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Hamura's Little Restaurant Earns Big Honor

(News Item #0002, Published: 05/07/06, Garden Isle Newspaper)

Tucked into a nondescript building at the end of Kress Street in Lihu‘e, Hamura’s Saimin Stand has been quietly winning awards and media attention for years and couldn’t care less.

On Monday night in New York City, the prestigious James Beard Foundation will honor eight American eateries, including Hamura’s, for excellence in preserving culinary heritage.

"I don’t know who he is, and I don’t care," Laurel Tanigawa said of James Beard. Tanigawa, granddaughter of founder Aiko Hamura, owns and manages the noodle stand.

The foundation offered two round-trip tickets to New York, but the idea of flying that far to be recognized in front of more than 1,000 of the country’s top chefs did not appeal to Tanigawa.

"I’m too busy," she said.

The cooks begin their day at 3 a.m., cooking noodles in the factory before bringing them over to the restaurant.

The lunch rush starts early and ends late, seating is scarce and the kitchen is busy. Most of the patrons wait patiently for one of the miniature stools strewn around Formica countertop horseshoes to open up.

There are menus, but most don’t bother.

"I get the same thing every time," said Art Suehiro in between bites from a large bowl of saimin.

Farther down the counter, Vivian Raposas works on her own large bowl, practicing a technique she has perfected over 30 years of eating at Hamura’s.

"I always get the noodles half-cooked," she said, with a spoon in one hand and a bottle of Red Devil hot sauce in the other.

"She doesn’t even know how to use chopsticks," Suehiro said.

Raposas, a born-and-raised Kauaian living in Hanapepe, said everyone prepares the saimin a little differently, and though she hasn’t memorized the cooks’ schedules, she does know what to expect depending on who’s working in the open kitchen.

None of the customers had heard of Hamura’s most recent honor, or the James Beard Foundation for that matter, and most were more concerned with ordering a slice of lilikoi chiffon passion fruit pie or a box of uncooked noodles to take back home with them.

Tanigawa said customers who heard about the award were excited for Hamura’s, and she derives much more pleasure from their happiness than her own accolades.

More than anything, though, Tanigawa strives to carry on the strong family tradition that started in 1951, when the noodle stand first opened.

"I’m grateful to my mom and dad, and my grandparents, who started all this," she said.

Hamura’s is a family affair on both sides of the Formica.

"It’s a generational experience," Art Suehiro said. "Every time I’m on the island, we make it a point to come."

Suehiro was born on O‘ahu but came to Hamura’s with his parents as a child. Though he was here on business this week, he brings his children whenever he can. His last order of business today was ordering two boxes of noodles to take back to O‘ahu.

Vivian Raposas was there with her sister, a Waimea resident who makes the trek to Hamura’s once every two or three weeks.

Across the counter, another Waimea resident, Kailee Mu, brought a friend visiting from Canada.

"I loved it," said Beth Taylor-Harris. "I’ll be back."

Mu and friends would drive into Lihu‘e from Waimea a couple of times a month when she was in high school, and though she doesn’t get back as much as she used to, she was quick to call Hamura’s "an institution."

Institution or not, awards or not, tourist or local, Hamura’s business philosophy has always been simple.

"I like making people happy," Tanigawa said.

She might be onto something.

Ford Gunter, staff writer, may be reached atfgunter@kauaipubco.com , or 245-3681 (ext. 251).