From Spam to musubi, this San Mateo market has brought the islands to the Bay Area for over 100 years.

Siblings Anne, Norma and Gene Takahashi, the third generation of family owners of Takahashi Market, take a quick break from preparing plate lunches, kalua pork, musubi and other Hawaiian staples for the store’s busy lunchtime crowds. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Gene Takahashi grew up in the aisles of his grandfather’s store, doing homework, stocking shelves and filling up beer bottles from the ripe age of 7 years old.

Takahashi Market in San Mateo had been in his family since 1906. As he grew older, Gene’s parents put no pressure on him to carry on the family business. He went away to study mathematics at UC Berkeley and pursued other ventures but eventually, was drawn back to the Japanese-Hawaiian market.

Customers can enjoy Takahashi’s prepared food at plastic tables and chairs set up outside the modest San Mateo market. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

“I came back because I always enjoyed doing it,” Gene said. “I eventually decided well, maybe I could do this the rest of my life.”

Takahashi Market has now sold Japanese, Hawaiian and other Asian food products for four generations, from Gene’s grandfather Tokutaro to Gene’s son Bobby, who is now in his thirties and starting to take the reigns from his father. (Bobby was also urged by his parents to work in any field he wanted, but was pulled back by the gravitational forces of family, food and good business.)

The modest store, which doesn’t look like much from the outside, is a steadfast, welcome reminder of home for many Asian transplants in the Bay Area craving fresh poi from the islands or hard-to-find Japanese food products. And for those of us who know and love Hawaii or are simply fascinated by unfamiliar food products, it’s paradise on the mainland.

Spam lovers, rejoice. Takahashi Market carries 14 different flavors of Spam, from original to chorizo and black pepper. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Old-school island outpost

Tokutaro Takahashi arrived in San Mateo in the early 1900s after immigrating from Wakayama, Japan. He worked at local salt flats operated by the Leslie Salt Company. But when he noticed the difficulty he and other Japanese immigrants had going to American grocery stores due to the language barrier, he decided to open a Japanese general store. In its earliest days, Takahashi Market sold clothing, groceries and imported Japanese food items.

The store shuttered temporarily during World War II, when Gene’s father Kenge served in Europe as part of the all Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. After he returned, he reopened the store and took over the business, which remained largely focused on Japanese products.

Then, in the 1950s, San Francisco International Airport started flights to Hawaii, prompting an influx of Hawaiians who moved to the Bay Area to work for the airlines. The transplants are called kama’aina, which literally translates to “child of the land” — people who were born on the islands but no longer call them home.

Clockwise from top: Framed photographs of Sachiko and Kenge Takahashi, the second-generation owners of Takahashi Market, are prominent fixtures at the front of the store; Owner Gene Takahashi prepares Hawaiian nachos in the market’s small kitchen, made from ahi tuna poke and kahula pork piled on chips with a creamy, spicy sauce; Victor Iwamura mans the griddle as he fries slices of Spam for musubi, one of the store’s most popular items; Every Thursday, staff unpack a shipment of perishable goods flown in from Hawaii, including fresh poi, kahlua pork and Portuguese sausage. (Photos by Elena Kadvany and Veronica Weber)

“A lot of them, the only place they could find familiar foods was in an Asian food store,” Gene said. “Back then we were about the only ones on the Peninsula, so they’d come out to find Japanese and Chinese items.”

Hawaiian customers started pestering Kenge to bring in Hawaiian items, so he did, partnering with distributors that the market still works with today.

Every Thursday morning, Bobby stops at SFO on his way to the market and picks up perishable foods that were flown in from the islands. They unpack cardboard boxes full of some of the store’s most popular items: fresh poi from Hanalei Poi Company, Portuguese sausage from Redondo’s in Waipahu, lau lau (pork wrapped and cooked in a taro leaf) from Keoki’s in Honolulu. One customer has a standing order for fresh poi.

Non-perishable Hawaiian products like soda, chips, cookies and coffee come to the mainland via boat, which is less expensive than air freight.

Over the decades, Takahashi Market evolved from a Japanese general store to one that sells a wide range of hard-to-find Hawaiian and Asian products, from sake and seasonings to ahi tuna jerkey and nori-flavored popcorn. (Photos by Veronica Weber and Elena Kadvany)

A family affair

You could get lost for hours (OK, maybe that’s just me) in Takahashi’s aisles, somewhere between the 14 different flavors of Spam and envious Asian sauce selection. At the back of the store is a small selection of fresh Asian produce, much from Hikari Farms in Watsonville, also started by a Japanese immigrant.

This is even before you’ve perused the prepared food menu, illustrated via a wall of makeshift printed photos and short (if any) descriptions.

Takahashi Market makes several kinds of musubi, including salmon belly (above), unagi, Spam and kalbi (Korean beef short ribs). (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

The small kitchen churns out seven kinds of musubi (spend the $1 extra for the salmon belly; it’s more than worth it), loco moco, kalua pork, poke, mochiko chicken, the not-to-miss Okinawan (purple) sweet potato haupia cheesecake and malasadas (only on Wednesday mornings). The family added the kitchen in 2006 to celebrate the market’s centennial; it now accounts for about half of their business, Gene said.

The market’s customer base is diverse, Gene said, including Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Americans. Many are the children of parents who frequented the store a generation ago. Stacked next to bags of rice are Japanese language newspapers and books from “Hawaii Cooks with Spam” to “Proud to Serve: Japanese American World War II Veterans.”

Takahashi Market is a family business in every sense of the word. On a recent morning before opening, Gene was in one corner of the kitchen chopping ago seaweed for that day’s poke while Bobby watched over a pot of bubbling gravy for the loco moco. In another corner, another family member prepped lomi salmon, a traditional Hawaiian salad of fresh tomatoes, Maui onions and salmon.

Ponder the makeshift menu wall before placing your order for one of Takahashi Market’s many Hawaiian specials. Make sure to ask for sauces — Aloha brand soy sauce, Sriracha, wasabi — before you leave. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Gene said he’s not quite ready to retire yet. He’s clearly happiest working alongside family, in the same aisles he spent so much time as a child.

“It’s just fun doing a job that you enjoy,” he said. “We’ve become so much a part of the community that we just feel very comfortable.”

Takahashi Market // 221 S. Claremont St., San Mateo

Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Monday-Tuesday.

**Note that Takahashi Market has posted that it will be closed from Wednesday, Sept. 19, through Friday, Sept. 21.**

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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