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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 2, 2003

Washington Saimin latest to go

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

All that remains in the Washington Saimin Stand on South King Street are old menus on the walls, condiments on the bare tables, gray wooden high-back booths, and a lot of memories of steaming bowls of saimin and barbecue meat sticks.

The Washington Saimin Stand, which served generations of customers, shut down about two months ago. The South King Street restaurant used the same popular recipes for decades and was known for its low prices.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The landmark saimin stand shut down about two months ago. The realty company that is looking for a new tenant hopes to find another food operator, but admits it may be difficult because of the lack of parking.

So, for now, people who enjoyed won ton min and Korean plate lunches at low prices will have to look elsewhere.

"It was multigenerational," said Carol Ginoza, a real estate agent with leasing firm Zen Properties and a longtime Washington Saimin customer. "People went there as kids, they went there as parents and now their kids' children are going there.

"So it's always been a landmark, and it's sad to see something like that go."

The Washington Saimin Stand was one of a dying breed of mom-and-pop eateries. The restaurant was in its third location in the same general area in Makiki, with the last of those operations under ownership of the Kim family for 27 years.

Mark Kawata, attorney for the Kims, said a combination of problems, including a decline in business and a family dispute, led to Washington Saimin's demise.

"Their food was very cheap. You could still eat saimin in there for $3.25. With a drink you could get out of there for five bucks and they gave you a lot of food," Kawata said.

"You'll notice, all these places that got by on cheap and relatively decent food — they're all closing."

Scott Chaney, service manager at The Bike Shop, said he noticed something was different at the adjacent saimin stand about a week after it closed. The floor was covered with leaves and a week's worth of mail.

"I thought they had just gone to Las Vegas, which they often did," Chaney said. But he soon found out the restaurant had closed for good.

Chaney said he didn't realize how popular Washington Saimin was until he began working at The Bike Shop about 12 years ago.

"Someone would ask, 'Where are you located?' and they would say, "Are you near Washington Saimin?'" Chaney said. "A lot of us here eat there for lunch and you would think most people haven't heard of it. But almost everyone would say, 'Oh, yeah, Washington Saimin.'"

About a week ago, Kim family members returned to the restaurant to remove items of value, such as the grill and other equipment.

Ginoza said she has fond memories of her high school years when she would meet friends at the Washington Saimin Stand, where loyal customers would often leave with a big jar of kim chee at Christmastime from the appreciative staff.

"We'd always eat the barbecue sticks and won ton," Ginoza said. "I still remember how good it tasted and how much fun it was, even if the benches were uncomfortable. I just love those old places and there aren't a whole bunch of them left because it's so much work."

She added that with the influx of fast-food restaurants in the vicinity, business at Washington Saimin suffered.

"It's a sign of the times — a small landmark is closing that meant a lot to people. Because how many memories can you have going to a Jack In The Box?" Ginoza said.

Kawata said there is a possibility that family members will revive the saimin stand at another location. He said it would be sad to see Washington Saimin end this way.

"It's an old place that's still using the same recipes from 30 or 40 years ago. Everything's the same — the uncomfortable benches, the recipes. This is the same stuff that people ate 30 and 40 years ago," Kawata said.

Anyone interested in leasing the space can call Ginoza at 949-4318.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8025.