When it comes to itemizing the benefits of living in a melting pot, food tops the list. But honestly, how often do you take advantage of your local mom and pop restaurant? One of my favorite cozy Kahului stops for homestyle Japanese cuisine is Matsu over on Alamaha. In fact, they’re one of only two sources for Japanese cuisine in Kahului. Matsu has been in business for 32 years but it’s still one of those hole-in-the-wall places that you can easily miss.
Hideharu Matsumoto and his wife Ikuyo founded the restaurant, though back then they were located at the Maui Mall. Sixteen years ago they had the opportunity to get their own spot–161 Alamaha–and they took it. Their daughter Anne Matsumoto is the restaurant manager now, but she says her mom and dad still run it.
“People are still discovering us at our Alamaha location after our move 16 years ago!” says Anne. “They ask me if we are the same owners. I grew up in the restaurant. I was always at our Maui Mall location when I wasn’t in school. Then I graduated high school and moved to San Francisco, but then I moved back to help out.”
They have a big menu with every Japanese favorite from beef teriyaki, pork sukiyaki, chicken katsu, miso butterfish, teriyaki salmon, fried oyster, udon, ramen, donburi, soba and 16 different rolls. It’s astounding how many dishes this small team can produce.
“These are my dad’s recipes,” says Anne. “My mom and dad are still here. The need to retire but they can’t leave, they know everything. Then there is also my boyfriend Micah Hesia and Tony Sayno. Tony has been with us for 29 years, basically forever. We know my dad’s recipes, but my dad oversees it all,. He maintains quality control. He also cuts all the fish.”
I love their ramen, sushi and salted cabbage. The tempura is also wonderful–it’s feather light and crisp. It never overpowers the vegetables and shrimp encapsulated inside. The dipping sauce uses just the right seasoning, too.
Anne says the fried chicken plate is really popular and one of their specialties, so I tried it. It’s a unique dish, with thick boneless chunks of chicken fried karaage-style, but I’ve never had a karaage like this before. It’s deeply crispy and crunchy, salty in a good way, and served with a lemon wedge that gives it a nice acidic zing. Anne says some people also like to dip it in tempura sauce, so I followed suit. They were right, its delicious.
“Everything is made from scratch,” says Anne while translating her dad’s Japanese to English for me. She’s fluent in Japanese, and she says her parents speak mostly Japanese. “The noodles in the ramen are from Sun Noodle in Oahu. The soup broth is a fish and chicken base that my dad makes. We are really known for our fried chicken, tempura and California roll. We do basic sushi rolls, nothing fancy.”
By “nothing fancy,” Anne means they cover the classic rolls, but they offer a long list to choose from: tobiko, salmon, unagi, avocado, soft-shell crab, shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, spicy salmon, takuan, kappa and Kampyo. They make unagi and salmon nigiri, and inari sushi, too. I also like the donburi, and tend to gravitate to the unagi don, but my sister loves the yakitori don. Anne says a lot of their ingredients are Japanese, which gives it all a distinct flavor and style.
“My parents go to Japan every year,” says Anne. “They take my daughter and go for the summer. All of our family is still in Japan–we are the only ones here. I stay here and run the business though. My dad went to college in Oahu as an exchange student. Then he worked at Shirokiya for a little while and met my mom. But they are both from Tokyo.”
The restaurant serves lunch Monday through Friday from 10am to 3pm. Then on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays you can get dinner from 5 to 7:30pm. On Saturdays they’re open from 10am to 2pm. They also have some pre-wrapped grab-and-go sushi during lunch and they sell Manjookies–a cookie hand-made at Mike’s Mini Mart down the street.
“My dad loves cooking,” says Anne. “He learned from my grandpa. I love our restaurant but it’s such hard work. If they had a retail business it would be easier. The cost of things makes it difficult. But my mom and dad, they love it. It’s just hard to find good people for staff. Our next door neighbors are moving out and we will expand. We want to have a sit-down restaurant and sushi bar. We are planning that for the long term.”
161 Alamaha St., Kahului