Where Tried and True Meets a Dash of New

Cover Story Features

May 28, 2011

Story By: Dining Out Team |

When thinking of your traditional saimin stop in Hawaii, visions of mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall type of noodle shops often come to mind. But last October, Joan and Paul Watanabe forever changed that image. The couple decided to turn away from yesterday’s look and modernize every aspect of the typical saimin eatery by opening Tanaka Saimin, a picturesque and spacious establishment located on Nimitz Highway next to Party City. Booths and tables are contemporary and plentiful throughout the 5,000-square-foot restaurant, while exquisite artwork by Joan’s sister, Joyce Tanaka-Shields, lines the walls and graces the cover of each menu.

  • Tanaka Saimin general manager Nani Lee Christian with a decadent spread of mouthwatering favorites.
  • Hearty Man Bento ($7.35)
  • Tanaka Saimin Combo ($8.70 large)
  • Strawberry Waffle ($4.99)
  • Banana Cream Pie ($3.45)
Image of

Yet although the eatery sports a brand-new decor, head chef Sing Lee continues to serve up a variety of tried-and-true favorites.

Dining Out recently sat down with general manager Nani Lee Christian, who whet our appetites by not only talking about the classic dishes already served at Tanaka Saimin, but also the restaurant’s new fare coming in June.

DO: Tanaka Saimin seems like the classic one-stop shop for local Japanese food. What can customers expect from their dining experience here?

Christian: Customers can expect home-cooked meals that offer something for everyone — be it children, teenagers or adults. Our restaurant is very family-friendly and the ambience is very relaxing. We want everyone to feel comfortable here, so we always have music playing and big-screen TVs on for people to enjoy. However, it’s all about the comfort food that you can get at any time of the day, breakfast included.

DO: Tanaka Saimin offers a wide spectrum of dishes, many of which are offered throughout the day and night. What are some of the more popular items?

Christian: One of the top sellers is our Saimin Combo ($8.70 large, $8.20 small), featuring a bowl of saimin, a piece of teri beef, a piece of shrimp and your choice of macaroni potato salad or tossed greens. Our saimin is very special, as the personal recipe for our dashi goes back 55 years.

It’s a blend of shrimp paste and Hawaiian salt that is actually brewed from scratch. First-timers here also must try the Tanaka Special with teri beef and shrimp with a choice of white or brown rice, or fried saimin. We also recently upgraded our barbecue short-ribs, and customers love our barbecue sticks, cone sushi and ox tail soup and ox tail stew (available on Monday).

DO: Tanka Saimin’s highly anticipated bentos are now available. Tell us about these delicious plate lunches offered from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. (weekdays) and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. (weekends).

Christian: We created Bento 1, consisting of teri beef, mahi mahi, Spam and chicken with furikake rice. However, our most popular bento has been titled the Hearty Man bento with pork chop, hot dog, Spam and chicken with furikake rice. It’s not common to find pork chop included in a bento, so it’s very unique to us here. Customers can enjoy their bentos here or place orders to go.

DO: Where do the recipes for all these local favorites come from?

Christian: Many of the recipes originate from Joan and Paul. Some I brought on to the menu and our chef, Mr. Lee, also added a few.

DO: Tanaka Saimin will be including new breakfast items on its menu menu sometime next month, correct?

Christian: Yes! For the month of June, we have a special promotion going on where customers can order waffles with topping (strawberry or blueberry) for $4.99. Diners also can receive the Portuguese Sausage Omelet with rice for the same price. These options are all part of our early bird special available from 6 to 10 a.m. daily.

DO: You recommend that patrons save room for dessert. What are some of the scrumptious options available?

Christian: Our famous dessert, Banana Cream Pie ($3.45), is homemade by Paul and the crust consists of macadamia nut shortbread. We also offer a variety of 20 different flavors, including strawberry, blueberry and mango, but Banana Cream Pie is our most popular. We also serve Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which nicely complements the pie.

DO: The restaurant is always packed with kamaaina enjoying mouthwatering dishes. To what do you attribute Tanaka Saimin’s success?

Christian: The food is always made-to-order and we have great specials like prime rib, which is available on Fridays. And you could say that our success is attributed to the wide variety of food that we have here — we have more than 75 items to choose from.

DO: Is it true that Tanaka Saimin will be revamping its menu soon?

Christian: Yes. In the near future, we will be offering a Japanese breakfast, featuring salmon, mahi mahi or miso butterfish with egg, furikake rice, miso soup, ocha tea and tsukemono, in addition to an Ochazuke breakfast, which is very popular with locals. It’s served with salmon, furikake, crispy wonton strips and tea over hot rice. It’s set to be a part of our daily menu, available all throughout the day. We also will be introducing a special keiki menu for children 10 and under, featuring mini waffles, mini hot cakes and French toast for breakfast, and plates with any choice of teri beef, chicken or hot dog with rice and cooked vegetables served all throughout the day. Also, we’ll be replacing our beef cutlet with pork cutlet.

Tanaka Saimin

  • Where
    • 888 North Nimitz Highway #103
    • Honolulu, HI 96817
  • Call
    • (808) 524-2020
  • Hours
    • 6 a.m. – 9 p.m.
    • Monday – Thursday
    • 6 a.m. – 11 p.m.
    • Fridays
    • 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
    • Saturdays
    • 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
    • Sundays