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What's For Lunch?
What's for Lunch?

Saimin is Always on the Mind

By Rachel Breit Photos By Rachel Breit
April 6, 2014

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It’s easy to take for granted the unique gastronomy of the Islands. For locals, it’s simply the local kind grinds we’ve grown up eating. Say the word “saimin” to Mainlanders and they might try to correct you: “Don’t you mean ramen?”

While the noodle soup does give a nod to Japanese ramen, it also has ties to Chinese mein and Filipino pancit. It’s one of those dishes that sums up Hawaii’s multi-cultural history and the melting pot of culture that was left to simmer during the plantation era.

Seriously, where else can you get saimin — not to mention Spam — at a quintessential fast-food burger chain but here in Hawaii?

Besides fast-food eateries, saimin disciples have other spots to seek steaming bowls of comfort. One such sanctuary is the aptly-named Shiro’s Saimin Haven, founded by the late Franz Shiro Matsuo.

Not one to be still, chef Shiro was often noodling around. “He was always doing something,” says daughter and president Linda Matsuo. And his handiwork is evident throughout the cheery eatery. “We didn’t change very much,” she says.

See for yourself. The extensive menu of his recipes (you’ll find some new ones there, too) and frame after frame of poetry hung on the walls remain. He wrote a poem each week for 20 or so years until he was relieved from his duty by Linda’s son, Bryce.

While a hot hearty bowl of saimin is hard to beat, for a change of taste — or temperature — take a dip in the Cool Min ($8.25). “Lettuce” explain this cool saimin: Shiro’s noodles (the Haven owns its own factory) are placed on a bed of lettuce then topped with fish cake, cubes of tofu, strips of nori and a garnish of green onion. “The sauce makes it so tasty,” Matsuo says of the shoyu, vinegar and sesame oil dressing. The somen salad-inspired dish is a refreshing alternative to brothy saimin. “Sometimes you don’t want to have something really heavy,” Matsuo says. “This is perfect; it’s light.”

While diners can take refuge in the seemingly endless options for saimin, Shiro’s is not one to be pigeon-holed. “A lot of people think we only do saimin because we’re a saimin haven — we have 65 kinds of saimin — but we also have really good entrees,” explains Matsuo.

One popular lunch entree is the classic Clubhouse Sandwich ($9.25), which features turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a little bit of mayo on toasted Loves brand white or wheat bread. “It’s a good blend of salty and veggies,” says Matsuo. “It’s big, too. It’s a double-decker.” The sandwich comes with french fries, tossed greens or potato-mac salad. Go on, join the club.

Another entree worth yakking about is recently reinvented Yaki Yaki Yakitori ($9.10), chicken thighs smothered in a thick glaze of teriyaki sauce. Talk about tender. Marination is involved, but the cooking process is secret. As for the off-kilter name? Shiro liked the ring to it. “It just sounded good to him, so he put those nonsense words together,” says Matsuo.

Though when it comes to quick, friendly service and satisfying dishes, Shiro’s takes a no-nonsense approach. And, in this case, the writing on the wall is optimistic. “Have the feeling that the best is still ahead.”

Shiro’s Saimin Haven

Waimalu Shopping Center
98-020 Kamehameha Hwy., Aiea (also located in Waipahu and Ewa Beach)
488-8824 for restaurant and catering; 488-8834 for takeout
Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
ShirosSaimin.com