beef inside his plain burger. For real! Then he was happy. Actually that’s nothing new, as you may recall W&M Burgers in Kaimuki has that on their menu if your order “Hal’s Special”…
W&M Bar-B-Q Burgers (Kaimuki) – Hal’s Special: Teri Cheese Burger & Teri Beef
He shared the fries with us, which were OK. Nothing house-made. Like probably everything else we had, our opinions would likely be much higher had it been piping hot and crispy, eaten right there in the restaurant. By the time I arrived back at the office, the fries had kinda’ cooled down and steamed themselves a bit soggy. Still, was a’aight.
Summing up his entire meal, Diner E gave everything an overall 2 SPAM Musubi rating.
Diner E actually was the one who made that important point that Forty Niner is the kind of place that’s better if you eat there. This is comfort food more than it is take-out and should be served to you that way. Not all wrapped up in paper and styrofoam, but served piping hot on real dishware just like if you were home.
When, not if, I go back again, I plan to dine-in and try Forty Niner’s Oxtail Soup. I also need to return to the Board of Water Supply Cafeteria and try THEIR Oxtail Soup. After trying the one at Asahi Grill, a.k.a. Kapiolani Coffee Shop, I’m a fan of the dish. I also wanna’ try Forty Niner’s Smoked Meat with Eggs Breakfast. I was actually going to order that, but was too late on this visit, as they don’t serve breakfast items after 10:30am. What is this? McDonald’s?! lol
Here’s the front counter on the take-out side of the restaurant…
That doorway to the right of the ice maker leads to the dine-in restaurant side of the estrablishment. On my visit, it looked like the restaurant was at about 75% capacity, so this place certainly has a good clientele established. If that side fills up, you can grab a stool here on the take-out side and enjoy your meal, which several gentlemen were doing during while I was there.
Behold the menu…
There’s also daily specials written on this dry-erase board to the right…
Dig that super-retro Coca Cola sign.
This is the kind of shirt you need to wear when you’re in the Vegas Casinos…
I wanted to ask Carolyn (the lovely waitress/cashier/do everything except cook worker) to hold it up for the shot, but she was just too busy. They’re $15 each.
Here’s the front…
The take-out counter section is to the left through the screen door where that “We’re Open” sign is, and the dine-in restaurant section is through the brown trim door on the right.
Five parking stalls are available on the right side of the building…
“Marshall” commented on the last (abreviated) write-up I did on Forty Niner that owners Will and Karla have an agreement with neighboring KFC to use their parking lot. I’m not sure if this is still the deal though, so you should call first to confirm before doing that, lest you get towed.
Forty Niner Restaurant
98-110 Honomanu St. (just a few blocks Diamond Head (east) of Pearlridge Shopping Center off Kamehameha highway)
Aiea, HI 96701
Big Shaka to: The Teri Burger. The Teri beef inside the SANDWICH. Hamburger Steak. Spaghetti Mac Sal. Well-packaged for takeout. Finding a new owner to carry on a 60 year family legacy. Carrying on the original owners’ recipes, including Spaghetti instead of Macaroni pasta for the Mac’ Sal’ and bread instead of bun for the Teri Beef Sandwich. Smoked Meat and Oxtail Soup on the menu. Quick and friendly service. Local style comfort food at affordable prices. Dine-in accommodations. Busy. Wearing local-style T-shirts in Vegas casinos. Winning a million bucks. Retiring so you can go Ulua fishing all day.
No shaka to: Bread instead of bun for the Teri Beef SANDWICH. Hamburger Steak gravy a bit too gelatinous. Saimin not as great as expected. Steamed-soggy fries. Too much expectation by us from takeout, when we think its probably much, much, much better dining in. Diner E sulking about getting bread instead of bun. Diner A getting on the bad side of Forty Niner Saimin fans. Diner P’s lofty expectations of Saimin to be as great as authentic Japanese Ramen. McDonald’s-like breakfast hours. Circuit City closing and the current state of the economy.
The Tasty Island Rating:
(3) Very Good. Considerable of another visit or purchase. (Supah’ Ono!)