Tamjai SamGor Mixian (“SamGor”) is a fast casual restaurant from Hong Kong specializing in mixian (rice noodles), with 74 outlets and counting, including in Singapore. They have also garnered Michelin Bib Gourmand distinctions for three years in a row. We went to sample these famous noodles to let you know if SamGor is worth adding to your foodie wishlist.
‘Fragrant, numbing, hot and spicy’
Hong Kongers may already be well-accustomed to the mantra 香麻辛辣 ‘hon-ma-san-la’ of this famed rice noodle chain, but it’s being introduced to Japan as an ‘untranslatable’ flavor concept.
Originally established as a family business in 1996, SamGor (meaning “third brother” in Cantonese) diverged from Tamjai Yunnan Mixian (“Tamjai”) and opened their first restaurant in 2008.
In 2018, Toridoll Hong Kong (a subsidiary of Toridoll Japan) acquired both SamGor and Tamjai brands. The chain operator is aiming to double their store network to 330 by 2024, with global expansion plans including 25 new outlets in Japan and 15 in Australia.
What’s special about SamGor noodles?
Founder Mr. “SamGor” Tam Chap Kwan believes the “most important thing is whether customers like it”, so the noodles are largely customisable with choice of soup base, spice level, and a large selection of toppings.
The mixian are made simply with rice and water, and have a smooth surface yet chewy texture. According to Mr. SamGor, he figured these humble, rather bland noodles would pair well with flavourful broth.
Inspired by Sichuan hot pot and mala seasoning (Chinese characters ma (麻) “numb” and la (辣) “spicy”), which includes flower pepper, chili oil and star anise, he describes the creation of his original soup bases as a process of trial and error.
The brand is also renowned for its incremental spice scale ranging from non-spicy, low (10), mild (5)… all the way up to ‘extremely fiery’ and ‘hell fire’. Now that’s intimidating! Level 10 is said to be the best starting point for beginners, while level 5 is also very popular in Hong Kong.
Review of SamGor in Shinjuku
Marking its launch in Japan, SamGor’s Shinjuku store opened on March 31st 2022, with Kichijoji and Ebisu stores to follow on 14th and 21st April, respectively.
The brand’s Japan account has been tweeting wait times; ranging from 30-180 mins in their first few days post-launch. To find out if it justifies all the buzz, we went to the new Shinjuku store to try for ourselves.
Turning into the main street, we immediately saw the polished red and black tiles, and glowing neon Tamjai SamGor sign (a similar exterior to the Central Flagship Store in Hong Kong).
We arrived at 2:30pm on a Tuesday, rather late for lunch time, but there was a queue of people ready and waiting for noodles. We joined what we thought was the end of the line but were then directed around the corner where the queue continued, with about 25 people total.
As we neared the front of the line about 40 mins later, we received a menu to mull over before a staff member returned to explain it in more detail.
Notably, there are 6 original soup flavors (with varying spiciness), and all noodles come with freeze-dried tofu, Chinese chives and bean sprouts (unless you want to opt out). Topping options (¥90–¥150) include meat, seafood, and vegetables, while there are a selection of side dishes, soft drinks and some basic alcoholic drinks.
Tips for ordering at SamGor:
Once inside, we saw that there were about 14 tables, some counter seats, and two kitchens across two storeys. The decor was inline with SamGor’s rebranding; a modern, clean look with bold colors.
Surprisingly, retro 80’s tracks were being played including Memorabilia by Soft Cell (yep, I had to look that one up). Not quite in harmony with everything else, but it gave me an idea of what Mr. SamGor probably enjoyed listening to as he brewed up his spicy soup concoctions…
The staff were energetic and friendly but understandably still learning the ropes as new recruits of the international brand. One of the waiters took our order on a mobile device but later came back and apologized, explaining that the battery had died.
We had to repeat our order, but appreciated that the whole ordering system would be quite complex, considering the number of possible combinations can apparently reach up to 700,000!
In addition, we noticed the female staff members wearing a name tag with the suffix 姐, meaning ‘older sister’ in both Japanese and Cantonese. Our waiter told us that we can call her “ ___ne”, a shortened version of older sister ‘ane’ in Japanese. We didn’t quite catch the male or alternate version, but thought that was an interesting touch.
Then came the most anticipated moment as our food arrived.
Here’s what we ordered:
Mala Mixian (¥610)
Mala is the most popular soup base in Hong Kong, and has one of the ‘must-try’ symbols on the menu.
I ordered the normal size, spice level 10 (low), with spinach and baby octopus for toppings. It was certainly a generous serving, and while the ‘hot and numbing’ title conjured a red, oily soup in my mind, it was actually an opaque, creamy color. The savoriness expanded in my mouth with a tingling spiciness that lingered like an aftertaste.
Was the soup base chicken broth? When we asked one of the chefs who happened to walk by, he told us that “it could be… but it’s a secret” with a smile.
SamGor Sanla Mixian (¥650)
SamGor Sanla (Hot & Sour) has a distinct sour tang that adds a whole other dimension.
My Japanese foodie companion ordered the small size, no (additional) spice, which is already roughly equivalent to level 3 (spicy), with coriander, pork slices, and quail eggs.
The soup base immediately felt spicier than the Mala level 10, starting with a prickly sensation to the tip of the tongue that then spread to the entire mouth and lips. While we were both sweating from our faces, it was very much bearable, and felt like a good detox.
Side dishes (from ¥250)
We ordered the 3 piece TuFei (Hunan cumin) chicken wings (¥380) that were roasted to a crisp, but still juicy on the inside. The whole tomato (¥350) with black vinegar, coriander and parmesan was cold (likely steamed), and was a refreshing palate-cleanser (especially between spicy soup types).
Finally, the Hong Kong-style iced lemon tea (¥280) was a great thirst-quencher, and a suitable accompaniment to the spicy noodles. The lemon slices were at the bottom of the glass, so it required some mashing and stirring with a spoon to extract the lemon flavor, something we might be less used to in Japan.
The verdict? We enjoyed the unique chewy texture of the rice noodles, however, they were thicker than expected so it was quite filling. The soup was certainly flavorful, but like hot pot broth, was cloudy and rather rich.
In terms of spice, level 10 (low) was a good place to start, but the default for SamGor Sanla packed a good punch, and made us feel accomplished. Another note: unlike ramen, it’s better not to slurp, otherwise you risk intense spice getting in the back of your throat…
For a total of ¥3,230 for two, it was a reasonable price to pay for a customized Hong Kong mixian. The overall experience did have a ‘chain restaurant’ feeling, but we left the store satisfied, with one less layer thanks to the heat from the spices.