One of the Big Island’s best-known restaurants certainly presented an unassuming front. My car circled the block twice before it dawned on me that the sunken storefront in a well-worn strip mall might house one of Hilo’s signature destinations, an idea that seemed way too L.A. Beth-An Gilbert-Nishijima opened Nori’s Saimin & Snacks in 1984, naming the inconspicuous restaurant for her dog, but despite the provenance, Nori’s serves serious people food.
The fairly straightforward space features straight-backed wood booths, some tight against the hallway wall, fluorescent lighting and, if you’re lucky, ’80s rock classics like Take on Me.
Saimin is normally a flour noodle soup, developed in the Plantation era, drawing from the field hands’ global influences. New Hilo Style Saimin with Wonton (small special, $8.65) incorporated crimped egg noodles with ramen like garnishes of green onion, shocking pink fish cake, tender char siu and egg strips, plus pork wontons with good flavor but doughy skins, all floating in a savory pork and chicken broth. My server told me to mix spicy mustard with shoyu to form a dipping sauce, which bumped up the savory quotient even more. My bowl came with a teriyaki chicken skewer with caramelized dark meat, that was quite crispy, but decidedly dry.
Nori’s is so proud of their Mustard Cabbage Koko ($3.95) that they bottle it. The sweet, savory and mildly tangy twist on kimchi combined mustard cabbage, head cabbage, vinegar, shoyu, sugar, chile, garlic, ginger and salt. That much was evident on the label, but the proportions were of course proprietary.
Near the register, they housed massive slabs of their signature chocolate mochi and chocolate mochi chips – thin, crispy rectangles studded with chocolate chips – but my sweet choice was Manju ($0.75 apiece) baked cookies filled with either chocolate chip, adzuki bean or lima bean. My picks – earthy red bean and sweeter lima – both satisfied.
Nori’s specials board touted options like pig feet soup, ginger pork, and panko mullet. Clearly, Nori’s is even better for big groups who like to share. Basically, bring reinforcements.