I’m happy to have known Shiro Matsuo as a friend. We used to have lunch every month or so before he died in 2012 at age 93.
Shiro was a real character. He was 5 feet tall and maybe 110 pounds. He wore colorful clothing and was as handy with an ukulele as a frying pan.
Last week Shiro’s Saimin Haven celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I thought I’d take a moment to join them.
Shiro rose from being an Army latrine orderly to become Gov. John Burns’ personal chef. He taught in the culinary arts program at Kapiolani Community College, then opened several restaurants. His weekly ads were filled with poetry.
What I just learned recently is that his father and brothers were in the entertainment business. That explains things. Flamboyance was in his genes.
His father, Seiichi Matsuo, was considered the first Japanese showman in Hawaii. He brought the first talking motion picture, featuring Al Jolson, to Honolulu.
Shiro’s brother, Tatsuro Matsuo, brought some of the biggest-name stars to Hawaii, such as Nat King Cole, the Mills Brothers and Patti Page.
Tatsuro managed Mochizuki Tea House, Waikiki Lau Yee Chai restaurant, as well as the Roosevelt and International theaters. He was also the first to bring Japanese films to mainland theaters.
Another brother, Fred, was known as “Mr. Show Business of the Pacific.” He brought such notables as Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Xavier Cugat to Hawaii.
Shiro Matsuo graduated from McKinley High School in 1937. “During World War II I was drafted and put with other AJAs (Americans of Japanese ancestry),” Shiro told me many years ago. “I was sent to a rock quarry. I was only 110 pounds. The hammer was bigger than me!”
“I lifted the sledgehammer to pound the rocks. I whack ’em with all my might. Nothing. They all laughed. I got mad. So I whack ’em again and again. I fell on my okole. I couldn’t break it. The sergeant sent me to the only other job available: latrine orderly.”
“My mother cried when she heard. But it was an easy job, up in the mountains. My thing is, no matter what you do, no matter how menial the job is, give it your best shot. So I called myself the best latrine orderly in the U.S. Army. No one challenged me.”
Shiro had a great work ethic, and a mess sergeant, Chuck Gearou, took notice of him and the good job he was doing. “He requested I join his company. When officers came in to eat, I served them. That was the easiest job I ever had.”
“Sgt. Gearou encouraged me to watch what was going on in the kitchen. So I watched and I helped out. It was my introduction to cooking, and before long I found I could cook.”
One day in 1942, a colonel came in who needed a houseboy. “I became his cook,” Shiro recounts. “I cleaned his big house at Schofield Barracks. I lived in the house, took care of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Col. Francois Delescu took care of me.”
After the war, Shiro became a chef at the Mochizuki Tea House near Liliha Street and Kunawai Lane. His brother, Tats Matsuo, owned it. “John Burns was friends with my brother, and through him we became friends.”
Shiro called Burns to congratulate him on his election in 1962. He asked Shiro to be his personal chef.
“The pay was minimal but that didn’t bother me. I could live at Washington Place.
“Every morning, after I served breakfast, I’d meet with his wife, Beatrice, to find what they wanted for dinner. She was a wonderful lady. I cooked if it was just them, and catered it out, if there was a big party, because I had no assistants.”
Mrs. Burns loved his shrimp tempura, and his recipe for it ran in the paper.
“Gov. Burns was a very simple man. Very humble. He never grumbled. He was not flamboyant. Everyday was the same. He was very religious. He walked to church every morning before breakfast.”
“It was an honor to serve him. He made me feel important. When I was in the doldrums, he brought me back. I am what I am today because of him.”
The salary wasn’t great, and Burns got Shiro a job as an instructor at Kapiolani Technical School (now KCC), then on the grounds of McKinley High School.
Shiro’s job at KCC allowed him time to moonlight after hours, and he consulted, among others, Francis and Charley Higa, just before they launched Zippy’s in McCully. They offered to make him a partner, but he declined.
“Francis Higa was a very humble, quiet person, but he thought big. He was not a cook, but could relate well with people. I had nothing but admiration and love for him.”
Shiro also consulted Bob Taira, who opened King’s Coffee Shop in 1969. Shiro’s Dodonpa Saimin with 11 garnishes, Shiro’s Groovee Burger with mushroom wine sauce, and Shiro’s Shabu Shabu were prominent on the menu.
In May 1969 Shiro took over the coffee shop at the Aiea Bowl and named it Shiro’s Hula Hula Drive In. He also managed Ideta restaurant in Kapalama and snack shops in two Gem stores. He was busy.
“Hula Hula Chicken with a pineapple teriyaki sauce and ‘cool’ slaw was very popular. The Beeg Shiro triple-decker burger with char siu (75 cents) and the Local Boy Stew ($1.20) were also big hits.” Customers found Shiro with a frying pan in his hands one minute and an ukulele the next.
“I was doing well and was bursting at the seams. I couldn’t handle any more customers. So we moved to a bigger spot in Waimalu and another in Ewa.
“I figured I needed a signature item. I picked saimin. No one was doing it. How can you make saimin into a meal itself? people asked me. It was crazy. Nobody dared to do it. Nobody heard of it.”
His Dodonpa Saimin ($1.35) had shrimp tempura, roast beef, char siu, won ton, roast pork, fish cake, bamboo shoots, cabbage and more.
“From Day One customers kept coming. It never stopped. Even if the economy is bad, customers keep coming.”
Shiro said his worst nightmare was running out of rice at dinner time.
Shiro called himself the “hardworking people’s chef. Not the most talented, but the singingest cook from Aala Park to Kole Kole Pass.”
Shiro’s daughter Linda celebrated the restaurant’s 50th anniversary with a weeklong special last week: a keiki-sized saimin for 50 cents. The restaurant was jammed all week and it practically killed the staff, Linda Matsuo said.
Her dad would be happy to know his company was still around after five decades. So many friends dropped in last week, she said. It was wonderful.
The Rearview Mirror Insider is Bob Sigall’s weekly email that gives readers behind-the-scenes background, stories that wouldn’t fit in the column, and lots of interesting details. My Insider “posse” gives me ideas for stories and personal experiences that enrich the column. I invite you to join in and be an Insider at RearviewMirrorInsider.com. Mahalo!