All I Ever Wanted Was a Bar

How Colin Nishida, against his will, became the hottest restaurateur in town.

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Nishida and Side Street manager Albert Tsuru grace the original Side Street bar in the early '90s.

Photo: Courtesy Mel Nishida

“They gave me a coffee can, a putty knife and showed me what a grease trap was,” he recalls. “That was my introduction to the restaurant business.”

Tending bar at the Ala Moana was a step up from cleaning grease traps, but Nishida wasn’t satisfied. “It was a no-brainer, just follow the rules, do the same thing every night.”

One job wasn’t enough, anyway. Nights off, he’d tend bar for a friend at Oasis. To fill his days, Nishida, and his business partner, Robert Takemoto, began Take’s Restaurant, a plate-lunch place on an obscure side street near Ala Moana.

In ’92, when space opened up in the building, they decided to “take a shot at it,” turning Take’s into a bar. Since they’d been telling everyone they were located on a side street, that became the name.

The original Side Street was, in fact, just a small bar, with only five items on the menu, including noodles, fried rice and a Spam-and-egg sandwich. “I like Spam-and-egg sandwiches,” says Nishida. “Grill it up, quarter it, put it on a plate with some chips, you’re good to go.”
The legendary pork chops were an dd-on. “We used to get pork chops at the store, cook ’em up for our own lunch,” says Nishida. “Then one of the regulars said, ‘How come you nevah make ’em for us?’”

Nishida liked fooling around in Side Street’s tiny kitchen, coming up with new menu items. “A vendor would bring in kalbi and I’d try to make something. If I didn’t like it, I’d dump it and start over,” says Nishida. “Then I’d finally get it right and have to think, ‘What was it I put in it that time?’”


Colin Nishida and then girlfriend, now wife Melissa, celebrating the original Side Street's expansion in 2004.

Photo: Courtesy Mel Nishida

“Colin’s not a trained chef, but he’s got that passion for cooking that great chefs have,” says Roy Yamaguchi. “Colin knows what he likes, and, even better, he knows what his guests like.”

As Yamaguchi points out, there are more than 100 ways to prepare kalbi. “Colin will capture the kalbi taste that’s perfect for Hawai‘i people, and appealing for Asian visitors and for people from the Mainland.”

At any rate, “Colin’s food was great,” Alan Wong testifies.

It may have been the food, Nishida’s tendency to buy his friends a drink, or, as Nishida himself insists, that Side Street was so obscure, “nobody’s wife knew where they were.” Somehow the little bar turned into a late-night hangout for Nishida’s friends, and people who became his friends, including many of the top chefs in business.

“I think Alan Wong met Roy Yamaguchi for the first time at Side Street,” recalls Dean Okimoto, of Nalo Farms. “I went there because that’s where my ‘Iolani classmates used to drink, but I loved the feel of it, a hole in the wall, so homey. Then I met everyone there, including many of the chefs who became my customers.”

 “My friends used to hang at the ‘Ewa end of the bar,” recalls Russell Siu. “I don’t even remember going there to eat, though Colin and I ended up going to Vegas and eating lots of places together.”

“Side Street was the perfect way to end the night,” says Wong. “Of course, we were all younger then.”

“The table where the chefs sat got infamous,” says Nishida. “We used to drink until 2 a.m. and feel tortured at work the next day.”

As word got out, though, Side Street’s days as a secret hangout were numbered.
 

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