Bento Gone Barbecue

Hula on Down for 'Cue

My friend Denise and I stare up at the menu overhead, unsure of what to make of it. “Is this your first time here?” asks our smiling server, who sports a long-sleeved T-shirt under her blue-and-white Hawaiian print shirt. We nod. “Plate lunches come with two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad,” she explains. There are a lot of plate lunches listed — chicken katsu, shrimp curry, teriyaki chicken, and something called loco moco.

Acting on a tip, we had come to L&L Hawaiian Barbecue to figure out what Hawaiian barbecue was — and found ourselves at a fast-food chain. Heading to San Pablo for fast food may seem like driving to Fremont for donuts, but the curious and the nostalgic may find the trip worth it.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is a successful franchise with more than fifty restaurants on the islands and the West Coast. Owned by Eddie Flores Jr. and Johnson Yum Kam, who bought the first L&L from the original L. and L. in 1976, the chain specializes in that venerable institution, the Hawaiian plate lunch.

According to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which sponsored a 1998 exhibit on the origins of the meal, “When Japanese immigrants first worked on Hawaii’s sugar plantations, they carried their bento lunch of rice, tofu, and pickled vegetables in a tiered metal container. Eventually Filipino pancit noodles, Portuguese chorizo, Puerto Rican pastele pork, Chinese choy sum cabbage, Korean kal bi ribs, Okinawan andagi doughnuts, and Hawaiian lomi-lomi salmon were added when field workers of different races gathered at lunch and shared food.”

This description of the plate lunch makes it sound enticing — varied, spicy, and exotic. The modern-day meal, though, owes as much to Betty Crocker as it does 19th-century immigrants. How macaroni salad ended up on the plate alongside the rice is lost in the volcanic mists of memory, but it signals the aesthetic that has come to dominate the genre.

Several months ago, Albert Leung, who hails from Honolulu, opened up L&L’s first Northern California franchise in the town of San Pablo. He took over a Kentucky Fried Chicken, hauled the guts out and brightened up the exterior with a school-bus-yellow roof. Inside, the chairs and plastic-topped tables are cheerfully accented in baby blues and pinks, and the walls are decorated with framed reviews in Hawaiian publications.

L&L doesn’t just serve an authentic, multiethnic plate lunch, it offers slightly better fast food than most of the major mainland chains at standard fast-food prices. Part of the reason the restaurant succeeds is that it doesn’t spin the illusion that most of the major chains are striving to sell us — that fast food can be healthful as well as quick, gratifying, and greasy. These cooks know how to work a fryolater, and they’re not afraid of mayonnaise.

After ordering, Denise and I took our soft drinks to one of the tables in the almost-empty room. After four or five minutes, our server brought out a stack of square Styrofoam boxes and a paper bag spotted with oil. The bag divulged six fried wontons, little folded diamonds of dough encasing huge chunks of some kind of meat. They stayed crisp, even after being dunked in a sweet-sour sauce whose character came from its fluorescent orange color, not its flavor. Oh, how good it was to revel in fried food. Forced by my career to put aside guilt, I enjoyed every crispy bite. My Combination B contained one four-inch-square slab of mild mahi mahi heavily breaded in a cottony batter with a paper-thin exterior. Three prawns had been butterflied, coated in panko (large, flaky Japanese breadcrumbs), and fried until crunchy. Chicken thighs, skin intact, had been pounded flat and marinated in a salty teriyaki sauce, then roasted. The fish and shrimp came with a little plastic tub of pickle-flecked tartar sauce.

In my friend’s garlic shrimp lunch, six prawns, their shells slit down the middle but left intact, were coated in an oily paste of salt, garlic, and scallions and then stir-fried. The flavor of jarred garlic sets my teeth on edge, but Denise — who doesn’t have the same prejudice — happily crunched the legs and shells along with the flesh inside.

The two small, precise spheres of rice in each container weren’t overcooked as I had expected, and the scoop of macaroni salad, creamy with mayonnaise, had a pleasing blandness cut with just a drop or two of vinegar. I had suspected that our meal would lack fiber, so I also ordered a small side salad: a short stack of iceberg lettuce leaves with two tomatoes the same color as our sweet-and-sour sauce. No lite Italian, our dressing seemed to be tartar sauce mixed with ketchup.

Diners who want a lighter meal can order a “mini,” which has a smaller portion of the main entree and only one scoop of rice, for $1.50 less. Based on the huge portion size, minis should be enough for kids or the constitutionally delicate.

The menu and articles on the walls tout the chicken katsu as the best on the island, so on my second visit my friends and I sampled a couple of variations. The Hawaiian version of this Japanese standard doesn’t stray far from the original: thin slices of white meat breaded in panko and deep-fried. At L&L, diners dip the cut-up strips — greaseless and crunchy but dry inside — into plastic pots of a thick, sugary dipping sauce flavored with A-1 steak sauce or eat them covered in a bland, sweet Japanese-style curry.

Our other meals gave more evidence of the multicultural origins of plate lunch. In one friend’s sweet and sour combo, large chunks of chicken breast encased in a crispy Chinese-style batter and a few panko-breaded shrimp were piled high. A ladle of the bright orange sweet-and-sour sauce and some pineapple chunks had been poured over top; the dish could have used double the amount. Thick slabs of Hawaiian-style pork, slow-roasted so long we were overarmed with flimsy plastic forks, had great flavor. The industrial brown gravy smothering the meat didn’t.

We supplemented the plate lunches with a Styrofoam bowl of “soup-style” saimin, ramen noodles in a light chicken broth with fried eggs, scallions, and Spam batons bobbing on top. What’s the deal with Spam and Hawaii? Hawaiians eat more of the processed, spiced ham than people in any other state. Several of the sources I consulted speculated that it became popular after World War II, when meat was severely rationed on the islands. Hawaiians eat Spam sandwiches, Spam and eggs, and Spam saimin noodles. But to my chagrin, L&L didn’t carry one dish that I’ve long yearned to try: Spam musubi. Apparently I’ll have to fly to Hawaii to try this snack, which an old friend used to sell at the Honolulu airport for a living before he came to California to go to the culinary academy. He described musubis as huge maki rolls in which a slice of Spam, and sometimes a little pickled radish or fried egg, are encapsulated by sushi rice and nori.

As my first excursion intimated, the best thing on the menu is the Hawaiian barbecue. We lucked out with the BBQ combo, a heap of teriyaki chicken, thin slices of soy-marinated beef, and succulent, tear-apart cross-slices of marinated and grilled short ribs (kal bi). All tasted like comforting American renditions of familiar Japanese and Korean home cooking.

I couldn’t interest anyone in the loco moco, which my friend — now relocated to the mainland — used to sigh over nostalgically. I’d eat a Spam musubi any day, but I think I’ll leave the charms of a hamburger patty topped with a fried egg and gravy to those craving a taste of home.

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