When most people think of Hawaii, they imagine blue water and palm trees swaying in the breeze. The scent of plumeria. Soft, lilting music and the freshest seafood.
I think of all those things, but what I most yearn for when I remember our trip to Hawaii is a dish known as the plate lunch.
This traditional meal evolved from lunches that fruit and sugar plantation workers would enjoy: Inspired by the Japanese bento box, the lunches were heavy on meat and starch, with few or no vegetables. Today’s plate lunch features meat, two scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad.
Our first taste was at a tiny diner in Hilo, Hawaii. The dish was right up my alley: The kalua pork (Hawaii’s most famous dish) was tender and falling apart, in a rich, gingery au jus that was a perfect gravy for the firm scoops of rice, and the macaroni salad was fresh and light, slightly tangy, bound in mayonnaise with a few tiny pieces of carrot, celery and onion.
Diet food it wasn’t, but it was definitely comfort food, Hawaii style. We had it several more times before we left and my husband, Sean, even tried it “loco moco” with a fried egg on top.
Ever since, I’ve subconsciously kept my ears perked for any mention of a restaurant serving a Hawaiian-style plate lunch (no surprise – this is not common in Georgia!). I even made my own version at home – not bad, but liquid smoke is a poor substitute for true Hawaiian smoked kalua pork.
A few weeks ago, Sean called to tell me that a new Hawaiian restaurant had opened in south Augusta. And when a planned lunch with friends Cheryl and Jimmy needed a new location, we were all willing to try Hawaiian Style BBQ.
The restaurant is located at 1719 Gordon Highway right next to Alter Egoz nightclub and across from a giant Massey billboard. The bright and cheerful paintings on the exterior are a giveaway, with bright-yellow grimacing totems and a welcoming Aloha over a sunset.
Inside, the restaurant is bright and clean, with polished wood, valances sewn from floral Hawaiian fabric and pretty pink silk orchids. It reminded me of our little diner in Hilo.
We were early, so we chatted with the smiling owner, who said they opened the restaurant in November for a taste of the food back home. Even before we’d arrived, I knew I wanted to order the kalua pork if any semblance of it was on the menu – and she confirmed it was – although, regretfully, she said that food service regulations don’t allow them to prepare it in the traditional way, smoked in the ground with banana leaves.
Once Cheryl and Jimmy arrived, we ordered Hawaiian fruit juices to drink, along with an appetizer of Spam musubi (yes, the meat in a can). Another Hawaiian traditional meal, the musubi are sushi-like rolls of rice and Spam wrapped in seaweed. (We’d found them to be the perfect snack on a beach in Oahu).
Spam, surprisingly, is very popular in Hawaii, harkening back to the days when GIs first brought it over, and the musubi evolved from that. The restaurant’s version was exactly as I remembered: Served warm, the salty Spam was the perfect counterpoint to the slightly sweet Asian sauce and helped flavor the white rice, with a finish of the chewy seaweed.
The juices came in a can with a cup of ice. (Don’t forget to gently shake the can – no worries, there’s no carbonation – to make sure the juices are well mixed.) My pomegranate-orange-guava drink (or POG) is one of the most popular choices, said the owner, and it was pretty good – heavy on the guava and not very sweet (very unlike American juices).
The laminated menu features a variety of plate lunches featuring entrees such as beef short ribs, chicken katsu (breaded and fried) and hamburger steak. Each comes with two scoops of rice and macaroni or potato salad (a King’s Hawaiian sweet roll can be substituted for a scoop of rice or one of the salads). Or, for lighter appetites, a mini version comes with just one scoop of rice and your choice of salads.
A mixed plate offers your choice of two meats with sides, and the menu also features a small selection of sandwiches, sides (including dumplings), one noodle dish, one green salad and a kids menu. Saturday nights, a special Hawaiian plate is served for $14.99, featuring lau lau (pork steamed in a taro leaf), chicken long rice (chicken and vegetables with rice noodles), kalua pork, lomi salmon (diced raw salmon mixed with tomato and onion) or mac salad, and rice – all food that might be served at a luau. And on Fridays, the restaurant presents dinner with a performance of Hawaiian dance starting at 7:30 p.m.
As expected, I chose the kalua pork with two scoops of rice and mac salad. Sean ordered the beef pulehu with one scoop of rice, a roll and mac salad; Cheryl, the beef teriyaki mini; and Jimmy, the garlic shrimp all the way.
I watched as Cheryl took a bite of the mac salad. She made a questioning face, and I asked, concerned, “How is it?” She considered: “A little bland?” I tasted mine and I knew what she meant. The salad was very creamy and overloaded with mayo, but had no tang, which I like in a macaroni salad. It was however, peppery with an eggy flavor, which Sean, who enjoys an eggy potato salad, loved.
To be honest, I don’t know if any kalua pork can match the one in my memory, but I thought this pork was good, very tender and moist with plenty of au jus, but perhaps a touch brassy from the ginger. I’m tough on my rice though, and thought it was cooked with too much water – which makes the texture go sticky.
Everyone else really loved their meats though, and were kind enough to let me try a bite. Cheryl’s was a dark and sweet beef teriyaki, and Jimmy’s garlic shrimp were plump, moist and flavorful – both delicious. But the winner was Sean’s beef pulehu: The broiled beef had great char, was moist and had a sweet garlic flavor.
The men finished their meals, but both Cheryl and I took home a little to-go plate (and the meal was even better the next day).
As we walked out, I was looking forward to coming back on a Friday night to see some Hawaiian dance. And later, I thought about why I love the plate lunch so much – and I realized that even though it’s a traditional Hawaiian meal, it incorporates food traditions from two of my favorite cultures: the South’s pulled pork and mac salad; and Chinese rice and ginger flavors. So maybe, even here in Georgia, Hawaii really isn’t so far away.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Hawaiian Style BBQ, 1719 Gordon Highway
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
COST: $5.50 for a mini serving to $10.99 for a regular serving
SECOND HELPING: (706) 814-6534, www.facebook.com/HawaiianStyleBBQ