Paul Masuoka, who owned Masu’s Massive Plate Lunch in Liliha, wrote to tell me how he got his start: He worked at Pat’s at Punaluu in the 1960s.
“I was about 18 or 19 years old at the time and going to the KCC cooking school. Pat and Iris Hallaran were looking for a weekend charcoal broiler cook for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. They were open only for lunch on weekdays.
“Upon graduating they asked if I would like to be their full-time chef in charge of the kitchen and offered me a cottage to live in so I didn’t have to commute.
“Pat and Iris were like my adopted parents.” Masuoka recalls. “They knew I was very young and looked after me. They didn’t have children of their own.
“Iris made sure I always ate breakfast, so she and I would eat together every morning. During those times there was no such thing as cable, so Pat bought and installed an antenna so I could watch TV.”
“Back then our TV reception came over to us from Maui, and the sign-off was 11 at night.”
“While I was at the restaurant one night, there was this excitement over a guest. Pat came into the kitchen to personally choose a steak for them. I wondered what the interest was all about.
“I asked one of the older waitresses what was going on, and she told me Myrna Loy was dining with Pat and Iris. I looked into the dining room, and all I saw was this ‘old broad.’ Remember, I was only 19 at the time.”
Before they opened Pat’s at Punaluu, Pat was a stage manager on Broadway in New York. He knew the actress, Myrna Loy, from his years there before World War II. Loy had starred in five “Thin Man” movies and several others.
Iris had some time on stage, too. She had once been a ballerina.
“I stayed in touch with Pat and Iris after I left to work for Spencecliff at Fisherman’s Wharf at Kewalo Basin. It was THE seafood restaurant in Honolulu at the time.
“I was there for about five years. The original chef took me under his wing and taught me lots of things. I ended up being his first cook, making chowders, soups, etc.
“Later I was promoted to chef of the Spencecliff catering division, but it was always my dream to have a place of my own.”
Masuoka opened Livingston Food Service in 1974 (named after the popular Richard Bach book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”). The business focused originally on catering and was on Waimanu Street near the Blaisdell Arena. The lease was $300 a month.
“Then we moved to Kamaile Street, which is now Walmart’s receiving dock on the makai side of their store,” Masuoka says. It was called Masu’s Plate Lunch around 1988.
KCCN deejay Dave Lancaster added “massive” to the name during an ad campaign. He and James Grant Benton would sample that day’s special and play it up to their radio listeners.
Masuoka said his day started around 3 a.m. with his mom, Yoshiko, who began cooking the 100 pounds of rice they’d sell each day.
They prepared about 300 of their plate lunch specials, such as Robert Kekaula’s “Two-handed eat till you drop” special (kalua pig, charcoal-broiled sirloin steak, baked baby lobster tail, shoyu hot dog, baked Spam, fried chicken, crab potato salad and coconut cake.
It weighed 3 pounds, easily fed two and cost $6.85. You had to call and order it in advance if you wanted it. They kept the prices low by selling everything they prepared each day.
Realtor Kealoha Caldeira says she loved Masu’s food, “especially the teriyaki chicken with a thickened sauce. No one can come close to the taste. He also had great prices and massive serving sizes for the local opu. Every dish was delicious!”
“Teri chicken was our best moneymaker and our most popular item,” Masuoka said. “We made five gallons of the sauce daily.”
Masu’s had many celebrities and politicians as customers. The idea for naming specials for them was suggested by singer Melveen Leed.
“I asked several entertainers if I could name our specials after them. I tried to tie in the specials to their traits, what they were famous for, etc. It was quite fun but at the same time very challenging.
“Our Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) Queen Melveen Leed’s Halloween Obake bento special included Tita Style Vienna Sausage, which was the whole can, charcoal-broiled sirloin steak, kalua pig, fried chicken, fried shrimp tempura, baked Spam and tuna potato salad. $6.70.
“For KGMB reporter Jade Moon, we had a ‘Teahouse of the … Moon’ bento (Chinese-style lobster with ginger sauce, charcoal-broiled sirloin steak, fried chicken, fried shrimp and a half-roll of maki sushi. $6.70.
“We had a special connection to Gov. Ben Cayetano,” Masuoka says. “His campaign would order 735 plate lunches for his volunteers, so I had to honor him with a seafood special. Later he told me he was allergic to seafood!
“Cayetano was the most down-to-earth politician. He attended my mom’s many birthday parties, which were held at our restaurant.
“The specials really helped bring in customers because most of the celebrities would show up on the day we served it, even Gov. Cayetano with his bodyguards.
“All of them paid for their lunch, and they all had to wait in line like the rest of our customers.
“The best celebrity was Melveen Leed,” Masuoka continued. “She was having lunch one very busy day. We were all going pupule, and this guy hollers to one of my girls if someone could wipe down his table.
“Melveen, the tita, got up and told the guy, ‘You must have come straight from the airport, so I will show you how it’s done at a local plate lunch place.’
“She grabbed a towel from the back and actually cleaned his table. The other customers broke out in a round of applause! Melveen was a true diva, but she was also a real tita.
“To this day I cannot figure out why we were a magnet to so many special celebrities. I miss all of them,” Masuoka muses.
“Our menus were printed for the whole month. The specials changed daily. It was a great success. Many specials were sold out the day before or sometimes a week before. It was a lot of work, but I was used to that from my days at Spencecliff.”
Masu’s moved to Liliha and Kuakini streets in 1992, where the lease was $5,000 a month.
“I was very nervous of moving to such a ‘far place,’ but everything turned out well. My landlords were the Honda family who ran Honda Delicatessen. They had retired after 50 years in business. I could never have asked for better landlords. They helped me through the 15 years we were there.”
Masu’s closed in 2007. “I really miss the place and all the people who helped make it what it became,” Masuoka said.
“I owned Masu’s Massive Plate Lunch for 34 years, thanks to Pat and Iris Hallaran. She, in particular, really was a big help to me, giving me advice on how to run an efficient business. I can never forget it. Iris helped me so much!”
“I think many will be surprised to learn about Pat and Iris. They were well respected in the restaurant business and in the community, but many, I am sure, did not know how gracious and kind they were. They never did go out of their way to seek attention.
“I am now 75, and I still have fond memories of Pat’s at Punaluu. Pat and Iris were the most honest, caring and real people that I ever knew.”
MASU’S TERIYAKI CHICKEN
“Teri chicken was our best moneymaker and our most popular item,” said Paul Masuoka, owner of the former Masu’s Massive Plate Lunch shop.
5 pounds chicken thighs, bone in, with skin on
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water
3/4 cup soy sauce (Aloha brand preferred)
1/2-inch piece ginger, smashed
1 clove garlic, smashed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine sauce ingredients in a pot and bring to boil. Turn off heat and stir to dissolve sugar.
Remove half-cup of sauce for dipping. Set aside remainder.
Heat oil in a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, over high heat.
Dip chicken pieces in half-cup sauce, then sear in the skillet, working in batches. (Masuoka says this can create a lot of smoke and to do it outside if possible.)
Place seared pieces in a baking pan, skin side down. Pour any remaining dipping sauce over the chicken.
Bake 60-70 minutes until cooked through.
Remove garlic and ginger from reserved sauce. Bring sauce to a simmer. Add cornstarch slurry and stir to thicken. Pour sauce over chicken. Serves 10.
Have a comment, question or suggestion? Contact Bob Sigall, author of the five “The Companies We Keep” books, at Sigall@Yahoo.com.