Classic saimin spot chock full of flavor, character
By Lisa Sekiya
Special to The Advertiser
By Lisa Sekiya
My friend wonders why I love eating at places that are "musty, dusty, rusty and crusty." Boy, is she missing out. These old, hole-in-the-wall eateries offer the best comfort food and lots of history, heart and character to go with it. That's what makes a meal.
Kinau Saimin fits the bill. For 56 years, it has served curly, local-style noodles and hot-off-the-hibachi meat sticks from a tiny, one-story building. On the kitchen walls, layers of black soot mark each one of those years. There are four tables, a blurry TV tuned to soaps, a rusty Pepsi clock, a Pepsi machine and doors with old-fashioned keyholes.
It's easy to pass this now lunch-only establishment. A bus knocked down the neon sign years ago, and to save money, the owner replaced it with a piece of paper reading "KINAU SAIMIN" in the window. Except for a faded pink exterior, this place tries hard not to be noticed.
After we sit down, Karen Shigano, the blunt 72-year-old owner, says, "We're out of stuff on the menu." I look at the menu. There are five things on it.
No cone sushi and Spam musubi for us. Luckily, she still has the staples: saimin, won ton min and barbecue meat sticks. The prices take me back ... to before I was even born, I think. A small won ton min goes for $1.60 and a meat stick is just 65 cents.
As I order, a man sitting behind us finishes a meat stick, then picks his teeth with the skewer. I have found my place. Loaded with character.
But there aren't many customers. "My old-timers, they're all retired or dead," says Shigano. "I don't need lots of customers. I just want to take life easy."
This is a far cry from the days when crowds from Palace Theater would line up outside. The place would be jumping until 2 a.m. on some weekends. That's when Kinau Saimin was owned by Hawayo Yoshimura, Shigano's mother-in-law.
One thing changed the samin scene: the birth of instant ramen. Business dropped.
Shigano worked for Yoshimura then, and she didn't want the business. She got it anyway, and continued the tradition.
"It was a different generation, and you listened to your elders," says Shigano.
She came from Wailuku, Maui, and worked as a beautician before marrying into the saimin business.
"Those days I wore mini skirts and was skinny, you know," she recalls with a laugh.
Kenneth Lee of 'Aiea, slurping noodles nearby as he has for more than 40 years, nods, adding, "She was very attractive." Whenever the '57 McKinley grad has errands in town, he stops in. True regulars like Lee know there's parking in the back of the building.
While Shigano talks about her favorite subject — Las Vegas — I dig in to a bowl of steaming noodles (from Five Star Noodle Factory in Kalihi) topped with char siu, green onion and flavorful won ton. The broth is made with dried shrimp, cuttlefish, konbu and water. There's no recipe — Shigano goes by eye and taste. As for the meatsticks' teriyaki sauce, she uses shoyu, sugar, garlic and lots of ginger.
Attorney Derek Nakamura has been coming to Kinau Saimin for 44 years. The '73 Farrington grad grew up nearby. Money was tight for his single mom with six kids.
"We would bring our own pots and get saimin for takeout," he reminisces. "We couldn't afford to get won ton min back then, so now I order won ton min since I can afford it." These days, instead of pots, he brings his two girls, Kate and Nikki, for saimin on the weekends.
That may not be for too much longer. Shigano plans to close Kinau Saimin in a few months, and perhaps tear down the building. Of course, that's after she wins $2 million in Vegas, she says. So, who knows?
How will she feel when Kinau Saimin closes for good? "I don't think anything," says Shigano. "This place helped me — not in the profit sense — it meant my family always had something to eat. I could feed my kids better."
It's obvious this place has helped the neighborhood, too. Shigano talks to everyone, even if they don't eat. She is a social worker, counselor, friend and — with her loquacious nature — someone who can fill the silence of a quiet, lonely soul for hours.
When I comment on this, Shigano smiles and her eyes light up. In her heart, she knows it. And it's a generous heart. She gives away shampoo, advice and, while I was there, pretty rhinestone shoes to my co-worker. I get the feeling that when Kinau Saimin closes, part of the spirit of this neighborhood will go with it.
Lisa Sekiya is a copywriter at The Honolulu Advertiser.