Every destination has its signature dish. Louisiana is known for gumbo. Chicago’s got the deep-dish pizza. And you can’t go to Philadelphia without eating a cheesesteak. Hawaii boasts a few signature items, too, but none compares to the plate lunch.
Found in just about every local fast-food drive-in and family-run restaurant, the plate lunch is essentially two scoops of white rice, a heaping mound of mayonnaise-based macaroni salad and some kind of entrée, ranging from teriyaki beef to deep-fried mahi mahi.
It dates back to the 1800s, when sugar companies established plantations in Hawaii. Immigrant laborers from around the world — mainly Japan, China, Korea, Portugal and the Philippines — would share their hearty, starchy lunches, often stored in metal tins. These carbo-laden meals survived the end of the plantation era, popping up in lunch wagons — the precursor to today’s food trucks — and locally owned diners and drive-ins.
And they are still a reflection of the ethnic mix in the islands. You can find kalbi ribs (Korean), chicken katsu (Japanese), pork adobo (Filipino) and kalua pig (Hawaiian) in plate lunches around the state. There have been modifications to the meal — some serve brown rice instead of white, others offer a coleslaw alternative to macaroni salad — but the basic principle is the same.
There are dozens of places around Oahu that serve up local-style plate lunches. Many are specific — such as Korean barbecue takeout eateries or restaurants that specialize in traditional Hawaiian food — and others have menus that are more varied. Here are three spots that serve a variety of plate lunches, all worth checking out:
For more than 60 years, this old-school, family-run drive-in just off Kapahulu — and within walking distance from Waikiki — has been a quintessential plate lunch spot. It’s a favorite of surfers, laborers and office workers looking for their quick carb fix. The restaurant serves a range of entrées, from scratch-made chili to fried chicken and the Hawaii staple loco moco (two hamburger patties atop rice and topped with brown gravy and two eggs). 3308 Kanaina Avenue, Kapahulu
Must try: The most popular plate lunch here is the mix plate, which comes with a healthy serving of teriyaki beef or pork, a boneless fried chicken cutlet and deep-fried mahi mahi, with generous scoops of white rice and macaroni salad. It’s a great way to try the drive-in’s best-selling dishes all at once.
Just a quick drive from the USS Arizona Memorial in central Oahu is an unpretentious — and hard to find — drive-in known for another local favorite: fried noodles. It’s just a small takeout window, but the flavors here are big. The menu has a variety of items such as curry, teriyaki beef and hamburger steak. 99-128 Aiea Heights Drive, Aiea
Must try: Hands down, the best menu item here is the fried noodles and boneless chicken combo. It’s actually a barbecue chicken with a sweet sauce that goes well with the salty fried saimin noodles.
This family restaurant on Oahu’s North Shore, in the sleepy town of Hauula just before Turtle Bay Resort, boasts a diverse menu for such a small place. It’s got chopped steak with vegetables, sautéed shrimp, garlic chicken, beef stew and pulehu (Hawaiian for “grilled over an open flame”) ribs, in addition to sandwiches and combo plates. And it gives you the option of green salad over its mayo-packed counterpart, too. 54-316 Kamehameha Highway; note: The restaurant is closed on Wednesdays
Must try: The roasted pork plate comes with the restaurant’s slow-braised pork that falls apart at the touch and is topped with a rich brown gravy.
Photos Courtesy of istock-Drazen Vukelic and Catherine Toth