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.
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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!
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?