By Frier McCollister
Chef Hideo “Shiro” Yamashiro is happily retired, reports Sherrill Bailey, the general manager and co-owner of the iconic South Pasadena restaurant Shiro about his whereabouts.
“He helps us water the plants and sometimes borrows the kitchen,” Bailey added.
Yamashiro, 74, is the iconic mastermind behind the venerable local fixture that remains his namesake. Originally from Okinawa, Yamashiro worked with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison and began developing his own unique fusion of Japanese and French influences. That provided the initial menu inspirations for this South Pasadena fine-dining institution.
About 33 years after he opened the place in 1987 in the small storefront on Mission Street just west of Fair Oaks, the restaurant carefully maintains the high standards and many of the beloved menu creations that Yamashiro established. They have had some practice. Shiro actually left the restaurant to pursue other ventures in 2004.
Loyalty and trust seem to be the themes here. Yamashiro’s living legacy has continued thanks to Bailey, who started at the restaurant as a server in 1991, and her co-owner and partner Irene Yokoi. Yokoi is Yamashiro’s cousin from Tokyo, who joined the operation to help out front of house in 2001. The two women describe each other as “best friends” and they seem to trade on an easy shorthand between themselves in conversation. The rapport is evident.
But who’s in the kitchen? That would be Chef Luis Alfonso Ortega Banuelos, otherwise known simply as “Mota,” who started at the restaurant over 20 years ago at the age of 16, as a dishwasher. Banuelos quickly became Yamashiro’s sole protégé and he executes the master’s dishes flawlessly, while routinely concocting delectable inventions of his own creation for the menu.
“He’s acquired this wonderful palate through Shiro and it’s carried us forward through these years,” Bailey said.
Yet despite the combined years of experience between the partners, nothing prepared them for the pandemic lockdown in March.
“We were scurrying because we didn’t know if everybody was going to close,” Bailey recalled. “On our first Wednesday (following the March lockdown order), we flipped that day. We started doing takeout that night. And we were really fortunate because a lot of our loyal clientele had heard, and they just started to call us. We’ve learned a lot.”
When outdoor dining was allowed, Bailey requested help from the city of South Pasadena in July, with the K-Rail street barricades outside the restaurant. They arrived in the first week of September. The outdoor dining lane accommodated 13 tables and sat about 35 to 40 diners.
“It was working pretty well, especially on the weekends,” noted Bailey almost wistfully. “It’s rough, no doubt about it. It’s a struggle. We are really fortunate because we have had such a loyal clientele. It’s just amazing how the community has stood up for us and supported us and want to keep us here. So, we’re really blessed and grateful.”
“And (we have) a very wonderful landlord,” Yokoi added. “But our disadvantage, compared to casual restaurants or takeout restaurants (is) we just can’t do the volume. Even though we do have a loyal following, it does have a limit. Sustaining the cash flow is very difficult.”
Before the pandemic, the restaurant carried a rotating staff of 18, with five in the kitchen. Front-of-house staff was reduced to five for outdoor service and is now down to two, in assisting with the takeout operation.
The restaurant is known for its seafood preparations and Banuelos, like his mentor, visits the wholesale fish market daily to source fresh selections for the evening’s menu.
That said, should the charbroiled ribeye or prime filet appear on the nightly menu, know that they are sourced from locally renowned wholesale butcher, Alexander Prime Meats, and are dry-aged in-house for a minimum of three weeks. Freshness, care and attention inform the food here and so it has been for decades.
The takeout menu at Shiro changes daily and is posted on its website by 3:00 p.m. A rotating three-course $50 per-person menu is also available daily.
That said, enthusiasts who are looking for the “usual suspects” from the original menu won’t be disappointed. The whole sizzling catfish with house-made ponzu sauce and chopped cilantro ($37) is a house specialty and arguably the signature dish. The wonton ravioli stuffed with shrimp mousse bathed in shiitake mushroom cream ($13) is another reliable stalwart of the daily menu and a Yamashiro original.
Banuelos’ popular innovations that can be found on the menu rotation include crispy salmon tartare tacos served with cucumber, avocado and mustard aioli ($15.50) or his truffle ravioli with duxelle mushrooms in a black truffle cream sauce ($27).
Recently, the $50 per person prix fixe menu included a choice of asparagus salad with toasted hazelnuts and tomato tarragon dressing or butternut squash soup with a dollop of heavy cream; charbroiled New Zealand snapper or lamb chops, the former served with tomato basil sauce and the latter with mint and garlic au jus; and for dessert, an apple tart with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.
By the way, the restaurant has been slowly selling off the contents of its wine cellar. With prices running from $15 to $40, these are bargains to consider with your order.
Not surprisingly for a venue of its caliber, sophistication and taste, Christmas and New Year’s Eve have always been traditionally popular dates on the Shiro calendar. Though it seems doubtful that outdoor dining will recommence for the holidays, be on the lookout for crafted holiday specials coming soon.
“Thank you for the continuing support,” Bailey said about the community.
1505 Mission Street, South Pasadena
626-799-4774 | restaurantshiro.com