Today I did something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I live just minutes from Liliha Street and drive by Jane’s Fountain almost every day but I never have time to stop. Today, having completed all my responsibilities, I had the first free afternoon I’ve had in weeks. I decided to take myself and my book to lunch after getting the grocery shopping done. I was ‘ono for saimin (wheat noodle soup, like ramen but different), something I rarely eat since it fills me up in just a few bites. But it’s been so chilly and the holidays so stressful, I needed comfort and warmth.
Jane’s, featured some years ago in “The Puka Guide,” by Donovan M. Dela Cruz and Jodi Endo Chai, is one of a dwindling number of shabby, old-fashioned, local-Japanese/Okinawan lunch spots. (Seems like half the restaurants in that book are pau; it was hilarious when Anthony Bourdain came to town, stopped off at Uptown Fountain for the Okinawan omelette; the restaurant closed before his plane left Island air space. I used to love the long counter lined with nonworking fountain equipment and the out-of-date advertisements for fountain drinks still pasted up behind.)
Jane’s has a distinctive doesn’t-work-anymore neon sign rising up from the roof like an old theater marquee; a highly readable sign that declares SAIMIN, a third, peeling window sign of the kind that used be sponsored by Coke at all the mom-and-pop stores. There’s an unused okazu (deli) window, a lot of stuff stacked about and the seats are — as you would expect — orange naugahyde. You can get a generous sandwich of the old-fashioned sort (tuna salad, egg salad, like that) for less than $3. My small won tun min with a side tomato salad was less than $8. And the most expensive thing on the menu is oxtail soup ($10?????); most plate lunches are about $7.
It felt as though I were time-traveling backward except for the fact that everything’s plastic now — the plates, the saimin bowl with the rick-rack edge, the water glasses — and the prices all showed signs of having been taped over (so they could be raised, no doubt).
All the heads in the room were gray (or dyed).
My saimin arrived and it was okay, comforting but not a great bowl of noodles. I sat there daydreaming about “Tampopo” (a hilarious old ramen Western about the search for the perfect bowl of noodles) . I pictured a T-shirt Cane Haul Road used to do that said, “No mo’ even any char siu nowdays.”
The nice-sized bowl of noodles in broth contained at least a half-dozen won ton min (pork-stuffed dumplings), sticks of lunchmeat or maybe SPAM, a few shreds of char siu (barbecued pork), a lone slice of kamaboko (pink-and-white fish cake) and green onions.
The noodles were not quite al dente but not that awful mushy you get sometimes. The broth was pallid, as though they were taking their clients’ blood pressure into account and threw out the salt shaker. Fresh noodles with a bit of chew and a really deeply flavored housemade broth is what saimin is about. Jane’s was certainly better than the boxed or packaged dreck but not quite as good as the fresh-frozen S & S noodles and nowhere near as good as housemade noodles or broth.
This is one of the few places I’ve seen that still uses corned beef in several dishes, including corned beef tofu. I think you could even get a corned beef sandwich but maybe I imagined it.
The high point of the meal for me was the tomato salad. I was trying to get a little water and fiber into my system, some vitamins and minerals after the Christmas excess. There, on the white plastic plate: Two whole sliced tomatoes — the pale, crunchy, almost flavorless supermarket kind, nestled on a few bits of iceburg lettuce. The dressing? A blob of mayonnaise. I wanted to race into the kitchen to see where my Grandma was; this was her idea of a salad, too. I had to chuckle (and grab the shoyu and pepper).
I really enjoyed myself in this little window in time. But, you say, how can you enjoy so no-class a meal when you know what great food is?
Let me put it like this. Do you love your children? Are they all the same? Don’t you enjoy and appreciate the differences? Do you have friends? Are they all the same? Aren’t their friends you can tell anything to and others who think your job is to listen to their woes and still others who are corgial work friends; people who’ve been to your home and people who never will be there?
I’m like that about food. I grade not on a curve but a staircase: A few steps of from the bottom are places like Jane’s (the bottom would have been the original L&L Drive-In two doors from Jane’s in Liliha; the place is crumbling and ill-kept and the food is awful, not even what you’d find at any other L&L). Climb a few steps, Zippy’s, or Verna’s in Hilo. Halfway up the flight, you’re at Sugoi, Kahai Street Kitchen or Dean’s Drive-In. Climb to the top and you’re at Hapa Grill, or my new favorite, He’eia Kai Pier General Store & Deli.
My judgment is based on, was it worth the climb? Jane’s was, because The parking gods smiled. I went to an old-fashioned produce stand a couple of doors up and found a beautiful papaya and a big bag of ni’oi (Hawaiian peppers — hard to get except at farmer’s markets).
Now if somebody high on the stairs had served me that saimin, I wouldn’t be happy. But Jane’s was one more thing off my modest bucket list and a lovely, quiet moment of time travel.