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Hawaii's plate lunch.

Hawaii's plate lunch

The plate was heaped to overflowing. Barbecued ribs stacked against a steaming mound of Chinese cabbage with pork, and two hillocks of rice left little room for a scoop of macaroni salad. The counter girl was coy: "Local boys don't eat till they're full,' she said, sliding over the order, "they eat till they're tired.'

King of the daily specials in Hawaii's traveling lunch wagons and hole-in-the-wall eateries, the plate lunch is a strictly local phenomenon--as popular as the hula and just as much fun to try. Often billed as the workingman's special, it is never gourmet. But at its best, the plate lunch offers a hearty sampling of homestyle Island cooking. It is also one of the state's last real bargains: a filling, hot meal for $2 to $5.

Entrees celebrate the gastronomic variety of Hawaii's many ethnic groups: from native lau lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves), Korean bulgogi (barbecued beef), and teriyaki chicken (also called teri or shoyu chicken) to eggplant Parmesan, beef curry, and butterfish tempura.

Two large scoops of rice are to Hawaii's plate lunch what French fries are to the Mainland's hamburger. Rice is accompanied nied by an equally impressive scoop of macaroni salad (you may occasionally get a different salad instead), which, along with an entree, forms the fundamental plate lunch.

Often there's more. Side dishes may include vinegared bean sprouts, kim chee, chili peppers, vegetables, or a wiggly cube of haupia (coconut pudding). Combination plates are popular. Add your own hot sauce (look for bottled chili pepper water) and shoyu (soy sauce) at the counter.

Lunchtime tradition

Usually served on paper plates or plastic foam trays, true plate lunches carry on a custom that goes back at least to World War II. Old-timers we talked to think that the bento--a cold box lunch that Japanese workers carried to the pineapple and sugar cane fields--was the inspiration for the plate lunch (many places still offer a cold bento take-out lunch).

During the war, entrepreneurs in homemade lunch wagons adapted the basic bento into a hot meal to feed round-the-clock shifts of waterfront workers.

Since then, this substantial but inexpensive fare has become a lunchtime staple of Hawaii's blue-and white-collar workers. There's a wider choice of main courses now, and most of the Japanese garnishes have disappeared, but the basics have changed little over the years.

Highly portable and wrapped to stay hot, plate lunches are especially popular with Islanders for impromptu beach or park picnics. You dig in with chopsticks or a plastic fork. Wash it all down with soda or tropical fruit juices.

Though you'll find plate lunch palaces throughout the Islands, Oahu has by far the most choices because of its large population. Ambience is summed up in the names: Cafe de Roadside, Eat To The Max, Banzai Bowl. Some of the best food we sampled was right in downtown Honolulu, from both rattletrap lunch wagons and low-tech restaurants.

Unlike the sleek catering trucks that visit many mainland industrial districts, Hawaii's lunch wagons are more pedestrian --usually old delivery vans jam-packed with a butane stove, icebox, storage bins, and room for a very small cook. You'll find them weekdays at fixed locations in town, and in parking areas at popular beaches (but not Waikiki) on most weekends, on sunny summer weekdays, and whenever the surf's up.

Restaurants have more reliable hours, but the same come-as-you-are atmosphere prevails. Some are 1950s drive-ins; others are not much more than a kitchen and counter. A few are coffee shops. Since much of the service is take-out, seating is often limited and casual--picnic benches or plastic-topped tables. Restaurants in industrial areas and most lunch wagons close up by mid-afternoon.

Oahu residents share their favorite plate lunch places with Sunset

Finding Oahu's best plate-lunch dining called for plenty of help. We got recommendations from police and fire departments, trade unions, lifeguards, newspaper food editors, and downtown office workers. Telephone company employees and tour bus drivers steered us toward several good discoveries. Altogether, some 250 residents nominated their favorites.

Here are the top-rated ones at our press time--but things can change overnight.

HONOLULU

Quality and variety of food are best in Honolulu. Most places we list are long-time family businesses with a loyal following. Hours listed are approximate.

Near Waikiki. All are handy to Kapiolani Park at the Diamond Head end of Waikiki. In Waikiki, the coffee shop at Woolworth (2224 Kalakaua Avenue) recently added plate lunches for take-out. Every Friday, Harry's Bar at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki has a Hawaiian plate for $5.

Ono Hawaiian Foods, 726 Kapahulu Avenue, 737-2275; open Monday through Saturday 10:30 to 7:30. In business 20 years, Ono's Hawaiian plates, featuring kalua pig and some of the best lau lau we've had, include lomi salmon, pipikaula (marinated beef), haupia, and a bowl of poi (boiled, mashed taro root) for $4.40.

Rainbow Drive-In, 3308 Kanaina Avenue (at corner of Kapahulu), 737-0177; daily 8 A.M. to 11 P.M. Ranking with Grace's and Ted's as the most recommended places, Rainbow marinates its teriyaki beef for more than a day; $2.90.

Matsu's Coffee House, 3348 Campbell Avenue (off Kapahulu), 734-2432; Monday through Saturday 5:30 A.M. to 2 P.M. At this location just a year; the oxtail soup ($4) is a favorite.

Ala Moana Park area. This large park with a good beach, off Ala Moana across from Ala Moana Center, has a concession stand (open daily 6:30 to 5) near the Waikiki end. Several regulars recommended its "loco-moco'--rice topped with a hamburger patty, two over-easy eggs, and gravy. The following three places are on the mauka side (toward the mountains) of the shopping center.

Chicken Alice's, 1339 Kamaile Street (off Piikoi Street), 944-1148; daily 10 A.M. to 1:30 A.M. Our candidate for best chicken plate: a heap of Korean-style spicy chicken wings with rice, kim chee, and bean sprouts for $4.50. By pau hana (quitting) time, this place becomes a lively Korean bar.

Like Like Drive Inn, 735 Keeaumoku Street, 941-2515; open 24 hours. Started in 1953; try the beef cutlet for $4.60.

Kewalo Basin. This small harbor fronts Ala Moana just west of Ala Moana Park. Many package Waikiki boat tours and fishing charters depart from here.

Yasuko Kanda Lunchwagon (white, no sign); Monday through Saturday 9 to 2:45. On a recent Friday at 11:45 we counted 14 people in line; most ordered a mixed plate--any three items for $2.50. Pork long rice is one of several good choices.

Kewalo Ships Galley Restaurant, far end of Kewalo Basin parking lot, 521-6608; daily 5:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. (to 4 P.M. Sunday). A hangout for resident and visiting fishermen; covered lanai offers outdoor seating at Formica tables; tripe stew and lau lau combo costs $3.50.

Kakaako. This business district is on the ocean side of Kapiolani Boulevard, between Ala Moana Center and the Mission Houses Museum/Iolani Palace area.

Tsukenjo Lunch House, 705 Cooke Street (corner of Queen Street), 537-9483; Monday through Friday 5:30 to 3, Saturday 6:30 to 3. Known for its roast pork and lau lau plates (both $2.80), Tsukenjo has fed neighborhood workers from cramped quarters for 24 years in a 1901 landmark building. Curry stew is a bargain at $2.60. Its orange lunchwagon parks near the corner of Ward Avenue and Queen.

Cafe de Roadside, 736 Queen Street, 533-3571; Monday through Friday 10 to 3. Around the corner from Tsukenjo; best known for its teri chicken ($2.60). Look for one of its bright yellow lunchwagons in the 900 block of Mililani Street, just across King Street from the Iolani Palace grounds (a nice picnic spot).

Downtown. Around Bishop Street and Fort Street Mall between Iolani Palace and Chinatown. Plate lunch choices are surprisingly limited, partly because of other deli and restaurant competition.

Sayo Coffee Shop has two locations: 57 and 209 S. King Street; 533-4790 and 533-2475 respectively. Open Monday through Friday about 6:30 to 2; 57 S. King location is also open Saturday 7:30 to 1. Looking like small-town coffee shops, these places are popular with office workers. A Hawaiian plate runs $3.

University-Moiliili. Around University Avenue, just south of the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus. While there are places galore in this area, two of the island's most popular spots are here, near the H-1 freeway.

Ted's Drive-in, 2820 S. King Street (at Waialae Avenue), 946-0364; daily 9 A.M. to 10 P.M. Korean specialties include bulgogi ($3.10), kalbi (barbecued ribs, $4.15), and mondoo (stuffed dumplings, $2.50). Outside tables at this 1950s-style drive-in overlook two busy traffic streets.

Grace's Drive Inn, 2227 S. Beretania Street (between University Avenue and McCully Street), 946-8020; daily 10 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. Don't let the fast-food franchise look fool you: Grace's was the most popular place in our survey. The reason: a long history of good food. The mahimahi plate ($3.05) and roast pork ($3.15) are popular; try pork with Chinese cabbage ($2.95).

AROUND THE ISLAND

Here are our favorite plate-lunch places to try on an island tour. Ownership and cooks change more often around the island than in Honolulu, and lack of a large regular clientele can result in uneven quality. But for many visitors, convenience to beaches and other attractions often compensates for this uncertainty. Look for lunch wagons at beach parks along these coasts.

North Shore. Banzai Bowl and Country Drive Inn, 66-200 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa; 637-9122; daily 7 A.M. to 9 P.M. Restaurant has a take-out Japanese bento lunch worth trying; get there before noon. Save dessert for one of the shaved-ice parlors just down the street.

Eat To The Max, 59-176 Kamehameha Highway, across from Sunset Beach; 638-8200; daily 8 to 8. Mahimahi and teri plates are good (skip the Mexican plate).

Windward Coast. Sam's Place, 55-6621 Wahinepee Street, Laie; 293-8616; Monday through Friday 6 to 2; Saturday (breakfast only) 6 to 11. Relatively new, Sam's is near the Polynesian Cultural Canter; it features beef broccoli, mushroom chicken, mahimahi, and ribs; $3 to $3.50.

Kim Chee 1, 46-010 Kamehameha Highway, Kaneohe; 235-5560; daily (except last Sunday of month) 11 to 8:30. First of a small chain; specialties include kalbi ribs and tonkatsu (pork cutlet); $3.25 to $5.

Andy's Drive-in, 142 Oneawa Street, Kailua; 262-4920; daily 6 A.M. until at least 12:30 A.M. Disguised as a drive-in specializing in take-out chicken, Andy's also has plate lunches, including teri pork, fried oysters, and veal cutlet; $2.65 to $3.85.

Waimanalo Snack Bar, 41-1029 Kalanianaole Highway, Waimanalo; 259-9031; Monday through Saturday 6 A.M. to 1 P.M. Called Ahmoo's (Chinese for young lady) by the regulars in honor of Mrs. Muriel McGinley, who has run the tiny lunch counter for 28 years, this local institution is handy to beaches. All plate lunches cost $2.75; try beef curry, lau lau, or ribs.

Photo: Hawaii's favorite, teriyaki chicken is served by Katie Kalawe at her Caf'e de Roadside lunch wagon. Plate lunch with rice costs $2.60

Photo: Cruising out the door of Tsukenjo's tiny stand, worker in Honolulu's Kakaako district carries lunches back to office

Photo: Korean chicken wings, bean sprouts, rice, kim chee cost $4.50 at Chicken Alice's

Photo: Noontime lineup at Yasuko Kanda Lunchwagon: aficionados claim a long line means good food

Photo: Plate lunches make outdoor meal at beach park for tour bus driver Derek Ahsing and champion surfer Rell Sunn

Photo: Luau to go. Clockwise from poi bowl: lau lau, lomi salmon, white haupia, pipikaula, kalua pig--$4.40 at Ono Hawaiian Foods

Photo: Meaty ribs, macaroni salad, pork with Chinese cabbage, vegetable cup, and two scoops of rice crowd plate being nestled in take-out box

Photo: Trading tidbits, office workers lunch at booth in Sayo Coffee Shop

Photo: At Grace's Drive Inn (as at most plate lunch stands), meals are made to order, including mahi plate she's easing into box
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Date:Oct 1, 1984
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