Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Plate Lunch


When I was 18, I decided to venture out into the “real” world. I had told my mother when I was 12 years old, that I had planed on a career in the US Army. My first plan (the US Military Academy at West Point) hadn’t worked out, so I had switched to plan “B.”

Plan B, started with me becoming an enlisted Soldier and I was fortunate to find a position in an Army unit in Hawaii.

I was stationed on a small base west of Honolulu. For an 18-year-old it was the best life possible. I knew that I could eat at the Mess Hall, I had a guaranteed roof over my head and a steady paycheck.

The barracks that I lived in when I was first assigned to Hawaii

Which is why my friends and I spent every possible moment on the beach, mostly in Waikiki (and yes, in the bars there also).

At one point while growing up, we raised our own cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. By the time I was 18, I knew that I was a big fan of steaks, Italian, Chinese and Mexican food. But that was the extent of my food experience.

Finding myself in the culinary wonderland of the Polynesian Islands, I began to try a variety of new, but pretty safe, dietary choices.

Though I wasn’t ready to dive headfirst into uncooked fish, octopus, poi, laulau, or spam musubi just yet. However, shave ice, saimin, and chili over rice (who knew it would rock) made me think about expanding my palate.

Which brings me to one of my fast-food favorites – plate lunch.

Growing up in SoCal, we had the advantage of growing up in the home of fast food. The original McDonald brother’s restaurant is only about 30 miles from where I grew up. The home of In-and-Out is maybe 60 miles away. My high school classmates and I split our Mexican food loyalty between the original Del Taco and its offshoot (and better) competitor, Naugles which were both local eateries.

One of the main attributes of fast-food, in my mind, was that it is “hand-held.” Like the original hot dog, it requires no silverware and no plate. It was purposefully designed to be consumed on-the-go.

Plate lunch was different. While still “fast-food” it was served on a paper plate and with plastic silverware.

I’m pretty sure that my introduction to plate lunch was at a roadside takeout window in Eva Beach.

I don’t remember who I was with, but I remember looking at the plate with a more than mild degree of skepticism. I thought, who would serve teriyaki beef with macaroni salad and rice. Turns out it was pure genius.

I wondered where the idea of the plate lunch came from. Who devised this rather strange combination of carbs, and why?

According to the website Eater.com;

“The origins of the dish date back to the 1880s, where it began as a popular midday meal option for hungry workers on Hawaii’s booming pineapple and sugar plantations. The plantation workers would bring their lunches to work with them in bento boxes, and leftover rice was used as an inexpensive way to bulk up whatever meats were leftover from last night’s dinner. By the 1930s, new mobile meal services called lunch wagons popped up to cater to laborers and drive-ins; instead of being served on bento boxes, they were served on compartmentalized paper plates, hence the name "plate lunch." By the 1950s, the plantation era had ended, but the plate lunch was a staple at drive-ins and free-standing restaurants across the islands.”

So, the origins of the plate lunch is not much different than the humble hot dog or burger, a cheep and filling way to feed hungry workers in the field.  

Forty some odd years after I left Hawaii, I finally returned to the Islands for a vacation. High on my list of foods I wanted to retry was the plate lunch.

Unfortunately, we first tried an order in a food court in Waikiki. They attempted to “upscale” the traditional plate lunch. The meat was tough, the sauce tasteless and the macaroni salad was replaced with a bad salad and a piece of pineapple. I was not pleased.

The "fancy" Waikiki plate lunch

I tried again at a food truck in the Hukilau Marketplace at the Polynesian Cultural Center when we were on the North Shore. I think I paid a little over half what I paid for the lunch in Waikiki, but the difference was worth twice as much.

Finally, on the North Shore, I found a real plate lunch from a food truck at the Polynesian Cultural Center

The beef had the sweet-salty blend that you expect from a good teriyaki sauce. The rice, was, well rice. The macaroni salad was very good. It took me right back to that little stand in Eva Beach. And it was just as good as I remembered.

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