By Kristin Matsushita
Tucked away in Aiea is a little hidden gem. One of many in a long line of eateries located at Waimalu Shopping Center, the outside is unassuming and is often overlooked. Inside, the tables are occupied by local families, retirees, and people in the military, as well as tourists.
Many beloved restaurants such as Lyn’s Delicatessen, Wailana Coffee Shop, and KC have long since shut down, but Shiro’s Saimin Haven has managed to withstand the test of time. This spot holds a special place in many people’s hearts, employees and patrons alike.
Shiro’s Saimin Haven opened at Waimalu Shopping Center in 1969. The owner, Franz Shiro Matsuo or “Mistah Saimin,” gave up his stable job at Kapiolani Community College to follow his dream of being his own boss. First came Shiro’s Hula Hula Drive In, but when he outgrew the location, Shiro’s Saimin Haven was created.
Prior to the opening of Shiro’s Saimin Haven, saimin was seen as a snack and was normally served plain or with a teri beef stick on the side, but Shiro planned on changing that. He was the first to add vegetables, roast pork, chicken, and many other items to his saimin. Shiro’s now boasts 64 different types of saimin on the menu and has two locations: one in Ewa Beach and the original in Waimalu.
As soon as you open the door, you can hear the chatter and laughter of people of all ages. It’s never empty, no matter the time of day. The walls are adorned with drawings, pictures, and poems from Shiro himself. It has an old school feel that brings you back to simpler times. Shiro’s is one of the few restaurants that has a working jukebox. Sometimes, the employees will put on a song to liven up the atmosphere. The best way to describe Shiro’s would be classic and timeless.
Shiro’s has always had a strong presence in my neighborhood. I would hear a lot about it, but it wasn’t until about 8 years ago that I went for the first time. A family friend, who grew up in Hawaii but now lives in the mainland, came back to visit and was looking forward to eating at Shiro’s. My family and I went with him, and I’ve been going back regularly since. It’s my go-to restaurant after a football game or for a quick bite to eat. They serve local comfort food at reasonable prices. When I’m coming down with a cold, Shiro’s is one of the first things I crave.
Melanie Chun of Aiea is a long-time patron of Shiro’s. “I started going there with my family in the 70s. My parents took us there often because my brothers and I always liked to eat saimin.” Over 40 years later, she still frequents the restaurant. “I go with my children about every other month. I like Shiro’s because it’s a family place, and they serve a wide variety of dishes: saimin, loco moco, fried chicken, burgers, and even some breakfast options. There’s something for everyone. They also still serve Green Rivers and Orange Bangs, which are some of my favorite drinks that I remember from my childhood.”
“When you come in, it feels very relaxed and welcoming. You see a lot of people from the community. I also like the people who work here. I recognize the workers from when I first started coming. All of the workers treat you like family and the waitresses feel like your aunties.”
Trevor Iwasaki, a 22-year old Mililani native says he’s been going to Shiro’s for the past 14 years. “I have a lot of good memories of eating with my grandparents at this place. It’s nostalgic. The interior reminds me of when I was younger. Not a lot has changed.”
“There’s a wide mixture of people who come to the restaurant. It’s got a strong local vibe.” Iwasaki eats at Shiro’s at least 1-2 times a month. “Now, I like to come with my friends or my girlfriend. The food is good and you always feel welcome.”
One employee, who has four kids, describes Shiro’s as a “getaway” or a “haven” of sorts. She says, “What I like about working here is that the staff is like a second family to me. The workers are close, and we all take care of each other. I don’t find my job stressful at all. I really enjoy coming to work because I’m really able to get to know the customers.”
She has worked at the Waimalu location for the past 15 years, ever since she was in high school. “A lot of the other waitresses have been working here for a long time. Some over 35 years. There are also a couple that have been employees for over 40 [years]—almost since it first opened. It’s really just a great place to work.”
Shiro is no longer around, but his legacy lives on. Shiro’s Saimin Haven is one of a kind and is cherished by all. “We never say that we’re the best, but we dare to say we’re different from the rest,” the menu reads. Shiro’s is authentic and dependable and will be around for many more generations to come.