The women who run Hawaiian Sista’s Cafe in San Leandro really are sisters. Marsha Arca and Linda Cortez came to California in the 1960s, but they never stopped cooking the food they grew up with. After both retired from long careers at HP, they finally realized Marsha’s dream and opened their own restaurant, a tiny cafe that attracts Hawaiians from Oakland, Hayward, and Union City.
They come for the plate lunch.
Ah, the plate lunch. The most multicultural diner food in America, as comforting as a hamburger, but with Spam and brown gravy on top. Whatever the meat on a plate-lunch plate, it will always come with two scoops rice and one scoop macaroni salad. These days, the thought of a double-starch combo might send fear into the heart of any thick-blooded American. Hawaii may be the land of macadamia nuts, poi, and pineapple, but plate lunch is the perfect expression of its cultural identity.
“The Hawaiian community in the Bay Area is unlike any [other] ethnic communities,” says Eric Tao, president of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce of Northern California. “It’s not based on ethnicity. It’s based on culture, and having come from the islands.” The Bay Area — particularly San Leandro and Hayward — has one of the largest Hawaiian communities in the United States. Hawaiians first settled in California after World War II, when they came here looking for work. The community continues to be refreshed by new arrivals seeking education and refuge from Hawaii’s high cost of living.
Hawaii is still the least Caucasian state in the country, where almost 30 percent of the population defines its ethnicity as “mixed race.” That includes Marsha and Linda, whose father was Hawaiian-Portuguese-Chinese and whose mother was Filipino-Mexican-Guamanian. “We both married purebreds because we wanted our children to be half of something,” Linda jokes.
You can see the mix in the sisters’ menu: chicken katsu, kalua pig, fried chicken, sweet ‘n’ sour. Myth has it that plate lunch originated when plantation workers from Japan, China, Portugal, the Philippines, and the islands would share their food with each other. Eventually enterprising cooks started up lunch carts that catered to everyone’s tastes.
Since 2000, franchises of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and Hawaiian Drive Inn — Hawaiian chains that specialize in plate lunch, fast-food style — have popped up around the area. But Menda and Marsha have made a name for themselves in the Hawaiian community for their down-home food.
They’ve fashioned a comfortable, homey little spot in a run-down strip mall. Though sepia-colored photos of hula dancers decorate the walls, Hawaiian Sista’s isn’t designed to appeal to touristy nostalgia. The red plastic booths and church-basement chairs flank tables with brown Hawaiian-print cloths covered in a layer of plastic. The menu is spelled out over the counter in plastic letters. You pay at the counter, and one of the sisters will bring you your food when it’s good and ready.
You can taste the care they put into the chicken katsu, chicken thighs thickly breaded in panko, those big, feathery-looking Japanese breadcrumbs that taste feathery and stay crisp forever when they’re fried right. The katsu we tried were fried right, as juicy as braised chicken with no old-oil taste. The sisters’ roasted pork with gravy pulls apart in long, ropy strands, pale and daintily meaty (though they’re covered in packet gravy). And their saimin noodles, Hawaiian ramen, float in a salty, meaty broth with pink-and-white slices of fish cakes, scallions, and sweet Chinese barbecue pork tinted fuchsia at the edges.
Homestyle cooking sometimes produces tough meat: The teriyaki chicken was made of thighs pounded flat — and I mean flat — and grilled, brushed with a salty, gingery teriyaki sauce as they cooked. You’ll find more succulent kalbi, short ribs sliced Asian-style across the bone and marinated in soy and garlic, at a Korean restaurant.
Which is why you should order the kalua pork. In the islands, kalua pork is slow-roasted in a pit oven, but Menda says she tried it once here then switched to the simpler oven method, adding a little liquid smoke. Nothing reminded me so much of North Carolina-style shredded barbecue as the massive mound of smoky shredded pork, with just enough fat clinging to the meat to bomb your palate with the flavor of roasted meat.
On Saturdays, kalua pork comes as part of a Hawaiian plate with another Polynesian dish, lau lau, or taro leaves steamed around bits of fatty pork and fish. The greens have a juicy, almost succulent quality, which helps cut the saltiness of the pork. The pork, lau lau, and rice are meant to be eaten with lomi salmon, a salad of raw salmon cured in lemon and salt with tomatoes, onions, scallions, and ice cubes.
Even the Hawaiian plate comes with a scoop of mac salad, soft pasta elbows drenched in mayonnaise with a few peas and diced carrots scattered about for color. What’s the deal with that? In a 1999 article, Cynthia Oi of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin attempted to trace its origins, but none of the local food writers or historians she spoke to could say exactly who introduced it to the islands. Some attributed it to the Portuguese, others to Swiss and German hotel chefs. Others said plantation bosses used to substitute macaroni for more expensive potatoes — yes, potatoes — in the potato salad they’d serve to their field workers. Whatever the case, it appears to have been an essential part of plate lunch since the 1920s.
Marsha and Linda make almost all the food themselves, including desserts such as macadamia-nut banana-cream pie and Linda’s daughter’s double-crusted banana pie, all of which are easier to find on weekends than weekdays. One of the few things they buy are the manapua, otherwise known as barbecued-pork buns. “My sister drove around to all the Chinese bakeries looking for the manapua that tasted most like the ones we get in Hawaii,” Linda says. She found it in San Francisco.
The other snack you’ll spot on the counter at Hawaiian Sista’s is the one that still blows my mind. If you thought about it, could you have come up with teriyaki spam musubi? I first heard about this popular snack when one of my old co-workers, a Hawaiian pantry cook, tried to convince me it really existed. “It’s like sushi, see,” he said. “You grill a piece of Spam with teriyaki sauce, then wrap it in rice. Then you roll the rice in nori, and press the thing together in a musubi maker so you get a long, thick roll.” Years later, I finally tracked one down, and I’ve been tasting them whenever I can. After my sixth or seventh musubi, it almost makes sense: the salty, nitrate-drenched meat brushed with sweet teriyaki sauce, the chewy rice, and behind it all, a whiff of the ocean that the seaweed imparts.
On Fridays the sisters offer a Puerto Rican plate with pasteles, gandules rice, and bacalao salad. I asked Linda how that came about. “There are a lot of Puerto Rican Hawaiians,” she replied matter-of-factly. Of course.