A new spot for Chongqing-style noodles quietly opened on Kalakaua Avenue next to Frog House about four or five months ago — so quiet that I live in the area but never noticed it til a reader recently tipped me off to it. And even he thought it was brand new.
I checked it out to qualify if for the Hawaii Chinese Dinner Society (HICDS), and liked it so much that I went back a few more times! One of the HICDS members put his stamp of approval on it, proclaiming it better than Mian (Chengdu Taste's sister restaurant at 808 Sheridan). That's a pretty huge statement.
Chongqing noodles are typically skinny, with spicy broth using Szechuan peppercorns. At Joy Cup Noodle Mean, they offer levels one through 14 on the spice barometer, but they recommend you start at a lower number and request extra spice on the side to help crank it up if you need it.
Lulu Luo got her recipes from her mother, who had a restaurant in Chongqing. (The noodle recipes are hers, but she outsources the actual noodle making to a local company.) Her business partner, Ricky Shacklse, is originally from Texas but had spent time in Okinawa when he was in the military, so you'll also find the quirky addition of his Texas chili and taco rice on the menu.
At first I thought "Joy Cup Noodles Mean" was Chinglish, but it's a deliberate visual play on words. "麵" is the Chinese symbol for their style of noodle, prominently displayed under the name. Luo's intention is to show you that "noodles mean 麵." (Joy is her daughter's name, so she fit that in.) And "mean" sounds like "mian" (or "mein" as we gringos know it), which plays on it further.
I've eaten meals with and without the cucumber salad, and although they aren't essential, they do enhance the experience. The cool, crisp cucumbers contrasting with the spicy noodles is a classic taste combination.
We all loved the plump, rustic dumplings, served piping hot with chili oil sauce on the side. Although it's daintier to keep the sauce on the side, I recommend you just dump it all over to get the spicy flavor distributed and soaking into the wrappers.
Although the restaurant is known for its spicy noodles, one of my favorites is now the cold sesame noodles. This seems so simple, with the chewy noodles tossed in a creamy sesame sauce, but the flavor is much more complex. My new favorite way to eat it? Get a dollop of spicy chili on the side (level four or so, pictured here) and add it to each bite. I tried mixing it all in before eating, but that actually didn't work for me.
The universal favorite is the dan dan noodles, a super tasty version of a classic dish that fills your mouth with 21 ingredients of spicy, sweet, savory, umami, crunch and ... well, you get the picture. The chewy noodles bring the carnival together in one bowl with the minced pork on top.
You can't really go wrong with the pork belly noodles. What's not to love? You can see in the photo, there's a balance of fatty and lean, and the oiliness of the pork belly is beautiful with the chili spice.
Forget the man-wich, the beef noodles are definitely filling! You get chunks of tender meat in a beefy, spicy broth. The broth is red, though, so be careful about splashing as you eat the long noodles. For some reason, the spice really came through with this one, and we were all reaching for a Kleenex after eating this one!
One warning for those of you who haven't experienced this style of noodles: They're very long and chewy! I imagine these are the kinds of noodles that Chinese people based their "long life" tradition on. So you'll have to figure out when to bite them to cut them off, or you'll be sucking up the noodles forever. But I absolutely love the chewy texture.
The most unusual noodles, of course, are the blanket noodles — hand-pulled sheets served simply with vegetables and peanuts. I want to like these so much, but as you can see, they're huge. The weight and width of the noodles makes them really hard to hold onto. The broth is nice, though, with a light, savory flavor. My super Chinesey friends get really excited when they see this dish on the menu because it shows that the place is authentic.
Luo and Shacklse previously had a bike shop and a milk tea/shave ice place in this spot, so you'll find two bikes for sale at the front of the restaurant. You'll also find their shave ice, featuring homemade syrups, and milk teas. I highly recommend the golden milk tea to go with your spicy meal.
One last thing to add to the quirkiness of this restaurant: They own the Kalakaua Foot Massage place next door. Chinese massage parlors have been popping up all over Honolulu recently, offering super cheap treatments. (Being Chinese, they stay open until 11 p.m!) We tried the massage and it is, indeed, legit, a nice way to end your Chongqing style evening.
Joy Cup Noodles Mean
1608 Kalakaua Ave.