A Taste of Aloha

Hawaiian food is making a big splash on the mainland.

August 1, 2007

WHILE THE MAINLAND doesn't offer the same tropical beaches, emerald rain forests or aloha spirit, it's becoming easier to get a taste of Hawaii while stateside.

Food from Hawaii can be found in metropolitan areas across the mainland, with the plate lunch, ubiquitous in the Aloha State, coming to a strip mall near you.

Plate lunch joints are popping up in Western states and New York, and Roy's, one of Hawaii's most popular high-end restaurants, has 25 locations across the mainland.

"In Hawaii, America is our front porch, but American food pretty much sucks -- meat and potatoes," says chef Sam Choy, one of the originators of what's become known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine. "But our back porch is Asia, and there are so many flavors-ginger, cilantro, spicy, sweet, herbs, everything. We're very blessed."

Hawaii Regional Cuisine is similar to Asian fusion and the healthy, fresh California-style of eating that has taken hold over the last decade.

"In truly Hawaiian food you can taste the islands," Choy says while munching on rice-noodle chicken salad at Ba Le, a Vietnamese restaurant in Kona. "You can taste the salt water. You can smell the ocean. It's a clean taste."

Choy, Roy Yamaguchi of Roy's and several other chefs in Hawaii banded together in 1992 to market Hawaii Regional Cuisine as a distinct food genre because they saw what they've been doing for years being copied in other cooking styles.

"To me they are just finding things out now that to us, it's a way of life," says Choy, who owns three restaurants and hosts a weekly cooking segment on a KHNL-TVs newscast in Hawaii.

While Hawaii Regional Cuisine is rooted in four-star kitchens, the plate lunch got its start on Hawaii's plantations during the early 1900s. Think of it as a Japanese bento box with a twist. Laborers from different parts of Asia each brought some of their food culture with them to Hawaii, and it all came together in the plate lunch. Possible entrés include kalbi short ribs, teriyaki, kalua pork or a hamburger patty smothered in gravy. Add a couple scoops (and they are usually scoops) of rice and a macaroni salad and you've got a plate lunch.

Perhaps the biggest purveyor of plate lunches is L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, a well-known chain in Hawaii that has opened 120 franchises in nine states on the mainland since 1999 and plans on opening a new outlet every 12 days in 2007. L&L and smaller chains, such as Ohana Hawaiian BBQ and Ono Hawaiian BBQ, and momand-pop shops are taking plate lunches to the masses.

The plate lunch is comfort food for the blue-collar crowd, according to L&L co-founder Eddie Flores. "If you go down to Inand-Out and get a burger and soda, that's $6," Flores says via phone from Honolulu. "We give a full meal for the same amount of money, cooked to order, and we give you good portions."

In between the fast food of an L&L and the four-star sumptuousness of Roy's are places like Hukilau, a bar and grill with three outlets started by some local (read: Hawaii native) transplants to the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We thought the food would be very appealing to people," says Hukilau co-founder Kurt Osaki. "Lots of people appreciate not just food but the whole aloha culture."

To find some aloha, my wife Ramie and I sampled all three levels of Hawaii cuisine in San Francisco.

The L&L franchise has the feel of a takeout joint, with only a few stools for dining at a bar along the wall. A full-size surfboard in the corner is the only visual cue to the connection to Hawaii.

Flores had recommended mixing gravy into the macaroni salad to give some zest. So, I ordered a Loco Moco-a hamburger patty and gravy over rice topped with a fried egg and, of course, a side of mac salad. It's a cross between a Korean bi bim bap and an all-American meat and potatoes meal. Just like Flores said, stirring gravy into the mac salad did give a savory flavor to what otherwise is a rather plain mayonnaise and elbow pasta combination. But, boy, could I feel my arteries hardening as I ate. It was also quite salty, so the rice is really needed to balance the flavors out.

Ramie had the kalua pork, which traditionally is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven called an imu. The succulent shredded meat mixed with steamed cabbage had a wonderful smoky flavor.

Obviously, plate lunches will never be found in the "light" menu, but L&L does offer a "mini" option that includes one scoop each of rice and macaroni salad instead of the standard two scoops.

Hukilau is a step up from L&L in atmosphere and price, with dinners running at about $15 per person. Tiki lamps surround the street corner location of the converted Irish bar. When you walk in, you're greeted with Hawaiian music blaring and "aloha" from the bartenders and wait staff. It's got a homey feel, with basic tables and chairs that you might find in anyone's kitchen. A wall-sized blackboard serves as the drink menu and offers such concoctions as the Wicked Wahini and the Pineapple Head. Weekends feature live Hawaiian music.

The food is plate lunch-inspired, and I went for the short ribs and got a mountain of meat and two scoops each of rice and mac salad. The grilled ribs had a slightly sweet glaze and just enough gristle. The portion was so big, I could only finish two of the four rib slabs on my plate and down a lychee martini (I'm a sucker for fruity frou-frou drinks when eating food from Hawaii). Ramie went healthier with the broiled mahi mahi plate, generously portioned with juicy, yet flaky filets.

Roy's rates among San Francisco's top restaurants reservations can be tough to get on the weekends. No plate lunches here, but Roy's serves some of the best seafood I've ever had. Expect a dinner with drinks and dessert to run about $60 per person.

Cantaloupe martinis and a fried ahi roll started us off. The light mustard and hoisin sauces gave the ahi a nice spicy-sweet mix.

Ramie had the barramundi, a broiled white fish, topped with a Thai red curry sauce and served with crab croquettes and Shanghai bok choy. She says the spicy sauce complemented the fish and was delighted with the meal.

I had the Roy's Trio, a sampler of grilled salmon with Japanese vegetables and citrus ponzu sauce, misoyaki butterfish with sizzling soy vinaigrette and blackened ahi with spicy soy mustard butter. Each had a different style and flavor, but the ahi was my favorite. The tenderness of the tuna and the sauce just melted in my mouth.

With another cantaloupe martini and pineapple upside-down cake for dessert, I was feeling the aloha.


Harry Mok is a Hyphen editor.



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Harry Mok

Editor in chief

Editor in Chief Harry Mok wrote about growing up on a Chinese vegetable farm for the second issue of Hyphen and has been a volunteer editor since 2004. As a board member of the San Francisco and New York chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, Harry has recruited and organized events for student members. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was also a graduate student instructor in the Asian American Studies Department.