Issue 16.4: August/September 2013

Empire of the Sun

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.

 


 

The door to Unit O leads to a drab reception area. Off to the side is a kitchen alcove from which emanates an aromatic musk of chicken stock bubbling in an enormous pot on a burner low to the ground. It’s the straight essence of chicken, simple but savory to the point of extravagance. If a vapor can be said to be profoundly unctuous, that’s what this is.

 

Hovering near the stockpot is Shigetoshi Nakamura, a ramen chef of high stature in Japan—one of the “Four Ramen Devas,” or exalted beings — and a cult hero in the United States. Nakamura, 36, widely known as Chef Naka, runs the Sun Noodle Ramen Lab from this test kitchen, training other chefs and hosting educational “ramen flights”—five-course tastings of different ramen styles — for six lucky patrons at a time. (The first of those flights was the subject of an admiring story in the New Jersey edition of The New York Times.) What he’s doing on staff at a noodle manufacturer rather than in an illustrious kitchen might seem a little mysterious. On this March morning Nakamura is testing different broths against a sample noodle intended for Ivan Orkin, a native New Yorker who became famous in Japan for his boutique shop in Tokyo, Ivan Ramen. One highly anticipated New York restaurant opening will be his Ivan Ramen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, due by summer. Later today Uki flies to Tokyo to visit both Ivan Ramen and another popular ramen restaurant soon to open its first New York branch, Bassanova.

 

“There is no one else like Sun Noodle — that’s why they’re doing so well,” says Orkin, one of the few lauded ramen chefs who’s also a noodle-maker himself. “New York’s lucky to have them. They’re setting themselves up to be the noodle manufacturer in the United States, and they really deserve it.”

 

Impressive as that sounds, it’s not the goal. “There’s a mission behind what Sun Noodle is doing, along with Ramen Lab,” says George Kao, the company’s sales manager. “It’s really to better the game. We’re giving people the know-how to discern a superior bowl of noodles from a commodity bowl of noodles. With that, it should be very prosperous for everybody.”

 


 

Like many good partnerships, the one between Uki and Nakamura started with no grand design. Uki, who literally grew up along with his father’s company, wasn’t looking to become a noodle man. (“I always wanted to be a pilot,” he says.) But the summer after his freshman year in college on the West Coast, he returned home to work in the family factory in Kalihi, and something clicked. Later he began overseeing operations at the LA plant, which is how he got to know Chef Naka. At the time, Nakamura was the proprietor of Ramen California, an acclaimed shop in Torrance. Naka was no stranger to SoCal, having attended community college in San Diego (where he’d been drawn as an avid surfer). His meteoric success had come after he returned to Japan to open his first ramen shop in Kanagawa, at 22. “He’s the guy who put artisanal ramen on the map,” attests Orkin, who credits Chef Naka’s support as a factor in his own success. “He’s the guy who brought style to ramen.”

 

Poke around YouTube and you can find a three-year-old video interview with Nakamura taped by the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. His comments, subtitled in English, shed light on his decision to leave Japan again for the States. “I think we are coming into a new generation for ramen,” he says. “It’d be great if sometime in the future there would be a New York style, a Chicago style, Seattle, San Francisco, etc.” This same conviction drew Uki to Nakamura. Late in 2010 they traveled together to New York for Ramen Fever, a kind of symposium. At that point a number of ramen shops in the city were using Sun Noodle products frozen and shipped from LA. Uki wasn’t happy with what he tasted and decided almost on the spot to look into opening a new factory. Two months later, with the blessings of his father, he moved east, often setting up sales meetings with Nakamura in tow.

 

“When Naka and I were in New York talking to customers, we started getting ideas of, ‘Wow, there’s actually a lot of things people are looking for. Not just noodles.’” A few clients were veteran ramen shops with basic needs, but others were seeking guidance. “I would say 80 percent of the requests we get now are, ‘I bought a space. I don’t know how to make ramen. Could you teach me?’” Uki says. “It’s America. There’s no real ramen culture here. And Naka can teach, so that’s why we developed Ramen Lab.”

 

The cornerstone of Chef Naka’s instruction is an understanding of ramen’s five basic components. The soup itself contains three: the broth, often made from boiling down pork or chicken bones; the tare, a liquid seasoning; and aromatic oils infused with roasted garlic or other flavorings. The other two components are the toppings, like sliced pork and chopped scallions, and finally the noodles. Elements vary depending on regional style and creative license, but the heart of the exchange is harmony between noodle and soup, something Sun Noodle understands.

 


 

Nakamura and Uki both like the East Coast, though the cold weather hasn’t always made it easy—not for them or the noodles. “We have to change the recipes depending on the seasons,” Uki says. “The humidity and temperature affect your noodles, and the difference between winter and summer is very drastic.” It’s not the only accommodation: As in Los Angeles, the water quality in New Jersey isn’t great, so a reverse osmosis filtration system has been put in place.

 

Uki hands me a hairnet, and we embark on a tour of the six-thousand-square-foot factory, where a gleaming industrial rig churns out noodles all day. The flour, meticulously sourced and blended, goes into a high-speed mixer while being sprayed with water to create small balls of dough. That dough then goes through a compound press, which flattens it into a wide sheet, like an unspooled bolt of fabric. The next step, a vacuum press, was instituted by Sun Noodle to reduce sogginess: not much of an issue among fast-slurping rameneaters in Japan, but a real concern for, say, patrons at Momofuku, who are more likely to bask in the experience of a meal.

 

The noodle thickness is measured precisely, and then it’s cut and packaged in individual portions, typically a five-ounce serving. The batch that I’m watching move down the line is headed for Menkui-Tei, a long-standing ramen shop in the East Village. It’s a fairly standard ramen noodle style, though it has been matched carefully to Menkui-Tei’s soup. In the fridge are stacked boxes, each labeled with some prestigious destination: Zutto, Ramen Takumi, Totto Ramen, even the Marcus Samuelsson Group. Samuelsson, the Swedish-trained celebrity chef behind Red Rooster Harlem, commissioned Sun Noodle to make a noodle with teff, a gluten-free grain commonly used to make injera in his ancestral Ethiopia. For Uki, a self-proclaimed “flour geek” who’s always experimenting with unusual grains like rye and spelt, making a non-ramen noodle was a welcome challenge. Sun Noodle also works with the New York outpost of Mission Chinese, an irreverent neo-Sichuan joint that was the city’s most buzzed-about new restaurant last year.

 

But ramen is clearly the center of the company’s efforts. “What I want to do in New York is what we’ve done in Hawai‘i,” Uki says. “What my father’s done in Hawai‘i is gain everyone’s trust. People really respect his hard work. If we could do that in New York—where every shop is saying, ‘If you’re going to open, you go to Sun Noodle’—that’s where I want to be.”

 


 

That’s ambitious but within reach, judging by the testimonials of Sun Noodle clients. I take a drive with sales manager George Kao. We head into Manhattan, stopping in at several places, starting with Momofuku, which I’d visited a few times before. The signature ramen bowl is more delicious than I remember, its noodles springy but succulent in a pork broth. (Later I discover that my last visit occurred back when the restaurant was still using frozen noodles from LA.) But even more striking is Momofuku’s vegan ramen made with eggless noodles sent to our table by the chef de cuisine, Sean Heller. “All the shiitakes we use here are rehydrated,” Heller explains, “and we have all this extra liquid. So I started making a dashi out of that, and I wanted to make it vegetarian. Ken said, ‘I think a no-egg noodle would be cool with that,’ and it stuck.”

 

Around the corner is Rai Rai Ken, a more traditional ramen shop I’ve frequented over the years. “Before we tried Sun’s noodles, we tried so many things so many times,” says manager Gerardo Sanchez, expressing satisfaction in the noodle/soup pairings developed since. Kao and I then head into Williamsburg to visit Ramen Yebisu. Speaking in Japanese, with Kao interpreting, Chef Akira tells me he’s been often to the Ramen Lab to trade tips with Chef Naka. At Ramen Yebisu he not only uses noodles from Sun; he displays them in their boxes, labels facing out, in a wine fridge at eye level. This is at once a method of controlling the fermentation of the noodles — he ages them slightly before serving them — and also a statement of pride. The Sun Noodle logo might not yet be a badge of quality in New York, but Chef Akira is helping to assure that it will, just as he seems hopeful about his role in New York’s future ramen culture. “There isn’t a socalled defining ramen restaurant in New York, and that is one of my dreams, to create that benchmark,” he says.

 


 

Over the course of my ramen adventures in New York City, I haven’t had a more transcendent moment than what I experience at the counter in the Ramen Lab. Chef Naka prepares several varieties of soup, including one with kake soba noodles in a mild shoyu-based broth, and mazemen, with hardly any broth but a generous swirl of rendered fat. His Tokyo-style ramen is sublime: That aromatic chicken stock perfectly complements the lightly chewy tangle of noodles.

 

I hadn’t anticipated the anxiety of eating ramen under the watchful gaze of a Ramen Deva: My slurping technique suddenly seems hopelessly ineffective. My self-consciousness hardens when Chef Naka hands me a soup spoon — have I failed some kind of ramen-eating litmus test? Thankfully the splendor of the flavor more than offsets my insecurity. And Chef Naka is generous with his knowledge, walking me over to the stockpot to explain how the broth has been simmering for twenty hours with no seasoning, just water and chicken slowly binding into something magical.

 

Small wonder that the ramen flight has become one of the more prized reservations in New York food circles: Here’s mastery at work, in person, along with plenty of context. That restaurateurs have been flocking here, along with customers, says a lot for the near future of ramen culture in New York and possibly points beyond. “We’re trying to do things that will increase the level of the chefs and also of the public.” says Uki.

 

“We study Japanese ramen history,” agrees Chef Naka, reflecting on his role as a guru, “and then we connect with the future history. We are making ramen history still.”