I fell in love with the Hawaiian plate lunch back in the ’80s. Not in Hawaii, where I somehow missed it, but at Aloha Kitchen in Mesa, the first Hawaiian fast-casual in town, if memory serves. Of course, nowadays, island cuisine can be found all over the Valley, and one of the newest places for an excellent Hawaiian plate lunch is Maui Hawaiian Grill in Tempe.
It’s a clean, well-lit place, but I can’t help noticing that men outnumber women here by something like 10-to-1, and I’m pretty sure I know why.
Built around a meat entrée, two mounds of white rice and a scoop of mayo-drenched macaroni salad, the plate lunch is a simple, satisfying meal, said to have originated – in some form or other – on the pineapple and sugar plantations of Hawaii back in the 1880s, when the only requirement was cheap, filling food to keep a body going through a long day of manual labor.
You don’t have to be a pineapple picker to love this stuff, but it certainly helps to have a healthy (and I do mean healthy) appetite. My pal and I ordered fried dumplings and SPAM musubi as starters, foolishly thinking we’d have the stamina to polish off those babies and our plate lunches, too. No go, Ioe (that’s Joe in Hawaiian).
Hawaiian food is a cultural mashup of other Asian cuisines, so the fried dumplings, as we could see from the picture, are really just gyoza, an airy, crisp-edged version stuffed with softened pork and flecks of green cabbage. Delicious with a dunk in thick, sugar-boosted soy sauce.
The SPAM musubi here looks a lot like Japanese onigiri (they’re kissing cousins), a Japanese rice ball fashioned from plain rice, not sushi rice (which is made with vinegar, sugar and salt). The musubi is oval-shaped – like a can of SPAM – topped with a slice of spam and a drizzle of teriyaki sauce, then completely wrapped in nori. Sorry, there’s no picture. We, umm, ate them too fast.
If you want to get all technical about it, what we really ordered for our mains would be called “mixed lunches,” because they each contained two meats, not one. We asked for a special order, combining kalbi and kalua pork, and the kitchen obliged.
Here’s the kicker: We couldn’t pick a favorite meat among the four we sampled. There was a flat, thinnish strip of kalbi (tender Korean-style barbecued beef short ribs), kalua pork (a mound of ultra-juicy, smoky shredded pork), Hawaiian barbecued chicken (grilled, basted breast meat – similar to teriyaki chicken) and panko-breaded, seriously crispy chicken katsu (think tonkatsu, but with chicken). All are perfectly cooked and surprisingly moist, and except for the savory katsu, all offer up that sweet-salty-umami punch that invariably wins the day.
The rice serves as a foil for the salty-sweet meat, while the macaroni salad, containing nothing but a bit of carrot and a boatload of mayo, tastes fatty but neutral so as not to compete with the sugar in the meat. The entrees rest on a bed of steamed cabbage and broccoli, and we take a few bites to appease our consciences about eating healthfully, but who are we kidding here?
Then again, ask me – and the dozens of men I watched wolfing down their lunches – if we worried about calories and cholesterol in that deliciously home-style Hawaiian moment. Hell to the no. They probably licked their takeout containers clean and went back to work. Lucky for me, there are leftovers in the fridge.
Maui Hawaiian Grill
219 E. Baseline Rd., Tempe