Visiting Hawaii can seem like crossing a culinary border. What's affectionately known as "local food" isn't limited to fish and poi, but includes a melange of cuisines--from Japanese to Portuguese--reflecting the islands' immigrant heritage.
Venture beyond the resorts and American fast-food emporiums and you might need a translator. What's crack seed? (Chinese preserved fruit.) Malasadas? (Deep-fried Portuguese doughnuts.) Spam musubi? (A slice of fried Spam, a Hawaiian staple, served sushi-style atop a block of sticky rice, and wrapped in seaweed.)
But perhaps the one place the cuisines come together is the Hawaiian plate lunch, a huge, gastronomically challenging mixture of Asian and American starches, supplemented by a United Nations of entrees--often served with Korean hot pickled cabbage on the side, or smothered in plain old American brown gravy. Sampling plate lunches is one of the easiest ways to get an authentic taste of Hawaii's eclectic cuisine and culture, unvarnished by the corniness or pretentiousness of some establishments that cater to tourists.
The plate lunch is believed to have evolved from the bento--the bucket of rice, meat and pickled vegetables that Japanese workers traditionally carried into plantation fields (bentos are now often served in compartmentalized boxes). Lunch wagons sprang up to serve field hands who didn't have wives to pack their bentos, and soon the plate lunch began to reflect the multiculturalism of the workers and the heartiness of American proportions. Its appeal is timeless: Fast, filling, homey and affordable, it is classic Hawaiian comfort food.
A typical plate lunch consists of "two scoop rice" (scoop as in an ice cream scoop), one scoop of rather bland macaroni salad and an entree (two or three entrees is known as a "mixed plate"), and usually costs $5 to $6. A positively meager listing of entrees available would include Japanese teriyaki or katsu (breaded and fried cutlets), Korean short ribs, Filipino adobo, Chinese soy-sauce chicken, hamburger steak, chili or, in the Mother of All Starch Fests, spaghetti. Be warned that many establishments have menus stuck all over the place; take your time or you might miss something good. One plate lunch from most establishments will easily feed two people.
The appeal of plate lunches is such that many transplanted Hawaiians miss them fiercely. Scott Nishimoto, a staffer in the D.C. office of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), said his favorite plate lunch place is an L&L Drive-Inn near the University of Hawaii. "I went home in April and I had to go straight there," he said. Oahu resident Richard Ching, whose Web page rates plate lunch establishments on a scale of one to four cans of Spam, has gotten responses from as far away as Europe and Australia. "I guess for some reason you can't get that combination on a plate" anywhere else, he said, though he admits the lunches have their shortcomings. "I haven't come across a good mac salad yet."
You can find plate lunches in holes-in-the-wall in Honolulu's Chinatown, in sit-down restaurants that resemble mainland coffee shops, at in-name-only "drive-ins" where you must get out of your car, in fast-food style chains and, perhaps best of all, at lunch wagons near office buildings and construction sites. Here are some classic Oahu plate lunch places:
L&L Drive-Inn (1035 University Ave. No. 103 and 32 other locations on Oahu): L&Ls serve consistently good food, and quickly. Best of all, you can order a mini plate for $3 to $4. (Also two on the Big Island, three on Maui.)
Rainbow Drive-In (3308 Kaniana Ave. at the intersection of Kapahulu): On the edge of Waikiki, this local favorite sports a rainbow awning and outdoor seating perfect for people-watching.
Ono Hawaiian Foods (726 Kapahulu Ave.): The sign on the door reads "Please wait outside to be seated. Form a line to the right. Be cool. No get mad. We will be with you very soon." Don't worry, they will. And take-out is amazingly quick here. A little more expensive than the typical plate lunch, but a $10 combination plate of Hawaiian food, with kalua pig (roasted), lau-lau (pork and fish steamed in taro leaves), lomilomi salmon (massaged with onions and tomatoes), pipikaula (Hawaiian-style beef jerky) and poi (taro root paste) here easily feeds two people.
Grace's Drive Inn (1296 S. Beretania, with two other locations on Oahu): My husband pronounced this the most reminiscent of the plate lunches served during his construction-worker days: a mixed plate smothered in gravy, served with kimchi on the side, for under $6. There are a few tables, but the bustling ladies behind the counter will have your food ready in no time if you want to take it out. And the beach isn't far.
Like Like Drive Inn (745 Keeamoku St.): This coffee shop-style sit-down restaurant is a little more upscale, and offers sandwiches and salads along with some of local favorites, including saimin (noodle soup) and Loco Moco, a concoction of rice, hamburger and egg.
For more listings, check out Richard Ching's Web page at www.pixi.com/hiapp.
Finally, if you can't get to Hawaii, Lehua Hawaii Bakery in Oxon Hill (8503 Oxon Hill Rd., 301-567-2220), run by two locals from Oahu, offers plate lunches along with Hawaiian-style baked goods--including malasadas--and even delivers on occasion to homesick staffers at the Pentagon or on the Hill.
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