Story by Nate Chinen
Photos by Robert Caplin
The command center for the American ramen revolution can be found within a featureless warehouse in an anonymous industrial park in nondescript Teterboro, New Jersey. Its sign hangs on a door marked Unit O, between the offices of a print shop and an auto upholstery company. It reads, in plain black lettering, “Kenshiro Uki/Sun Noodle.” The first name might not ring a bell, but if you’re from the Islands there’s a good chance you’ve heard the second. Sun Noodle, established a little more than thirty years ago, has long been Hawai‘i’s leading fresh noodle manufacturer, especially in the realm of Japanese-style noodles, where it enjoys something like brand ubiquity. (If you’ve had a bowl of saimin at a Zippy’s in the last decade, you’ve eaten a Sun Noodle noodle.) As a Honolulu-to-NYC transplant myself, I know the company’s product well — and not just its Okinawa soba, which features prominently in my family recipe book.
Famous for customizing its noodles to meet the needs of individual clients, Sun Noodle is still run by Hidehito Uki, an issei (first-generation Japanese immigrant) who started the company with modest means at age 19. He has since overseen its dynamic expansion both in the Islands and on the Mainland: a Los Angeles factory established in 2004 churns out three and a half tons of noodles a day. Now there’s Teterboro, opened last August to deliver fresh noodles to ramen restaurants all over the New York City area.
That’s where Kenshiro comes in. Hidehito’s son is a courteous, well-spoken Pearl City High School grad, 27 years old. He’s also the founder, general manager and chief workhorse behind Sun Noodle’s East Coast operation, which has ambitions well beyond those of your average food-product purveyor. In just over six months of business, Sun Noodle has established relationships with some 70 percent of the ramen shops in Manhattan—including those that garner breathless praise, like Totto Ramen, where it’s not unheard of to wait more than an hour in bone-chilling temperatures to get in the door (yes, I’ve done it); and Momofuku Noodle Bar, often credited for igniting New York’s ramen boom (and launching the career of its chef-owner, David Chang, into the culinary stratosphere).
That there is something you might legitimately call a “New York ramen boom” (go ahead, Google the phrase) can be understood not only as a stroke of good fortune for Sun Noodle but also a reflection of its fast traction in the field. The food ecosystem in New York is comically intense, full of intrepid connoisseurs; you could start an Internet flame war if not a fistfight just by ranking pizzas. Last fall an item in New York magazine noted that Sun Noodle was “quickly becoming something like the Pat LaFrieda of noodles,” referring to the city’s gold-standard meat purveyors, who last year became the stars of Meat Men, a Food Network series. Akira Hiratsuka, the chef at Ramen Yebisu, a newish spot in trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn, says that Sun’s arrival in the New York area made it feasible for him to open his restaurant. In that, he’s not alone.