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December 23, 2013

Minnie’s restaurant owner Peter Mah dies at 56 of pneumonia

Peter Mah, master chef and frontman for Minnie’s, Modesto’s longest-running family-owned restaurant, died suddenly Saturday night after a bout with pneumonia. He was 56.

Peter Mah, master chef and frontman for Minnie’s, Modesto’s longest-running family-owned restaurant, died suddenly Saturday night after a bout with pneumonia.

The Polynesian-themed eatery, a McHenry Avenue Chinese comfort food and tropical drinks institution for nearly 60 years, has remained open and will keep chugging along for the foreseeable future.

Mah was 56 and his death was “totally unexpected,” said his brother, Stuart. Born 15 months apart, the brothers owned and ran Minnie’s together for about four decades. Peter took responsibility for the kitchen, bar and public relations, and Stuart handles the books and other behind-the-scenes duties.

“Peter was the face of the place, that’s for sure,” Stuart said. “From the beginning, he was out front.”

Their parents immigrated from China in the 1940s and in 1960 bought the restaurant from Minnie Woo and Hop Louie, who had started it in 1954 in a converted house now more than a century old. The Mah brothers added menu and drink specials from time to time, and a large patio bar in 1999, but saw no reason to change a winning menu based on tradition, reasonable pricing and feel-good memories.

“We kept all the original recipes,” Stuart said. “We have our parents to thank for their foresight; we basically just kept it going.”

With no children of his own, Peter “considered all of his customers like part of his family. (Minnie’s) was his second home,” Stuart said.

Peter Mah appeared in The Bee periodically over the years, commenting on Minnie’s longevity, sharing business insights and posing for photos with tiki statues or the bar flecked with stapled dollar bills and business cards, some dating to the 1950s. “There are a lot of good feelings here,” he was quoted as saying in 2010. “A lot of heart here.”

The Orange County Register’s travel section featured Minnie’s in 2005, saying, “The outdoor bar with a canoe, tikis and carved masks makes you feel you are in Maui, not Modesto.”

Dozens of friends and patrons shared surprise and dismay on Minnie’s Facebook page, as well as warm memories.

“Minnie’s was the first restaurant I can remember my parents taking me to in 1957,” said Nancy Scheer in a post.

Skippy Jammer, who knew Peter Mah more than 30 years, called him “a gracious and wonderful guy. Open, fun, great sense of humor with a huge heart.”

“I was lucky to have known him,” said Michele Reis. “What a wonderful, generous man.”

Peter Mah “played a role in so many people’s lives over the years, bringing not only food to the table but many generous, caring memories,” Rita Corrigan said. “He will be missed by many here on Earth, but heaven just gained a top chef to cook for them this Christmas.”

In his early years, Mah studied business at San Joaquin Delta College and tended bar at a restaurant-lounge-showroom in Stockton, where his family lived before relocating to Modesto in the 1970s, according to The Bee’s archive. “He was a self-taught chef, and a lot of people considered him the best,” Stuart said.

The restaurant’s hard times made the paper, too. Thieves stole the wall-and-ceiling-stapled dollar bills and business cards in 2007, and several heavy, decades-old tiki statues in 2011.

Each time, Peter Mah smiled for the camera and waited for good times to return. They always did.

“Many great times in my life were experienced at Minnie’s,” said Kelly Dutton in a Facebook post.

Peter loved a good party, riding motorcycles and sailing in San Francisco Bay, his brother said.

Minnie’s is considering a party in his memory, but funerals were not his style. “He didn’t like everyone crying. He loved to celebrate life,” Stuart said.

Peter Mah is survived by his mother, Eleanor, sisters Rowena and Nancy and brothers Stuart and Richard.

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