Nearly all my friends are bemoaning the recent closure of Makawao Steak House, wistfully recalling memories of special occasions spent there, or their favorite dish. I’ll miss the small-but-mighty salad bar and the calamari steak, but my fondest memories of the place predate the Steak House. In fact, even after more than 40 years in business, I still think of Makawao Steak House as the new name for “the old Iwaishi’s.”
Iwaishi Store was our first stop every weekday afternoon, as my friend LeeAnn and I walked from Makawao School to our Japanese language classes at Makawao Hongwanji. I always bought a 6-cent chocolate Coke at the soda fountain before picking out a couple of Mary Janes or cherry lipsticks from the penny candy jars. Once in a while, if I was especially thirsty, I’d get the large Coke for 12 cents, but that was a large chunk of my snack budget, and Iwaishi’s was only one of several regular stops on our route.
Across Baldwin Avenue, a few doors up, we’d get more candy at Ichiki Store (now housing Aloha Cowboy and the Makawao History Museum), operated by the Kajiharas, who were close friends and neighbors of my mother’s family. Whenever Japanese school was on holiday, Mrs. Kajihara would babysit me at the store until my mother could pick me up after work. Auntie always gave me a Popsicle and let me read all the comic books I wanted.
At Komoda Store, we’d spend our remaining coins on a bag of Kitch’n Cook’d (Maui) potato chips or Yick Lung Chinese seeds, 10 cents each. I guess we were too young to appreciate Komoda cream puffs and doughnuts, or maybe they were always sold out by midafternoon. Looking back, it seems ludicrous that we visited Komoda’s daily, yet never spent a penny on their baked goods.
I suppose I took Komoda’s for granted because my mother and aunties shopped there. We always had a loaf of Komoda bread and a bag of shortbread or Rice Krispies cookies in the kitchen, and Mom often treated me — and herself — to a cream puff or, even better, a Long John. One of her happiest childhood memories is of walking the half block between her home and the bakery, nickel in hand, and returning with a loaf of bread still warm from the oven, slit open along the top crust and stuffed with a melting stick of butter and a slathering of guava jelly.
According to the history printed on Makawao Steak House’s menu, Mr. and Mrs. Tetsujiro Iwaishi opened their store and soda fountain in 1935, a dozen years before Kitada’s Kau Kau Korner. People are always surprised when I admit that I’d only been in Kitada’s twice in my life. It had nothing to do with the Kitadas or their famous saimin; our family frequented Iwaishi’s because they, like the Kajiharas, were longtime family friends.
When I was 6, 7, 8 years old, about once a month my aunt would take me with her to Makawao on a Saturday morning. I’d fidget and look through glamour magazines at Charlotte’s Beauty Center while Auntie Sachan had her hair permed. My patience would be rewarded with lunch at Iwaishi Store and a stock-up stop at Komoda’s.
A stickler for routine, Auntie insisted that I climb onto a wooden stool at Iwaishi’s counter and place my order before she’d press a dime into my palm for the jukebox. I could reach the coin slot, but I needed her boost to press the buttons for Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and whatever Elvis song she wanted to hear. Our musical tastes varied sometimes, but we always ordered the same thing for lunch: saimin and cheeseburgers and a chocolate Coke for me, of course. Auntie always sprung for the 12-cent large, even when I ordered a small.
I don’t know what Mr. Iwaishi put into his patties to make them so delicious — I faintly remember one of my aunts betting on Komoda bread crumbs — but it was a thick slab of Velveeta that, for me, perfected the Iwaishi burger. I’ve had many great cheeseburgers in my life; none has ever topped that one, not even Lucy Goo’s. And I’ve tried duplicating it myself, with no success.
Perhaps it’s the memories, rather than the actual flavor, that I’ve savored all these years. I think I’ll ponder that possibility, over a tall glass of chocolate Coke.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.