An ode to the Hawaiian Plate Lunch

One of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten was on the island of Oahu at a fancy bistro called Chef Mavro. This place is expensive — It’s no problem to spend 100 dollars per person on dinner. But the beautifully sculpted little plates had melt in your mouth sashimi and delicately browned crab rolls in fine rice paper wrappers and, oh, truly, it was a memorable experience.

I can’t think of Chef Mavro’s pricey restaurant without, in the same moment, thinking of a meal I’d had not 24 hours earlier at a bright green diner in funky, hippie-crunchy Honoka’a on Hawaii’s Big Island. At CC Jon”s Snack and Shoppe I spent about 7 dollars on chicken katsu, rice, mac salad, and a huge Styrofoam cup of soda. And there, I fell in love with the plate lunch. For some reason, I mentioned this to our waiter at Chef Mavro. “You went to CCs!” exclaimed the self described Big Island boy. “I’m from Honoka’a, that place is da kine.”

Hawaii has remarkable food. Smack in the middle of the ocean, populated by Native Hawaiians, Europeans (predominantly Portuguese, at first), and people from around the Pacific Rim, it’s a melting pot of culinary cliches — fresh, fusion, Pacific Rim, organic, local…. There’s an abundance of tropical produce and the boats come in daily bearing fresh seafood. Hawaii Regional Cuisine — the combination of locally sourced ingredients combined with the chef’s own sensibilities — seems almost inevitable in a place where good ingredients are readily available.

But my heart and its hardened arteries belong to junkier offerings. Haupia malasadas: essentially, a donut filled with coconut pudding. Chicken long rice: Fried noodles with chicken and a passing acknowledgment to vegetables. Milkshakes from the Roselani counter in the International Marketplace, good lord, the butterfat. And all that takes back seat to the main course, the plate lunch.At its most basic, the plate lunch is two scoops of white rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, thick with mayonnaise, and a serving of meat. Fried, probably, though you can also get two grilled Portuguese sausage patties or a serving of garlic shrimp. Plate lunch typically comes on a flimsy paper or other throwaway plate, or in a Styrofoam container that you can carry across the street to that picnic bench that’s makai — ocean side — from the food truck. It generates a shocking amount of garbage, the containers, the napkins, the plastic forks and knives. The classic plate lunch is unhealthy, environmentally unfriendly, and awesome.

Historically, the plate lunch is attributed to plantation workers combining leftover rice with whatever meat or fish was available. It was the 1880s; sugar and pineapple magnates imported laborers from the Philippines, Portugal, Japan, China… they had to eat. The meal has evolved over time to include a green salad (probably with Thousand Island dressing) or brown rice in a nod towards taking the cholesterol count down a notch. On your plate lunch you can get fried chicken or teriyaki beef or kalua pork or any number of things. Can’t wait for lunch? There’s the breakfast plate lunch, loco moco. White rice, fried eggs, a burger patty, all smothered in gravy. I pass on that and go for either garlic shrimp or my favorite, poke — marinated raw tuna.

It’s easy to fall into metaphors that use the plate lunch as an analogy for life in Hawaii. A combination of cultures, all hanging out together and making something better for their merging. I don’t necessarily buy that happy idea. I think plate lunch is more of a delicious mess than a expression of cultural harmony. And wrapped up in that delicious mess is an experience that is quintessentially Hawaiian islands.

The wind picks up your napkins and hurls them down the beach, you have to run after them. Stuffed on rice, you bring your coffee milkshake the to car and leave it in the cup holder and then, in the mini-fridge in your room. Your fingers are sticky from peeling shrimp so you wash them in the surf and they are sticky from the ocean. You’re wracked with guilt over the staggering amount of mayo in the mac salad, and yet, you eat every last elbow shaped mayo coated piece of pasta. You swear that you will take a long walk to make up for the unbelievable amount of calories you consumed that afternoon, but when you get back to your rented condo or hotel, you are lulled into indolence by the evening light on the beautiful beach boys and girls. Somewhere, a kid who looks like a total bad-ass is playing the ukulele like an angel, the sweet sound of it floats on the breeze. Dinner time is coming and the L&L, Hawaii’s infamous takeout chain is right there.

“Plate lunch,” you think. “I could have that for dinner, right?”

Image: The Even More Legendary Giovanni’s #2 by Permanently Scattered via Flickr (Creative Commons)