As my brother said on our way to Boulder this weekend, "It's pretty hard to fuck up a plate lunch."
We were driving to check out 8 Islands, an eatery that specializes in the uniquely Hawaiian culinary phenomenon known as the plate lunch. With our parents living on Oahu along with innumerable cousins, aunties, uncles and distant relatives, eating a good plate lunch is like a family reunion for our stomachs. Hello, Chicken Katsu! It's been so long. And Pork Lau Lau, look at how you've grown!
We had it on good authority that 8 Islands, at 3050 28th Street, was the real deal, even though it's located in the heart of the People's Republic of Granola. Not that I have anything against granola. It's just that a plate lunch is certainly on the opposite end of the nutritional spectrum from, say, a Clif Bar. Just like the island's culture, the traditional plate lunch is a pastiche of Korean, Japanese, Filipino, American, Chinese and Hawaiian foods piled into a foam takeout container with enough calories to sink a Blue Whale.
But for locals, there is no substitute for the sweet, sweet carb load of a plate lunch. Even rail-thin Barack Obama loves him some plate lunch whenever he takes a trip to his native state.
When we walked into 8 Islands, the redhead behind the counter barely lifted her eyes from the Boulder Weekly she was scanning to acknowledge our presence. She was full-blown hippie, with patchwork everything, dreadlocks and a disgruntled expression that could've out-sneered even the most snide hipster barista. So much for the aloha spirit.
We peered into the kitchen and saw a young white guy with a beard working the pots. Okay, a Hawaiian plate lunch place staffed only by haoles. Huh. Not a great sign, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief once I saw that the menu hit all the right bases. Teriyaki steak, mahi-mahi, kal-bi (a Korean short rib), ahi poke. They even had the bastardized concoctions found only in Hawaii like Moco Loco (two fried eggs on a beef patty slathered in gravy) and Spam musubi (a large sushi roll topped with fried Spam.)
I decided to go for the Friday special: Kalua Pork, Chicken Long Rice and Lomi Lomi Salmon for $9.99. I also picked up a side of kim chee (spicy pickled cabbaged) and a can of guava juice, which came to a total of about $14. But when Little Miss Sunshine wordlessly slid the paper plate to me across the counter, I felt something was amiss. I sat at a table and stared at my meal. There was no rice.
There are three things that make up the foundation of a plate lunch: two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and huge portions of something else for relatively cheap. (Never more than $8.) I could understand forgoing the mayo-heavy mac salad, but serving a plate lunch without the sticky white rice (eaten with virtually every meal in Hawaii) is like selling a hamburger without the buns or nachos without chips. Does. Not. Compute.
I complained and was told that rice was considered a side dish, which would cost me $2 more. No joke -- $2 extra for rice. With a drink, that added up to a $16 plate lunch. If you are going to charge me $16 for a plate lunch, I'd better walk out of there so full I have to take a nap in my car before driving. There'd better be saimin noodles shooting out my ears. Morbidly obese people should be stopping to ask ME if I need help up the stairs. A $16 plate lunch should be able to feed an entire family of Filipinos or two medium-sized Samoans. Now, I'm no sumo, but I ain't no Thai Ladyboy, either. I put away the whole plate with room to spare and was none too happy.
Clearly the restaurant's owner, Michael Iuchi -- who was born and raised in Pearl City on Oahu, according to the website -- felt that if he was going to make it in the land of natural supplements and overpriced pomegranate juice, he would have to add some healthy alternatives to the plate-lunch concept, such as brown rice and salads. But Colorado is already the thinnest state in the nation. We've been grinding salads all our damn lives!
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To Iuchi's credit, the Kalua pork was tasty, and the kim chee tasted just like it should -- like it came straight out of a jar. My brother -- who swears the best Spam musubi on Oahu comes from 7-Eleven -- found the 8 Islands version to be just right. (He bought one to go and ate it later that night, tipsy in a gas station parking lot.) Though we both say the mopey hippie chick should be sent back to a Phish tour, where she belongs, he thinks I may be overreacting about the rice thing.
So I will leave it up to any Hawaii locals, former locals or wannabe locals out there. Is a plate lunch without rice still a plate lunch?