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Inside Sun Noodle, the Secret Weapon of America's Best Ramen Shops
There were only about three or four ramen shops on Oahu when Hidehito Uki founded Sun Noodle in 1981. Ramen in America was pretty much just a cup of noodles you cook in the microwave. Uki — who had come to Hawaii from Japan to make and sell fresh ramen noodles — wondered how he could ever be successful.
Now, ramen shops have proliferated in cities from Los Angeles and New York to DC, Chicago, and even Milwaukee. People stand in line for ramen. Chefs create mash-ups of ramen and hamburgers, and people stand in line for those, too.
Behind the scenes of the so-called ramen boom of recent years is Sun Noodle. Over the last 33 years, the Hawaiian company has built three factories which pump out a combined 90,000 servings of ramen noodles per day. It sells these noodles to notable ramenya across America, including nine of New York Times critic Pete Wells' picks for the top 10 ramen destinations in New York. Ivan Orkin, one of Japan's most respected ramen chefs, says that Sun Noodle was the clear choice when he recently opened two restaurants in New York City. And Momofuku's David Chang, who is often credited with the rise of ramen in America, believes that Sun Noodle facilitated that boom. "It's an entire micro-industry they've created," he says.
Sun Noodle's success runs parallel to the rise of ramen in America, sometimes fueling the ramen craze and always being fueled by the ramen craze. Sun Noodle supplies ramen noodles to hundreds of restaurants across the country, with sales growing at a clip of 15 to 20 percent a year. Now Sun Noodle is positioning itself to take ramen even deeper into the heart of American culture, with plans to open an educational Ramen Lab in New York City in the coming weeks. But to really understand the future of ramen in America, it's important to first look at where it began and how far it has come.
A Brief Ramen Glossary
There's seemingly endless knowledge out there to be had about ramen and its noodles. What follows is an explanation of some of the more confusing (or non-English) terms that are key in this piece and to understanding how a bowl of ramen comes together. Many very sincere thanks to Daisuke Utagawa, owner of Daikaya in Washington, DC, for the assist on defining these terms. There is much more knowledge to be had and many more terms to be learned. Good resources for those include Rameniac's breakdown of the regional ramen styles, Serious Eats' guide to ramen styles, and the entire ramen issue of Lucky Peach.
Kansui: An essential element of Sun Noodle's dough recipe is kansui, an alkaline salt that gives ramen noodles their texture, color, and flavor. Sun Noodle adds a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate to the water in its dough to make kansui.
Alkalinity: An alkaline is the opposite of an acid. Alkalinity is an essential characteristic of ramen noodles, creating the firmer springy texture of the noodle and giving it a yellow hue. Finally, alkalinity affects the flavor of the noodle. Harold McGee describes this as a great mystery in Lucky Peach, but writes, "Something happens when you cook alkaline noodles that creates a flavor that's unique and pleasant . We know the taste of acidity—its sourness, its tartness. Alkalinity is harder to register, but it's a kind of slick feeling in your mouth."
Dashi: A type of soup stock that's typically made from seaweed and dried bonito. Dashi can be used on its own to form a broth, or it can be combined with other types of stocks such as chicken or pork stock.
Chintan: Though there are a variety of stock bases — seafood, meat, and vegetarian — Utagawa says that ultimately all stocks can be divided into two categories. One of these is chintan, which is a clear broth that was the original form of ramen broth.
Paitan: The other style of ramen broth is paitan, which is a milkier, turbid broth. This style is especially common of tonkotsu ramen.
Tonkotsu: Not to be confused with tonkatsu, which is a Japanese deep-fried pork cutlet, tonkotsu is a style of ramen broth that was popularized in America through the arrival of Ippudo in New York City. Tonkotsu ramen is a pork bone broth that is fatty and creamy to the point where Serious Eats once called it "the bowl with the most soul." Tonkotsu ramen is generally served with thin, flat noodles. Tonkotsu ramen is associated with Japan's Kyushu region; exact recipes and noodle styles vary from city to city, which include Hakata-style ramen and Kurume-style ramen. It's often considered a style of ramen alongside shio, shoyu, and miso, though in fact it is possible to have a tonkotsu miso ramen. That said, tonkotsu is usually served with shio tare as it is lighter.
Tare: The main ramen seasoning, tare can be divided into three categories: shio, shoyu, and miso. The combination of tare and the stock is what gives the soup its flavor.
Shio: Japanese for "salt," shio is one of the basic flavorings (tare) for ramen broth. Shio tare recipes vary depending on the noodle house, but there's always salt plus perhaps ginger or garlic. Lucky Peach noted in its 2011 ramen issue that shio ramen "is built upon a reduction made from
dried seafoods, seaweeds, and other salty ingredients with lots of umami." According to Utagawa, shio is the lightest style that most reveals the quality of the stock.
Shoyu: A soy sauce-based tare, shoyu might also include ingredients like sugar, garlic, ginger, and spices. Some restaurants might cook their chashu (ramen's traditional pork topping) in the shoyu tare.
Miso: The boldest of the styles of tare, miso is made from fermented soy beans. Additional ingredients might include cayenne or chili pepper, or sesame chili oil, though there are many, many types of miso in Japan.
Other Styles of Ramen
Tsukemen: Similar to Japanese soba (noodle) culture, tsukemen is a dipping ramen. Hot or cold noodles are served alongside a separate bowl of hot, intensely flavored dipping broth.
Mazemen: There's no soup component of mazemen ramen, just noodles mixed with oil and tare. It might come with a small bowl of soup on the side to be eaten separately.
Hiyashi chuka: Ramen's answer to the Summer heat is hiyashi chuka, a dish in which cold ramen noodles are topped with cold toppings and a cold, vinegary dressing.
Sun Noodle Begins
A trip to Hawaii was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to an 19-year-old Hidehito Uki. He was working for a noodle factory in the Japanese countryside when he got the call from his father, who operated another noodle company named Unoki in Japan. His father's business partner had pulled out of their project in Hawaii just before it opened. The project was dead, but a noodle-making machine remained on-site. Did Hidehito want it?
Hidehito arrived in Honolulu in 1981. He didn't speak any English, and he didn't know anything about the Hawaiian noodle market. All he knew was that people in Hawaii were interested in noodles, particularly the local variety called saimin, a native Hawaiian noodle soup that is similar to ramen but made with egg noodles and topped with things like Spam. Saimin dates back the islands' plantation history, and was such a locally beloved comfort food that McDonald's already offered saimin on its menus in Hawaii by the time Hidehito arrived.
There were about 20 noodle manufacturers on the island of Oahu at the time, mostly churning out saimin noodles. There were a few ramen shops and plenty of instant ramen available, but Hidehito didn't find much in the way of fresh ramen as he launched Sun Noodle. The quality of the flour wasn't very good either. "I was so surprised, and I wondered if I could have a successful business in Hawaii," Hidehito says.
Getting that first customer did turn out to be a challenge. Hidehito's strategy was to bring samples to potential clients who didn't really understand what he was offering after years of working with instant noodles. They didn't want to eat Hidehito's noodles with their unfamiliarly firm texture, a result of the alkalinity that is key to fresh ramen noodles. He would listen to their feedback, return to his factory, and make the noodles again. Hidehito went back and forth about 15 times with Ezogiku, a small Japanese ramen shop that had opened its first international location in Hawaii seven years earlier. The owners were impressed, and Ezogiku became Sun Noodle's first customer. More customers came.
Competition went fine in the first couple of years. Then, in 1987, a big Japanese soft drinks company named Itoen put its muscle behind local noodle manufacturer S&S Saimin. Hidehito knew something had to change if he was ever going to compete. That's when he turned his customer service style into a mission that the company touts still today: custom noodles that bring a bowl of ramen into harmony. As the thinking goes, each shop's broth deserves a complementary noodle and each style of ramen needs its match.
That idea was revolutionary at the time in a country where ramen meant Cup Noodles if it meant anything at all. Other ramen noodle manufacturers didn't bother with custom noodles, and ramen consumers didn't seem to care. Sun Noodle distinguished itself simply by caring. Sun Noodle uses eight types of flour and constantly adjusts the pH level of its water to get just the right texture for a ramen noodle. Real humans oversee the machinery to make sure each noodle is cut to the right size down to the fraction of a millimeter. Everyone from sales reps to Hidehito himself helps clients find the exact noodle they want or the noodle they didn't know they wanted.
This family-held passion for the craft of noodle-making is what allowed Sun Noodle to continue to set itself apart from the competition as ramen fever spread throughout America over the next three decades.
The Early Years of Ramen in America
Ramen is a soup with a long history. Its origins lie in a Chinese noodle soup, and its date of arrival in Japan are in dispute. According to historian George Solt in his book The Untold History of Ramen, various accounts place ramen's arrival in 1665, the 1880s, or 1910. But the extreme popularity of this fatty, salty comforting dish has been relatively recent in Japan. It became a media phenomenon in the 1980s, which is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the 1985 release of ramen-centric film Tampopo. Then, in the 1990s, ramen became a national food of Japan. It even got its own theme park in 1994. But that wasn't the case in the US.
"In Hawaii, ramen was nothing really big," says Hidehito's daughter Hisae, 29. She remembers seeing ramen around while she was growing up on the islands, but despite her father's efforts, it wasn't a gourmet thing. Nothing to brag to friends about at least. But that would change over the years. When Sun Noodle — which had by then branched out from selling just ramen noodles to soba, udon, and more — began providing saimin noodles to the giant Hawaiian chain Zippy's in 2003, the deal made the local newspapers.
It was a similar story in LA. California had plenty of ramen shops in the 90s and early 2000s but it wasn't really a thing. Hidehito's first visit to California was in 1984 and, two years later, a Japanese food distributor picked up Sun Noodle's Okinawan soba noodles to distribute on the mainland. But there was no such luck for Sun Noodle's ramen noodles. No one else on the mainland was doing Okinawan-style soba noodles, which are made from wheat flour rather than the traditional buckwheat soba noodles. But there were three or four ramen noodle manufacturers in California. Even though they weren't doing customized noodles, it was just too expensive to compete with them all the way from Hawaii.
In the early 2000s, things started to change. Historian George Solt traces ramen's leap across the Pacific in The Untold History of Ramen, noting that craft ramen "was unknown to most people in the United States until the 2000s." But if it feels like the food media has warned of the rise of ramen for a decade, that's because it has. Solt cites LA Weekly and New York Times articles from 2004 (written by Jonathan Gold and Julia Moskin, respectively) that refer to ramen. In LA, Gold wrote that the "hub of the ramen cult at the moment is probably Daikokuya." Meanwhile, Moskin offered an explainer of ramen mania as shops like Momofuku and Rai Rai Ken began to proliferate in New York City.
But 2004 is also the year that Sun Noodle leased a 5,000 square foot lot for a factory in California, bringing its customized noodles to the mainland for the first time. Hidehito explains that his first customer in Hawaii, Ezogiku, had plans to expand from Honolulu to Vancouver, and wanted Sun Noodle to open a factory on the West Coast. So Hidehito took another research trip to California, where he found more ramen shops, but none that seemed very distinctive to him. Their noodles didn't seem to match the broth. Since most of them used the same suppliers, their noodles were all the same, too. It was finally the right time for Sun Noodle to make its move.
At that point, ramen was starting to become a thing in New York City. Chef David Chang opened his empire-sparking Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004; iconic Japanese chain Ippudo followed a few years later with its first US location opening in 2008, just a few blocks away in New York's East Village. In those early years, Chang used a lo mein noodle from Canton Noodle Corporation in Chinatown rather than a ramen noodle. It was a challenge finding anyone with a machine who could make alkaline noodles on a large scale.
As Harold McGee wrote in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach (focused on ramen), alkalinity has a "significant effect on the texture, color, and flavor of the noodle," lending it a yellow hue and a firmness that holds up in hot broth. The use of alkaline salts also means that noodle machines need to be cleaned thoroughly before they can produce another type of noodle. Around 2009, Chang switched to Sun Noodle, first bringing in noodles from the California factory until the New Jersey location opened in 2012. "We didn't have resources like this even like 10 years ago," Chang says. "If I wanted to change the type of noodle, I was flying out my noodles. I was aging my noodles, and I don't have to do that now."
In 2008, Sun Noodle began to ship its products to the East Coast, a trip that would take about a week by freezer truck. Those frozen noodles ran the risk of arriving broken or stuck together and are just generally not the same as fresh noodles. When Hidehito and Kenshiro asked their East Coast clients about how they could improve, the majority of the chefs said they wished they could have fresh noodles instead. And so, in 2010, he and his son Kenshiro began to discuss opening a factory on the East Coast.
Ramen Goes Boom
Keizo Shimamoto might be best known today for being the mastermind behind the kooky ramen burger that went Full Cronut last year. But he was known first as the blogger behind Go Ramen, a detailed report on all the ramen shops in LA and beyond. Shimamoto started the blog in 2007, when ramen had already been a frenzied food in Japan for 10 to 15 years. And, he says, it had just started to gain momentum in the US.
Ramen mania continued to grow in LA after the 2004 reports of a ramen cult. Then-LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold wrote that 2010 was "LA's year of ramen...the year when the utility noodle bowl became a fetish object." That was in his December 2011 review of Tsujita LA, the first Stateside location of a Japanese mini-chain that specializes in tsukemen, a style of ramen in which diners dip their noodles into an intensely flavored broth. Tsukemen was common in Japan at the time, but was just getting its footing in the US. As Gold wrote, "back in the primordial days of 2010, I had barely heard of tsukemen." Ramen had reached a new level.
Such was the case in New York City, too. In January 2012, New York City critic Robert Sietsema wrote, "Within a half-mile of Ippudo, you can count nine places either entirely dedicated to ramen or serving ramen as a major portion of their menus," further asking whether ramen was "finally declining in popularity after a three-year run as the city's favorite starch." An March edition of Chopsticks NY from around the same time concurred, writing, "The ramen boom in New York seems unstoppable." And then the fervor began to spread, with declarations of ramen booms emanating from Seattle to to Milwaukee.
Sun Noodle had done pretty well in the first five or six years after opening its California factory, with a 10 to 15 percent growth in sales each year. But 2011 is when Hidehito says Sun Noodle sales rose. Since 2011, the company has seen a 15 to 20 percent annual sales growth — a number that has been closer to 20 percent since the New Jersey factory opened in 2012. In these last few years, Hidehito says, everyone was starting to talk about ramen.
While the rise of ramen helped fuel Sun Noodle's growth in the last decade, it's also true that Sun Noodle helped fuel ramen's growth. Shimamoto says that there were a few major noodle-makers in California in the early 2000s when he started to become obsessed with ramen, and there were plenty of ramen shops that would eventually make their way onto his blog. But when Sun Noodle opened its factory in 2005, he said, that's when ramen really took off.
That's due in part Sun Noodle's aspirations for quality. One key way that Sun Noodle has been able to improve the quality of ramen noodles not just for itself but for all American noodle manufacturers has been through the company's work with its millers. Domestically milled flour has never been as good for making ramen as what Japanese mills produce. "What we get domestically that's considered super-fine is 10 times bigger than the super-fine in Japan," Kenshiro says. So he and his colleagues spend a fair amount of time traveling to talk with millers about how to improve technology to get to where Japanese millers are on this front. Though that work is still ongoing, Shimamoto says that there's been a noticeable improvement since the days when he was blogging at Go Ramen.
Sun Noodle’s Mission
Hidehito's mission to provide custom noodles has also been a factor in the growth of ramen shops. Before Sun Noodle opened its California factory, anyone who wanted to open a ramen shop in the mainland US had two options: 1) buy noodles that were exactly like everyone else's noodles from one of the existing manufacturers or 2) make their own noodles, an all-consuming and expensive endeavor for a small operation. Sun Noodle's philosophy allows ramen restaurants to differentiate themselves from their competition with relative ease.
All of that helps explain why Sun Noodle holds nearly (though not quite) 100 percent of the ramen noodle market in Hawaii, according to Kenshiro, as well as the majority of the market share in all its other noodle products sold in Hawaii. There's a similar dominance in major ramen markets Los Angeles and New York City.
Eater LA editor Matt Kang posits that "Unless you're making your own noodle, you're using Sun Noodle." Indeed, both Daikokuya and Tsujita use Sun Noodle. Keisuke Sawakawa, the California-based vice president of the noodle company, told the LA Times that Tsujita's chef consulted with Sun Noodle on how to best replicate the noodles from their original Japanese shop. And nine of out of 10 restaurants that New York Times critic Pete Wells named the best ramen destinations in New York earlier this year are using noodles from Sun Noodle. The tenth, Ippudo, makes its own.
"I think they've been able to help facilitate a more delicious ramen world," Chang says. "If there's a ramen boom, it's been aided because of Sun Noodle, absolutely. Are they the only reason, no, but I can't imagine a lot of these new types of ramen shops opening up without Sun. And I'm happy that it's with them because they're just tremendously good guys."
A Q&A with David Chang
How did you first hear of Sun Noodle?
I've known [sales manager] George [Kao] for like 15 years when George was a sales rep for D'Artagnan. He was telling me he was going to do something with Ken [Uki], they were going to bring Sun Noodle over here and build everything from scratch in New Jersey. I was very excited about it because at the time there just wasn't a place to get proper ramen noodles in America, really. We were getting it from California.
You just don't have the service system here. This was the beginning of having something that was [made] for us. Noodles made with kansui, that was a huge thing for us. And the noodle they were going to custom make for different soup broths. It was sort of a godsend, and they've been so great at working with so many different ramen shops. I just think they've done a great job and they didn't spare any expenses in terms of getting the top-flight noodle makers in their lab and they got one of the best ramen chefs in the world to do R&D for them. Everything they've done has been pretty top-notch.
When did you start working with them? And who were you using before?
Basically we started working with them day one, when they opened up. We had to use the local one in Chinatown. Again, if you don't have a machine that's dedicated to making alkaline noodles it's really hard. Most people don't want alkaline-based noodles and you need a machine that's dedicated just to making that. You need a certain type of machine and quantity. Finding a machine that can make 500-800 servings a day, it's pretty hard. You can buy a small one and that probably can make you maybe like 75-100. I think Ippudo probably has one, but for the most part no one else was able to really make 'em on a large scale. So Sun Noodle really came in at a perfect time.
Do they have more competitors now?
I wouldn't use anyone else because the knowledge that they have, different noodles for different broths, that's a big thing. If I talk to them about a different ramen shop that's doing something in Japan, they know about it and they know how to make it. So it's an entire micro-industry that they've created that I don't think people understand. Outside of Per Se, Daniel, Bouley, almost nobody takes on bread on a large scale. For the most part, restaurants in New York without bakeries making bread for them would be totally fucked. And there's more bakeries so people can choose where they want to get their bread from. For noodle guys, they just never had that opportunity. I think one thing that Sun Noodle is doing is that they're able to make different types of noodles, and they're really great at customizing that noodle for that specific restaurant.
What is it like when you are trying to come up with a recipe for noodles with them? Do you have kind of a back and forth conversation?
Yeah, it is a back and forth. We can say maybe we want some tapioca into this. We want to make a thicker noodle for tsukemen or maybe our broth fat content changed and they want to go with a thinner straight noodle. They know there are certain classic things, like you don't put bolognese sauce on angel hair pasta. Certain broth styles eat better with a certain type of ramen noodle.
Certain broth styles eat better with a certain type of ramen noodle.
So yeah, it's a give and take. Ken and George have come in and taken some stuff and we brought broth over to their factory as well. They'll give you like eight different types of noodles and we'll taste and debate which one goes better with which broth. George is just awesome at keeping relations with all my staff, so they're family.
How often do you or someone on your staff talk with them?
I don't know, like once a month? Depending if we're changing the noodles, it could be a lot more. It could be like every day.
How often do you change noodles or how many times have you done so?
We probably changed the noodles probably like a half a dozen times in 10 years. But, for instance, we have a different noodle because we have a spicy noodle dish. A lot of the newer ramens aren't really broth based. They're more fat and oil based, and we needed a sturdier noodle and they provided it for us.
Ken was talking a lot about kind of the internal search for better flour and a more finely milled flour...
That's the biggest difference. In Japan, they have mills [that produce] just a microscopic size [grain] and we just don't have that capacity here either. So that's a huge difference, the grain of the flour, if you want to get geeked out on it.
Yeah I do. I mean, what's the trade-off with that? I know there's a couple places that get their noodles directly from Japan, why not do that?
Because, like anything else, it's like a small business. We could get our fish from Japan as well, but I want to support our local fishmongers. That's a conversation we have at Ko a lot. We could get all our stuff from Tsukiji and our price would definitely go up, but we'd have a lot more to work with. But it's a small business. You work with people that have supported you for a long time. And it's developing that relationship. We could definitely get noodles in Japan, but why would I? My Japanese sucks and the guys at Sun are going to go out of their way to have that service aspect for us.
How have their noodles changed in the years that you have been working with them?
It's always been a great noodle, and it's gotten better. Their depth of knowledge is greater and the type of noodles they're able to make is much larger than it was before. They've always been really good for us and delicious. We've changed noodle shapes. They have endless types of variations. We're just trying to find the one that, again, works best for us.
And our broth changes a lot too. It does. Sometimes it gets lighter. You just don't really realize that change happens. It's like looking at your yearbook and being like whoa, I didn't realize my hair looked like that. What the fuck was I doing? A broth changes a lot, whether it's purveyors or just a lot of different things add up and create this sort of different broth and you need to adjust. And tastes change.
Have you ever asked them specifically to develop a shape of noodle?
Honestly, I don't remember. The shape of the noodles change a lot for us. In the past, we changed it to a thicker noodle and again, [the change was] so small that nobody ever mentioned it. Not one customer. But there's a lot of ideas that's been thrown around. They're always testing stuff out.
Do they run some of the things by you just for feedback?
I think they have sometimes. The reality here is they know what's going on better than most people. They go eat and they support all the ramen shops, so they know what everyone's doing. They know exactly what's going on in contemporary Japanese ramen as well and how to make those types of noodles. They're on top of it.
What do you think is their role in the rise of ramen that we've seen?
We didn't have resources like this even 10 years ago. It didn't exist. If I wanted to change the type of noodle, I was flying out my noodles. I was aging my noodles. I don't have to do that now. So there's a lot of things that they've been able to do that's been able to not just make our lives easier, I think they've been able to help facilitate a more delicious ramen world. If there's a ramen boom, it's been aided because of Sun Noodle, absolutely. Are they the only reason, no, but I can't imagine a lot of these new types of ramen shops opening up without Sun. And I'm happy that it's with them because they're just tremendously good guys.
What do you think of the Ramen Lab and Ken's new mission of educating consumers about the different types of ramen?
It's awesome. I don't know if you've been to Japan and eaten ramen, but there's a whole culture based around it. If you added [up the] barbecue, hamburger, and pizza craze, it still doesn't add up to like half of the aggregate craze of ramen in Japan. And there's a whole industry based around that. It's amazing. They're able to provide that knowledge back to this area. It's still in it's infancy here [in America], so we need them. I don't know how else to describe it.
To help push it forward.
Yeah. The Ramen Lab is fantastic. I could talk ramen, but most people wouldn't know what ramen was in the late 90s or what was really cool then and the type of noodle and the double dipped method and how that helped spawn this whole new craze in the aughts and then now it's all Tonkotsu broth. And within the Tonkotsu style there's a heavy seafood component and now it's going back to a more chicken element and there are different types of noodles within that. They're able to recreate a lot of those ramens from that era and what's contemporary.
There was a whole world of food before that no one ever really paid attention to, and now it's great that they are.
So it's educating people. People know what a shio broth is now and they know what a shoyu broth is and [ramen chefs] could make regional varieties of ramen that people wouldn't have known before. And food writers like yourself now go to the Ramen Lab, and they're educated now. They get to learn about a cuisine that they didn't really know anything about before. There was a whole world of food before that no one ever really paid attention to, and now it's great that they are.
Outside of the ramen world, do people know Sun Noodle?
I don't think so. They don't even know the history of Sun Noodle. They don't know how they have one of the best ramen chefs ever [Shigetoshi Nakamura]. He's like a legend. He looks like a really young guy, and he is a young guy, but they have arguably one of the best ramen chefs helping them out.
I think it's going to happen. I think that it's quite possible that they could become like a Pat LaFrieda of pasta or ramen down the road. That's something that I joke with them about. It's just a matter of time. If you look at LaFrieda and how they were able to really customize for each restaurant, that's their main brand. And it's not just LaFrieda, you could talk about a whole lot of the butchers like that.
But within the community they're super well known.
Yeah, I guess. I don't know. I know that the guy that I respect here in America uses them. And again, I think a lot of people would want to make their own [noodles], but it's like what's the point? We sell enough ramen, but we don't have enough room to dedicate to making it. Those guys do a better job than we would ever do.
Is that the only potential competitor in your mind, yourself?
No one's going to do what they're doing. It's just not going to happen. There's no fucking way. Their combined knowledge is too great. And it's not just Sun. George's relationships with the food industry go back a long time, like 20 years. They're a great team. That's what I want to say about Sun. Everybody has a role to play. Even if Sun didn't make a great product, I would probably still support them and use them because they're just really good dudes.
Why Chefs Choose Sun Noodle
Before Ivan Orkin opened the Tokyo restaurant that would launch him to the upper echelon of ramen chefs in Japan, he researched noodles. After all, he figured, noodles are as important to ramen as bread is to a sandwich. So Orkin toured some of the country's noodle factories, known for rejecting any potential ramen chefs they don't think are up to snuff. These factories offered tailor-made noodles, but with only about 10 options to choose from. "I didn't like that idea," Orkin says. "I was like, I'm going to bust my ass figuring out how to make a great soup and then I've got to put your shitty noodles in my soup."
That's how Orkin wound up perfecting the famous house-made rye ramen noodles that he serves in his Tokyo restaurants. But when he decided to move back to New York City, Orkin didn't think it'd be feasible to make his own noodles there. First of all, he didn't have the equipment in New York. But it was also just kind of too much. "It's hard enough just to open a restaurant here," Orkin says. So he turned to a company he'd worked with years earlier when he had made ramen at a Culinary Institute of America event in California: Sun Noodle.
Sun Noodle is the next-best choice to house-made noodles for so many American ramen chefs in large part thanks to the mission that Hidehito set back in the company's early days. Sun Noodle has a reputation for working with chefs to create a noodle that best complements their broth recipe. At the New Jersey factory, there are 40 recipes for dough on the master sheet. Each of these can be cut differently — wavy, straight, thick, thin — meaning that there are altogether about 120 types of ramen noodle produced on just one assembly line in the 10,000-square-foot factory. "Can you imagine a bakery that makes 75 kinds of bread, 80 kinds of bread?" Orkin asks.
And Sun Noodle is obsessive about the quality of each of these 120 types of ramen noodles. Every detail matters, starting with the flour. Sun Noodle uses eight different types of flour from suppliers in Canada, Australia, and America, in various combinations. The flour is tempered for at least eight hours at a temperature between 62 and 67 degrees. The factory filters water on a reverse osmosis machine, and constantly measures the humidity of the factory to adjust the water levels correspondingly. Sun Noodle also adds kansui, a mix of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, to the water in order to reproduce the alkalinity of Japanese water that makes ramen noodles firm and springy.
The New Jersey factory has one line that includes four compound presses so that the dough is pressed at no more than a 30 percent rate at a time. (There's talk of adding a fifth compound press to reduce that percentage even further.) Once the dough reaches the desired thickness, a noodle cutter forms the dough into the proper noodle shape and size, depending on the recipe. The noodles are tempered for another two hours when they come packaged off the line, then go into the fridge, where they're aged for a day or two to let the gluten develop before sending them off to customers. Though Sun Noodle uses sophisticated machinery that Kenshiro boasts is the same as that found in Japan's top noodle factories, four actual human employees oversee the line at any given time.
Kenshiro points out that these kinds of details make a difference to Sun Noodle's customers. For example, he says, if the noodles are off in thickness by 0.1 millimeter, the diner might not notice, but the restaurant will need to cook them for 10 seconds longer. That's not a burden Sun Noodle wants to pass onto its customers. "Sun Noodle is a promise to our customers that we take pride in making the very best noodles that we can for them," he says.
But the allure of custom noodles has to do with more than just the noodles themselves. It's about the customer service that comes with them. Sun Noodle's customer service is customizable in itself. Which is good because there's an enormous range among Sun Noodle's customers.
Kenshiro describes Sun Noodle's customer service as "chef-driven," explaining that whenever he starts working with a new customer, he starts by listening. He wants to learn not just to what the chef or restaurant owner wants, but also what they want to know about ramen. Some chefs know exactly what they want. Orkin likes that he can call Sun Noodle and rattle off a recipe, then wait for a sample to approve. "So I still get to be a chef," he says.
It's also a conversation. David Chang talks about working with Sun Noodle as "a give and take." If the chefs at Momofuku Noodle Bar develop a new broth recipe, sometimes they'll bring that broth over to the New Jersey factory — or Sun Noodle will come to them — and test out a few noodle options, taste them, and debate which noodle goes best with the broth. Sometimes Chang will offer his opinion on which noodles he likes better. But, he says, "The reality here is they know what's going on better than most people."
And, indeed, on the other side of the spectrum, Sun Noodle also consults with chefs and restaurateurs who are only just learning about ramen. For example, there was the guy who thought the noodles were wrapped in dissolvable, edible plastic pouches. He called Sun Noodle to troubleshoot why the noodles didn't cook properly when they were dropped, wrapper and all, in boiling water. Sun Noodle was there to help.
"I'm not particularly worried about them having competition because I don't know if anybody is going to work as hard as they do," Orkin says. "They deserve the reputation they have."
Why Chefs Don’t Choose Sun Noodle
Sun Noodle isn't the only player in the fresh ramen noodle game, though. Kenshiro Uki says there are about 20 other companies that Sun Noodle regards as competitors. Well-liked ramen shops such as New York City's Ippudo, Chicago's Slurping Turtle, and Washington, DC's Daikaya all source their noodles elsewhere. Some of these are themselves the competition.
Takashi Yagihashi, the chef/owner behind Slurping Turtle, used to procure his noodles from Yamachan Ramen in San Jose. They're a good noodle company, he says, and was the best of many noodles he sampled when he starting selling ramen from a Macy's food stand in 2006.
But a couple of years ago, Yagihashi decided to start making his own noodles. He bought a machine from Japan, and hired a guy to operate it day in and day out. Slurping Turtle makes between 400 and 500 servings of fresh ramen noodles per day, mostly for the restaurant's two locations, but also for a couple of other restaurants in town that Yagihashi preferred not to name since some of them want diners to believe they make their own noodles. (This is a pretty common phenomenon in ramen restaurants; Sun Noodle prefers not to name all of its clients for the same reason.)
Yagihashi says he didn't make the switch for the cost or out of any frustration with his noodle manufacturer. He actually still calls his friends at Yamachan when he needs some noodle-making advice. He just wanted the taste that comes with the absolute freshness of homemade noodles that don't require shipping from California. Fresh noodles can be infused with the flavor of a broth much more quickly than dry noodles, Yagihashi argues. And when you're dealing with a hot soup, you need that infusion process to move quickly before the noodles break down. "My opinion is that fresh noodles we make at home are much more enjoyable," he says.
Meanwhile, restaurateur Daisuke Utagawa didn't want to make homemade noodles when he opened Daikaya in Washington, DC with Katsuya Fukushima at the helm. He wasn't sure they'd be able to do them well given their space and time constraints. Utagawa also had a very specific requirement for his noodles: He wanted a ramen noodle manufacturer that uses Japanese flour as well as well-water from Sapporo, which Utagawa says has the alkalinity that is key to great ramen.
That's why Utagawa approached Nishiyama, an independent Japanese noodle-maker based in Sapporo. "Everybody knows Nishiyama noodles in Japan," says Utagawa, who grew up in Tokyo. Nishiyama also happens to be one of those manufacturers that is known for turning down customers. After Utagawa expressed interest, they invited him and Fukushima to Japan to meet, talk ramen, and work together in a test kitchen before agreeing to sell to Daikaya. Now, Utagawa says he believes Daikaya is one of the two ramen shops in America that carries Nishiyama noodles — the second being another DC-area restaurant, Ren's Ramen.
Though Utagawa preferred to go with a Japanese noodle company, he knows the team at Sun Noodle and says he likes their attitude toward ramen. The existence of Sun Noodle, Utagawa says, has contributed to the ramen boom by giving people an apparatus to open their own ramen shop. "I really believe in the future of ramen in the United States," he says.
A New Mission
The future of ramen in the United States is precisely what Sun Noodle is focusing on right now. At the New Jersey factory, Kenshiro Uki has outlined a new mission for the company: education. Kenshiro wants to teach American consumers and chefs alike about ramen, hoping to further stoke interest in all the existing varieties of the soup as well as inspire a new generation of cooks to create ramen that is purely American. He has recruited one of Japan's most lauded ramen chefs to join him in this new mission.
Key Players at Sun Noodle
Hidehito Uki, CEO and Founder
Hidehito Uki founded Sun Noodle in 1981 on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A second generation noodle-maker, Hidehito built his company with a mission to provide customized ramen noodles to American ramen shops. He is based in Hawaii.
Kenshiro Uki, General Manager, Sun Noodle NJ
Son of Sun Noodle founder Hidehito Uki, Kenshiro Uki was working in the company's California factory before moving to New Jersey in 2011 to open an East Coast outpost near New York City. Along with chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, Kenshiro aims to teach consumers about ramen through their Ramen Lab.
Shigetoshi "Jack" Nakamura, Executive Chef, Ramen Lab
Shigetoshi Nakamura — better known as Naka — is one of Japan's most legit and beloved ramen chefs, specializing in ramen broth. After befriending Kenshiro in California, Naka moved to the East Coast to help run the Ramen Lab. Set to reopen soon in Manhattan, Ramen Lab will introduce American consumers to the many varieties of ramen.
Keiko Uki, CFO
Keiko Uki keeps records and is in charge of the finances. Her daughter Hisae Uki also describes her as "basically the rock for my dad." She is based in Hawaii.
Hisae Uki, Director of Human Resources, Food Safety, Quality Assurance
Daughter of Sun Noodle founder Hidehito Uki, Hisae Uki is based at the original Honolulu factory, where she runs point for human resources, food safety, and quality assurance. She trains staff on company standards and is working to tighten these standards as Sun Noodle expands.
George Kao, National Sales Manager
A longtime player in the New York City food scene, George Kao leads the sales team at Sun Noodle. He works with chefs such as Momofuku Noodle Bar's David Chang to provide the right kind of noodles for each restaurant's broth. "George is just awesome at keeping relations with all my staff so they're family," Chang says.
Takao Morioka, Vice President
Takao Morioka serves as the vice president of Sun Noodle and he oversees all of the operations at the company's Hawaii factory. This factory is Sun Noodle's largest and produces 50,000 servings of noodles per day on its five lines. This particular factory also manufacturers other types of noodles such as soba, udon, and saimin.
Keisuke Sawakawa, General Manager, Sun Noodle CA
Keisuke Sawakawa oversees operations at Sun Noodle's West Coast factory in Los Angeles. This factory has an output of 30,000 servings of noodles per day.
Shigetoshi Nakamura, 37, started making ramen 15 years ago, returning to Japan to study ramen after spending some time surfing in San Diego. He's considered one of Japan's ramen "divas" — a Japanese term for chefs who are so dominant at their craft that they are nearly god-like — and is absolutely insanely famous for his ramen. Kenshiro met Nakamura, who goes by "Naka," when the chef moved back to California to open a ramen restaurant. Naka specializes in ramen broth, constantly focused on finding the balance of the broth's body, saltiness, temperature, aroma, and more. "Ramen is my life," Naka says.
After discovering a like-minded ramen obsessive in Kenshiro, Naka moved to the New York City area, where he briefly ran Ramen Lab out of its Teterboro factory. Ramen Lab was not quite a restaurant, but a consulting arm of sorts through which people who made reservations could purchase a tasting flight of five types of ramen. Kenshiro explains that most of the potential clients who called the New Jersey factory in the early days just wanted to make the tonkotsu-style ramen that Ippudo had made famous. Ramen Lab was a way to teach them about the other varieties of ramen.
It gained enough of a following that New York Times articles were filed and New Yorkers took taxis to the factory park near Teterboro's small airfield based on misleading Yelp reviews that painted it out to be a restaurant. Many of these would-be customers arrived only to be turned away. So Sun Noodle shuttered the operation with hopes to find a better way.
Soon, Naka will resurrect Ramen Lab in a small space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With about 12 seats at the counter, Ramen Lab replicates a traditional Japanese ramenya, though it still will not be a traditional restaurant. Naka will spend the mornings there prepping and consulting with Sun Noodle clients, while a nightly service will offer shoyu, miso, and spicy ramens, as well as a seasonal specialty bowl that uses local ingredients. Naka will be behind the counter, answering questions about his equipment, the noodles, how he makes his broth, and the difference between shio and shoyu ramen or what tsukemen ramen means. "It's a small space for a big dream," Naka says.
Beyond educating customers about the existing varieties of ramen, Naka wants to show diners that it's possible for America to develop its own regional styles much like Japan has its Hokkaido and Tokyo ramens. His hope — and Kenshiro's — is that ramen in America will one day be debated like Manhattan or New England clam chowder. "I don't only want to do a shop," Naka says. "I want to make a ramen culture here."
It's a goal that might actually be coming to fruition. Ramen fever has expanded out of the major New York and Los Angeles markets and into other cities. Much of that expansion has been to cities known for their craft food movements, Kenshiro says, such as Boston, Portland, Austin, and Seattle. But people line up for ramen now in Milwaukee, where chefs Gregg Des Rosier of Tochi and Justin Carlisle of Ardent (both Sun Noodle clients) told the Journal Sentinel about their respective missions to spread the gospel of ramen in the midwestern city. Naka says that Tennessee, Atlanta, and Florida are upcoming spots for ramen, too.
And, as ramen knowledge spreads, the desire to tinker is inevitable: In Austin, Michi Ramen, a Sun Noodle customer, already offers a Texas-style ramen with pork ribs, barbecue sauce, and a tomato tonkotsu broth.
Looking 50-100 Years Ahead
Though custom noodles have always been the most essential focus for Hidehito, he supports Kenshiro's new mission. "He has a big dream and a big vision to introduce this new type of a product to American market," Hidehito says, arguing that his children Kenshiro and Hisae (his oldest daughter Jamie is not in the family business) are poised to expand Sun Noodle as third-generation noodle-makers who were born in the US and speak English fluently. And expansion is indeed the plan for these siblings.
From their respective home bases in Honolulu and New Jersey, Hisae and Kenshiro are working together to ensure the future of Sun Noodle. Hisae is developing food safety and quality assurance standards that she hopes will take Sun Noodle from a mom-and-pop noodle manufacturer to a fully blown professional business. The idea, she says, is to ensure that Sun Noodle will last another 50 to 100 years.
Meanwhile, Kenshiro and his team tour the country, perpetually looking for better flour and better ingredients for their noodles. He tours factories in Japan, always pushing himself to be that advanced. "The only way that people would appreciate or consider myself successful is if I can do something more than what my father can," Kenshiro says, noting that his father is a craftsman with 32 years of experience compared to Kenshiro's six years. "I know I can't compete with the experience. But what I think that I bring to legacy is I was born in America. So what I can do that he perhaps couldn't is convey that craft ramen to Americans."