Back in February of this year, fellow Oahu food blogger Edward Morita wrote a contributing story for Metromix in the late Honolulu Advertiser titled “Who Makes the Best Saimin?“. Well, anytime you involve food with the badge “the best” tagged to it, it’s almost certain to stir up a debate.
That said, here’s the results of Edward’s Saimin comparo':
“We initially thought rating saimin would be difficult, but as we ate our way across town, we found that the characteristics of the dashi and type of noodles made every bowl unique. Here are our picks of the island’s best saimin.
No. 7 – Old Saimin House: The dashi is on the light side and the factory-bought noodles yield a bowl of saimin similar to that of S&S saimin, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you grew up on S&S like we did.
No. 6 – Shiro’s Saimin Haven: A local favorite with a well-known history, and by far, the biggest saimin menu you’ll find anywhere.
No. 5 – Palace Saimin: No frills with eight menu items. The limited hours make it always busy, but the BBQ stick makes it worth the wait.
No. 4 – Shige’s Saimin Stand: The noodles are made in-house; they made the best fried saimin.
No. 3 – Boulevard Saimin: Best dashi and won ton. Soon to be moving to a new location on Nimitz Highway.
No. 2 – Nakai Saimin: Also uses homemade noodles; our pick for best saimin restaurant.
No.1 – New Violet’s Grill: Deceptively deep bowls. Our pick for best bowl of saimin on Oahu.”
OK, while I have 100% respect for Ed’s expertise and opinion, I have several beefs with this. First of all, he didn’t include a “wildcard”, which would be none other than McDonald’s Saimin. Yes, McDonald’s Saimin. Secondly, he left out Zippy’s Zip Min. The nerve! Lastly, or number one for that matter, he crowned Violet’s Grill’s Oxtail Saimin as “The Best Saimin”.
The reason I have a problem with Violet’s Oxtail Saimin being chosen as “the best”, is the unfair advantage it has over its competition for the very fact that it has LOADS of Oxtails in it. I mean how can you beat that? That’s like comparing a Mustang Shelby GT500 with a jacked-up V-8, tranny and suspension to a bare bones rent-a-car Mustang V-6 model with maybe perhaps a convertible top. Ya’ know?
I mean, Oxtails compared to wontons and charsiu? The latter don’t stand a chance unless they’re REALLY, REALLY good, or the oxtails aren’t done right. Or at least theoretically in my mind before even tasting it, I’m thinking the oxtails will automatically send it over the top.
As far as restaurant choices, there’s certainly a good bowl of saimin to be found at many more restaurants than the seven Ed listed. Ethel’s Grill, Ichiben, Forty Niner Restaurant, Like Like Drive Inn and Liliha Bakery, just to name a few. Of course this is only to mention Oahu eateries, yet I must at least tip my hat to Hamura’s on Kauai, Sam Sato’s on Maui and Nori’s in Hilo on the Big Island.
Well, surely time and space was limited for Ed’s story, and not to discount his efforts, I took him up on his crowning jewel, Violet’s Grill’s Oxtail Saimin, and went to check for myself if this could really be the “Saimin of all Saimins”. The noodle of all noodles, the broth of all broths, along with the toppings of all toppings that would have me walking out the restaurant a changed man. Enlighted, and perhaps becoming a Saimin Demigod.
So here I am at Violet’s Grill, an old school Okinawan-meets-local food eatery in Kapalama, Kalihi (the center of Hawaii’s food universe, a.k.a. “God’s Country”) to sample “The Best Saimin”, their Oxtail Saimin.
Their Oxtail Saimin will set you back $14.95, plus tax and tip, which is quite the chunk ‘o change to pay for saimin by any standard. Yet this IS oxtail saimin after all, and I suppose the price is justified, considering it comes as a complete meal, including a drink, salad, cabbage tsukemono and ice cream or sherbet dessert.
Arriving first at the table is my Green River drink…
Ah yes, the classic lime-flavored Green River. Remember that? Talk about “old school”! That along with the faux wood formica-covered decor at Violet’s will instantly transport you right back to the 70’s…
Arriving next on the table is the salad…
This is simply sliced cabbage for the most part, along with romaine lettuce and carrots, served with their house dressing, which tastes like a cross between French and Thousand Islands. As simple as it sounds, what makes this actually quite outstanding, is that it’s served ICE COLD, so it has this very refreshing and crispy bite to it. Especially the cabbage. Quite nice, actually! A very solid 3 SPAM Musubi on their house salad.
Then out comes the accompaniments for the Oxtail Saimin, which includes the all-important grated ginger, cabbage tsukemono and a bowl to discard your oxtail bones….
Now, as thunder and lightning strikes above, “The Bowl” has cometh….
Add the shoyu to the grated ginger and we’re ready to dig in…
Anyhow, let’s start this tasting session the right way by first observing the bowl. I’ll do this on a spiritual level like I do with Japanese Ramen.
There’s certainly a generous helping of Chinese Parsley (Cilantro) on there, which I love. Good sign so far.
OK, first let’s try the broth…
I asked my server/sister of the owner how the broth was made, and surprisingly she divulged quite a bit! She said there isn’t any star anise in it, which is typical of local style oxtail soup, while there is some dashi, but most of its flavor comes from the long simmering of the oxtails themselves, which is exactly how it tasted. It didn’t taste like saimin broth at all, but more like a toned-down oxtail soup broth. When I say toned down, I mean in comparison to the ULTIMATE bowl of oxtail soup I had at both Pho Bistro 2 and The Alley Restaurant at Aiea Bowl.
Now let’s try the noodles…
Like most of the ramen shops around town, Violet’s sources their noodles from my favorite, the one, the only Sun Noodle Factory. With that, the noodles were cooked perfectly, being more on the firm side than the soggy side, which some saimin places seem to prefer making it the latter way.
OK, time to put my carnivorous hat on and eat some oxtail…
Flavorful, succulent and fall-off-the-marrow-ee-bone tender? Check, check and triple check. Now here’s where oxtails get kicked up notches beyond mankind…
That’s right my friends, you dip da’ buggah’ in da’ grated ginger and shoyu sauce. Whooooo da’ winnahz! I swear, you could dip your shoe in this stuff and it’d probably taste great.
Seriously though, that simple-yet-magical combination of shoyu and the intense ginger flavor really emphasizes the “umami factor” of the oxtails. We’re talking serious “Umami-liciousness”. So, so good. Om nom nom nom nom NOM!
As mentioned earlier, $14.95 is a hefty price for saimin by most standards, yet for that, they certainly don’t skimp on portions of oxtails…
That sure is a heaping helping of succulent, fall-off-the-bones oxtail meat. In fact it was so tender, I had a tough time transferring them from one bowl to the other without falling off my chopsticks. Of course I did this just for this photo, then put the oxtails back in the soup. They need to be there for the flavor!
Also in the swimming in the bowl were strips of Konnyaku and slices of Shiitake Mushrooms, which the mushrooms contributed somewhat to the flavor of the broth.
So the bottom line here is that this tasted more like a very good bowl of Oxtail Soup that so happens to also have saimin noodles in it, than a “jacked-up”, excellent bowl of saimin that has oxtails in it.
Honestly for me, the oxtails doesn’t match with the saimin, and takes away from it more than adds to it. You suddenly forget it’s saimin and your brain focuses almost entirely on gnawing on the oxtails one by one. Yet don’t get me wrong, they were mighty fine pieces of oxtail, in one pretty good soup, that again, just so happens to have saimin noodles in it. While overall, I’m not so fond of the beef being the foundation of the saimin broth, where normally it’s either pork or seafood. For me that’s just plain weird.
As it turns out, as far for the sake of this being saimin, the oxtails became more of a disadvantage than an asset, no pun intended.
That said, I give Violet’s Grill’s Oxtail Saimin 3 SPAM Musubi. It’s a very good Oxtail Soup with Saimin noodles in it.
I still say as of this writing, of all places, Zippy’s Zip Min is THE BEST saimin on Oahu. It’s saimin to the core. Local all the way, with the perfect broth (that TASTES like saimin broth) and noodles, along with an incredibly delicious array of simple-yet-proven toppings that compliment the overall dish. All at a price that makes saimin what it should be: cheap, comforting and delicious.
Good God, I could SO go for a bowl of that right about now. Looks sooo ono.
While I wasn’t “blown away” by Violet’s Grill’s Oxtail Saimin (a.k.a. Oxtail Soup with Saimin noodles in it), I was certainly AMAZED by their INCREDIBLE Okinawan Pig’s Feet Soup…
Good Lord, I could SO go for a bowl of that right about now as well! Om nom nom nom nom nom NOM!
Rounding out the complete Oxtail Saimin meal at Violet’s Grill, I’m brought my Rainbow Sherbet dessert….
I tell ya’, this place sure knows how to transport you back in time, as I haven’t had Rainbow Sherbet in AGES! I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a candy stand in there that sold Astro Pops and Horlicks Malted Candy Tablets. Remember those? Classics! Well anyhow, the sherbet was certainly a nice and cool ending to a hot soup lunch.
New Violet’s Grill
Kapalama Shopping Center (across the street from City Square)
1210 Dillingham Blvd.
Honolulu, Hawaii 96817
Open daily 6am to 10pm
The Tasty Island rating (on Oxtail Saimin):
(3) Very Good. Considerable of another visit or purchase. (Supah’ Ono!)
P.S. Diner A just eMailed me these photos of a car he sighted in a parking lot with SPAM vanity license plates!…
Now that is AWESOME. I wonder how many people have offered this person money to transfer the name over at the DMV to their cars. What’s kinda’ funny is the Hello Kitty sticker on the side. It’s rather disturbing, actually. lol What I would do is put the word “Musubi” in the bottom part of the license plate frame.
Happy Father’s Day