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Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Shiro’s Saimin Haven

Restaurant Insider

December 8, 2019

Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO

Restaurant manager Gavin Lee, left, president Linda Matsuo, Anne Lee, Tammy Tajiri-Fujimoto and vice president Bryce Fujimoto

ANNE LEE speaks with president LINDA MATSUO

Shiro’s Saimin Haven is a family business Hawaii residents and visitors undoubtedly can agree is a blessing to the local food scene. The mom-and-pop shop churns out some of the best saimin in the state and more — cue in the fried noodles, laulau, beef stew, beef curry, beef teriyaki … and the list goes on.

“Our first location was in Aiea Bowling Alley in 1969 called Shiro’s Hula Hula Drive Inn,” shares president Linda Matsuo, who is also the founder’s daughter. “It was just a counter with about a dozen seats.”

Just a couple years later in 1971, the iconic Waimalu location opened and then came the Ewa Beach locale in 1989.

Char Siu Saimin with Wun Tun, Vegetables and Garnishes ($10.40)

The saimin haven was founded by Franz Shiro Matsuo when he was 55 years old. Prior to founding Shiro’s, he was working at what is now known as Kapiolani Community College Culinary Arts Division — of which, Shiro created the preliminary class before the Culinary Arts. However, Shiro always wanted to open up his own business, so he left his job at the school to start up Shiro’s Saimin Haven.

“My mother was so mad at him for leaving his job! He took over a business that was going bankrupt, and even took on their debt! He went to every single purveyor and because he had the relationship with these resources through his position at the culinary arts division, they all knew him and supported him, and had his back,” recalls Matsuo. “They helped him fund the restaurant, and told him he could pay them back when he could. They trusted him, and he wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.”

Today, Matsuo and her two sons, Gavin and Bryce, keep the haven alive, and they share more of Shiro’s legacy and restaurant.

Club House Sandwich ($10.95)

AL: What type of cuisine does Shiro’s specialize in?

LM: Homestyle cooking, local food — the kind of food that your grandma, aunty, uncle, grandpa used to make. Stuff that makes you reminisce about the past.

AL: What makes Shiro’s stand out from other restaurants on the island?

LM: My father was not an average person — some jokingly say he was a crazy man. I have never met anyone like him. He didn’t have the clientele at first, but he would take pans of his fried noodles to the construction workers on the side of the street and asked them to try the fried noodles. ‘If you like it, you come and visit me at the restaurant!’ he would say to them.

“Homemade” Hamburga Steak with Gravy ($11.65)

Also, some of the names on the menu were so crazy we had to take some of them off. He created these sandwiches with crazy names, The Big Shiro, The Shove Em Hotdog (this used to be called the 10-inch hot dog), which is still on the menu but with a different name. He was a dreamer and had a great sense of humor.

Shiro also wanted a noodle factory, so he was able to get funding from his purveyors, and he went to Japan to meet with the noodle makers and bought a noodle machine, that was about $20 back then, in 1989. He tasted all the noodles in Hawaii, and bought out an existing noodle factory owned by a retiring old couple that he felt made the best saimin, as well as their noodle recipes, and the rest is history. This used to be on Colburn Street, but now we have the factory in Waipio, closer to our restaurants.

AL: What is your goal to customers?

LM: We make everything homemade, like our laulau (it’s hand wrapped), and our noodles are homemade, too. Our gravy we prepare with cuts of vegetables and get the drippings from our beef and let it simmer on the stove for hours and hours. We really do spend a lot of time to do things, not quickly or easily, but the right way.

AL: What is the most popular dish?

LM: Hamburger steak. We make this by hand at every shift, nothing frozen, all local beef. Besides the spices and little bit of love that we put in there, the gravy is slathered on top. We fire up batches of gravy at least three times a week; it takes practically all day to make. It is $11.65 and the regulars know us for the hamburgers.

Country Fried Noodles with Teri Beef Stick ($11.20)

AL: What are some of the restaurant’s other specialties or customer favorites?

LM: The Club House Sandwich with French Fries ($10.95); Char Siu Saimin ($10.40); and Country Fried Noodles with Teri Beef Stick ($11.20).

AL: Anything new happening?

LM: Catering. We have the same style of home-style cooking for catering that we have in the restaurant. We do please ask that customers order early, depending on what and how many people you are ordering for. For example, for 15 people or more, please give us at least five days’ notice. The more notice, we can accommodate special requests.

We are also going green with our take out containers. We are very close to finding the saimin containers. We have been researching it and trying to find a safe container to hold the hot liquid. We need to make sure that it’s safe and secure for a takeout container. We recycle all of our containers and are very conscious of the environment. We were green before being green was in!

AL: What is your favorite part of your job?

LM: Every day is fun and we laugh a lot, you never know what is going to happen. We are all family here, and a little bit crazy, that’s why we all get along. I feel like we all have a little bit of Shiro’s vision. The workers here range in age and different nationalities. They are all so accepting of everyone from young to old, everyone is welcome here. It’s a culture of kindness, this is something you can’t teach, it comes from the inside. We have a lot of longtime employees. One employee, Doris, for instance, has been here since we opened.

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