Since 1959, Ala Moana Center is probably one of a few places everyone on Oahu of all ages and statuses flock to. I have fond memories of the hours spent walking the length of the outdoor mall with my parents, then friends when I became old enough to take the bus there by myself.
This may sound strange, but I enjoyed walking into each store because each had their own scent upon entering. A few that stand out -- Sears (clothes and rubber); Liberty House (clothes, carpet, leather, blend of fragrances); Iida (paper, wood, and incense), and Shirokiya (Japanese food being prepared and that same cleanser all restaurants in Japan seem to use). The Sanrio entrance into Shirokiya smelled of vinyl and Japanese erasers.
It has been several years since my most recent visit to Shirokiya -- well, Hawaii. This has never been an empty store, but the place had a manic vibe. The familiar aroma of food being prepared was intoxicating. The vast displays of pottery, kitchen gadgets, furniture, purses, western clothes, kimono, and electronics were condensed. Instead, there was food everywhere -- refrigerated, hot, pickled, freshly prepared, baked, steamed, fried, ... Japanese food.
I'm not complaining.
A banner hung in one of the food stall areas on the 2nd floor that advertised a curry challenge: Japanese curry versus Indian curry. My id screamed, "Curry! Curry, curry, curry! Oh, no! Which do I choose?!" I wanted to try both in one platter, but that defeats the goal of the curry challenge.
The challenges consist of two restaurants pitted against one another for a 2 week period. Each week, the number of plates sold are posted. The winner is determined by total plate sales. Two new restaurants are brought in each period.
Entranced by the aroma, I glided to the curry corner only to be reeled back by my father's voice reminding me that we had a dinner to attend that evening so we shouldn't eat like it's our last meal on Earth.
We walked around the entire 2nd floor, to collect as much data on our choices to avoid making an uninformed decision and later regret it. As far back as I can recall, my father has always made decisions in this manner. On the other end of the spectrum, you'll find me.
We decided on ramen and gyoza. As a part of the ramen challenge, the line split into two directions with a barker at the center shouting, "Irrashaimase!" (welcome!), ushering people to go to one of the ramen-ya.
Similar to the curry challenge, the ramen challenge winner is determined by bowl sales. Renowned ramen-ya from Japan are brought in to participate. A majority of the noodles are supplied by a local company, Sun Noodles, so it levels the playing field to what I feel is the next important component of ramen: the broth.
My father chose tonkotsu ramen, I chose akaton shibori ramen, and we picked up an order of gyoza because you can't have ramen without gyoza. He went off to pick up takoyaki as I scanned the area for an available table while waiting for our order.
Boards hung above one of the seating areas that read, "Yataimura beer hall" and advertised Budweiser draft for $1, Kirin for $2, and Asahi for $3 from 5:30 - 10:00 p.m. daily.
We plopped down and tore open the gyoza and takoyaki containers. The ramen was served in beautiful rustic ceramic bowls, not Styrofoam cups. Are my expectations of communal food establishments low because it is what I am accustomed to in the US? What are they like outside the US?
My hatred of takoyaki - actually, the sauce - from an incident over 20 years ago is officially behind me. I savored each bite. There was a huge piece of tako (octopus) in each ball, unlike my most recent venture with Cleveland takoyaki. Generous yet appropriate portions of katsuobushi (bonito shavings), mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce, and aonori (laver) were sprinkled atop the takoyaki.
While takoyaki is often described as a pancake ball, it is the easiest description to give. Unfortunately, the texture isn't quite the same and the flavor is dissimilar. I am probably not alone when someone mentions pancakes, images of sweet, flat pancakes with maple syrup and butter are conjured. Adding octopus to the equation, the first dish that comes to mind is grilled octopus served with olive oil. Yikes!
Takoyaki itself doesn't have a sweet flavor. The sauce, being a Worcestershire base, imparts a little sweetness, as well as saltiness. The texture is crisp on the outside and a little gooey in the center where the octopus is. Katsuobushi and aonori add...wait for it...umami. The mayonnaise? Mayonnaise, especially Japanese (Kewpie) mayonnaise, augments almost any dish. Beni shoga (red pickled ginger), when available, adds piquancy and crunch, taking takoyaki to the next level.
My akaton (literally, "red pork") ramen was excellent. The red in the name comes from the addition of chile peppers, spicing up the miso broth. Not a pork lover, I enjoyed the thin slices of tender and not-so-gamy, fatty, nor gristly pork slices. Of course, I scooped the green onions to the side. The noodles were done perfectly, with a slight bite and chew.
My father ordered tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu broth is made from pork bones and has a rather complex flavor compared to shoyu and shio ramen broths. It must have been delicious because my father did not say a peep until he finished his bowl.
From complaints I have read on other sites and pictures I have seen, either this restaurant has listened to complaints or the others had bad luck. The serving size I received was quite generous. I was in a sated and content trance after my last noodle was slurped.
Gyoza fresh from the griddle can't be beat. The gyoza had a crunch from the expertly charred base, the skin had a respectable chew (not over or underdone), and the meat-ginger filling was appropriately portioned to dispense a balanced flavor and texture when chewing. I would come here just to eat an order or 10 of gyoza.
Ala Moana has expanded with nearly 300 stores and restaurants. Several of the familiar shops of my youth are lost in time or have evolved.
Despite having been acquired by K-Mart, Sears remains the same. Liberty House was sold to Macy's. Iida, after 105 years, permanently closed its doors in 2005. Woolworth and JcPenney have also gone. With rent at ~$1,200 per square foot, I wonder how some stores remain afloat...well, some don't, obviously.
Shirokiya opened in Edo, present day Tokyo, in the 1660's (can one even imagine a store that old?) and fell on hard times, twice - as Shirokiya and under Tokyu. The brand no longer exists in Japan and is presently a locally owned company since Tokyu sold Shirokiya lock, stock, and barrel for $1 to the top executives running the Hawaii store in 2001.
I find it sad that such a thing can happen to a store with such a long history, even though I realize that with any business, if you can't keep up with your consumers, the consumers will leave you in the dust. To think the store existed during the time of the fourth Tokugawa Shogun, Ietsuna (in office 1651-1680), and famed artist Ando Hiroshige captured Shirokiya in his 100 Famous Views of Edo series (no. 44) in 1858, just a few months before his passing, is incredible.
The atmosphere is different with stores like Bottega Veneta, Chanel, Dior, Tiffany and Co, etc. Browsing the stores with my father brought me back to the days of my youth, watching a new generation creating fond memories.
Ala Moana Center
1450 Ala Moana Blvd
Honolulu, HI 96814
Tel: (808) 973-9111