The home cooking of the islands has arrived in our corner of the mainland: from sushi to burgers, all on one plate.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published June 3, 2004
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Julie Huang, co-owner of Ly-Lys Hawaiian BBQ in Clearwater, shows off some menu items: teriyaki chicken and broccoli, chicken katsu and a BBQ mixed plate.
One-word clue: Musubi.
Bigger hint: Spam musubi.
Okay, last try: Loco moco. That ought to do it.
Still no go? Let me try one in English: plate lunch.
When I tell you the answer is "Hawaiian barbecue," you're probably still puzzled. Even folks who know South Carolina barbecue from North (and East from West) are surprised that the 50th state has its own version.
They might guess that the sauce is not ketchup or mustard but teriyaki or some other mix of ginger and shoyu (soy sauce). But that doesn't begin to cover the diversity of Hawaiian food brought to our corner of the mainland.
Or why it's barbecue, not a luau.
Hawaiians more often call this a plate lunch, beloved food that rarely costs more than $4 or $5 and is daily fare for locals, as if it were a barbecue place in Birmingham or a Cuban steam table in Tampa.
What you get is a blue plate loaded with favorites from all around the Pacific Rim, including North America: beef curry, teriyaki, fried mahi mahi, hot kim chee, sushi, Spam, fried eggs and hamburgers in gravy. With two scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad.
Hawaii's home cooking has gotten more patronage and respect on the mainland in recent years. L&L, the island's biggest chain, has a dozen locations in California and Arizona, and this year Sam Choy's Kaloko was honored by the James Beard Foundation and Gallo as a classic American restaurant.
The plate lunch first arrived in the Tampa Bay area at Aloha in the Largo Mall last year, and now it comes to Ly-Ly's Hawaiian BBQ, which has set up shop in Safety Harbor. Ly-Ly's is a branch of Hawaiian Drive Inn, a chain with six West Coast locations.
Fast food or slow, corruption or compromise, this is the original pan-Asian fusion untouched by chefs: the comfort foods of Japan, India, Korea, Hawaii, the mainland and almost every culture that has touched the islands. (Okay, Portuguese sausage and Puerto Rican sofrito, two other island favorites, are missing.)
The influences combine in infinite ways, always generously, prepared to order in heaping meals and bento boxes. By the way, there are no plates or lacquered bentos. Meals come in untropical foam takeout boxes, which I understand is also an authentic form of service.
Further, the places look like fast food stalls in a mall food court, not a tiki bar or a zen garden. They are also called drive-ins, without a carhop, squawk box or drive-through in sight.
So, discard conventional terminology, along with high-tone notions of opakapaka, poi and macadamias. And any thoughts of nutritional correctness. Salt, cholesterol, carbs, sugar? A plate lunch has them all. Diet choice: one scoop of rice with mac salad, not two.
Still, it tastes like home to any Hawaiian, and a hefty bargain to any haole (non-Hawaiian) who gives it a try.
Start with short ribs, a most unappreciated cut, a thin slab of juicy beef with tiny slices of bone you can't resist nibbling. Chicken, however, comes boneless and marinated, broad flat strips much like the grilled chicken in Thai satay.
The most beloved form of chicken will take more familiarization: Chicken katsu is boneless chicken fried with a panko crust, something closer to a chicken cutlet than tempura. Mahi mahi gets a similar crunchy treatment that will stump, if not offend, sophisticated fish eaters.
The surprise is the hamburger, juicy and handmade, as close to a kitchen skillet hamburger as I've had (is shoyu or a little pork in there?). I had mine on a bun, but Hawaiians prefer loco moco: two burgers over rice with gravy and two eggs. Makes steak and eggs with pancakes seem puny.
And Spam? Well, those oblong slices of salted pork and ham are something special. Spam is not in combination meals, but there's plenty: Spam and eggs for breakfast, plus Spam musubi and Spam saimin.
Translations: Musubi is sushi supersized to Hawaiian proportions. A pad of rice the size of a slice of lasagne is dabbed with teriyaki, topped with a slice of meat (chicken katsu is a favorite, but I'd go for grilled Spam) and wrapped in dry seaweed. Not as pretty as a California roll, yet an intriguing balance of sweet, bland and bitter. Saimin is an egg noodle version of ramen in a salty broth with various proteins, but I couldn't resist having more Spam.
This may not have enough soy for native tastes, but I'd like more green onions and sesame furikake seasoning. Indeed, I'd spice up any meal here with rice vinegar, peppers or the creamy wasabi dressing made by the mother of a Hawaiian friend.
But there is kim chee, and for Hawaiians that Korean pickle is not just a condiment, but a whole side order. Ly-Ly's version is almost all cabbage and peppers, fire-breathing cole slaw and amply refreshing for me.
Plate lunch places are often judged by the simplest, least exotic item on the menu, the cold macaroni and mayo. Hawaiians have a word for it.
- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. He can be reached at 727 893-8585 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ly-Ly's Hawaiian BBQ
2510 McMullen-Booth Road
Telephone: (727) 712-1988
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Details: Credit cards accepted, no smoking, no alcohol