Few things are worse for a diet. Few things are as delicious and satisfying.
In its heyday, Hawaii’s plate lunch fueled the Islands’ economic engine. It fed construction workers, students, beachboys, hotel workers and downtown Honolulu’s office elite. Few things are as cherished in the Hawaiian Islands. Two scoops of white rice, one scoop of macaroni salad, one serving of meat or fish, all covered with a generous ladling of brown gravy. Brah, so ‘ono! (Translation: Brother, so delicious!)
In these days of dietary awareness, the attraction of the plate lunch has lost some of its luster, but it’s still going strong. Witness the popularity of Zippy’s restaurant and L & L Hawaiian Barbecue, a chain that has spread internationally, serving teriyaki and other Island favorites that return visitors have come to love. When President Barack Obama vacations in Hawaii, one of his regular stops is the iconic Rainbow Drive-In in Kapahulu (where he has ordered—off the First Lady’s strict diet, no doubt—the popular mixed plate, with barbecued chicken, teriyaki steak and mahimahi).
Hawaii’s plate lunches are comfort food. They are the weakness we submit to when starch and gravy console us. Who cares if you have to open your belt another notch? It doesn’t matter if you are Hawaiian, haole, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Samoan, Puerto Rican or Portuguese—there is something for everyone. Consider the possibilities: teriyaki steak and hibachi chicken, kalua pig and cabbage, laulau and lomi salmon, stir-fry and pasteles, Portuguese sausage and eggs, hamburger steak swimming in brown gravy. And, of course, two scoops of sticky white rice and macaroni salad, heavy on the mayo. How about hamburger curry or old-fashioned stew, Korean ribs with kim chee, pork adobo and chicken katsu, char siu roast pork and fish jun, fresh mahimahi and Japanese miso butterfish? There are some otherworldly combos, too: spaghetti covered with chili (the perfect pre-marathon carbo-loading meal), or rice topped with a hamburger, fried egg and lots of gravy—the always popular loco moco. That’s what we call international cuisine.
It would be a rare occasion to walk away hungry after a plate lunch, especially if you had just dined at the popular Masu’s Massive Plate Lunch in Liliha, where the servings satiated the big boys in XXX-size shirts. Masu’s is gone, perhaps a victim of people cutting down on portions. In the old days, one rarely searched for dessert after a hearty plate lunch. Unless, perhaps, you were near Leonard’s Bakery in Kapahulu, home of the always delicious Portuguese malassada. Or maybe there would be room for a shaved ice if you were near Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa.
Recent years have seen some interesting changes, with additions of greens, brown rice, shredded cabbage and chow mein noodles. One of the smartest innovations is the mini version, with only one scoop of rice, served in a smaller container. There are also plate lunch wagons cooking with garlic, wine and upscale sauces. Some would call this an improvement; others would say it’s messing with perfection.
Some history: The evolution of the plate lunch was a gradual process, beginning perhaps in the late 1800s. Most historians agree it came about when immigrant plantation workers broke for lunch in the afternoon shade, often eating leftovers from dinners the night before. If one person’s teriyaki beef looked pretty good to another person with roast pork, sharing seemed like a good idea. It was all about entrée envy. If you had lots of kalua pig and someone else had a surplus of fried rice, mixing some of both was a damn good plan. If you only cooked Japanese and your co-worker only cooked Filipino style, a little taste of his or hers works out rather well. Most important, it happened nowhere else in the world. At least not to such a degree that it evolved into a statewide asset, with such pride of place.
Life in Hawaii is rather like a mixed plate, where many cultures live and work together. It may not be in perfect harmony, but it produces a pretty good symphony.
Illustration and images by Darrell Ishii