The Hawaiian Plate Lunch


During the plantation era of Hawai'i's history, workers brought to the fields their leftovers from home for lunch. The vast majority of these workers were initially from China then Japan, Okinawa, Philippines, Korean. Their "brown bag lunch" was in the form of a Bento Box. If you think Bento Boxes are a thing of the past you only need to search Amazon to find modern versions still in use today.

A typical Bento Box contains rice, pickled or cooked vegetables and a protein such as fish or meat. Traditional Bentos had two or three layers of containers stacked high separating the various food types. This made it easy to pass around as the workers shared their food with one another.

As the world modernized and less people brought lunch to work, the plate lunch was created by food wagons and establishments supplying lunch plates to field workers similar in fashion to the Bento box.

In Hawaii the common understanding of a plate lunch is two scoops of rice (Asian influence), 1 scoop of Mac salad (New England influence) and a protein of some sort (influenced by tastes from all over the globe).  A mixed plate includes two or more proteins. Locals know all the best plate lunch spots. Some are known as drive inns, others are hole in the wall eateries and a growing number are food trucks.


While living on the north shore of Oahu I worked at  Honolulu International Airport until moving to St. Louis in 1986. During the one hour commute each way I stopped at many of the islands plate lunch spos along my route. Some famous such as Zippy's, Rainbow Cafe and L&L Drive Inn. Others not as well known like the Paniolo Cafe in Punaluu that had the most ono paniolo rattlesnake chili, and the Kahuku shrimp farms. A favorite afternoon stop was Matsumoto's Shave Ice in Haleiwa, or early morning was Libby's Manapua on Kalihi St.

From Laie on the North Shore to Honolulu I had two routes to choose from. One went southeast along the Windward coastline on Kamehameha Highway (known as Kam. Highway) through the LikeLike tunnel. This route took me past favorites such as Zippy's in Kaneohe, L&L's or Libby's in Kalihi. The other route went west through the heart of the islands two mountain ranges and the town of Haleiwa with Matsumoto's, Zippy's in Wahiawa, and a Leonard's Bakery in Pearl City (a Leonard's location I believe is no longer there). Saimen noodle places scattered throughout either route. 

There are too many ono plate lunch spots to list. Some of them have grown into chains while others are one of a kind, very small with delicious food. Everything is so Ono! The history of the plate lunch in Hawaii is long and well documented, yet most people visiting the islands staying at resorts don't get the experience of tasting the best Hawaiian grinds the islands have to offer. It's a wonder to me why the popularity of the Hawaiian plate lunch has not spread beyond the west coast. It's this wonder that prompted the creation of Buzz's Hawaiian Grill. I felt it was high time authentic Hawaiian plate lunches came to St. Louis so everyone can taste Hawaii the way locals do.


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