Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Lunch at the Pier

So for my first actual blog entry, I wanted to pick something really iconic of Hawaii. Something that truly represented both the unique flavor and culture of the islands. Something that was filled with the best happy memories I could think of. Given the criteria, one thing immediately popped into my head. It's with a certain irony and sadness, I realized that what I settled on no longer exists... The place that I really wanted to blog about, was my favorite lunchwagon down by the pier, the Kanda Lunchwagon.

But let's start at the beginning. For those of you who don't know, Hawaii's most popular food choice, the plate lunch, has it's origins as part of our multi-cultural history. When Hawaii's main industry was sugar (and later pineapple), immigrant workers came from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, and other places to work on the plantations. Despite being from very different, sometimes antagonistic, cultures, these workers (our grandparents) shared in the hardship of their labor. They eventually found commonality, and one of the factors bonded them together was of course... food. While each culture would cook up something different, they almost all were served upon a bed of rice. So the plantation workers would break for lunch, squat in a big circle (now known as the plantation squat), and share each other's entre upon their own bowl of rice. This was the basis of what we now call our "mixed plate".

As the world evolved, so did this practice. By the '40's and '50's, besides bringing their own lunches to work, many people bought lunch. So to deliver lunch to many people at different worksites, Hawaii became home to the lunchwagon. We're not talking about the kind of junk food that you might get off the back of a truck on the mainland. Plate lunches were always a mixture of the different cultures that spawned it, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, etc., always served with the ubiquitous 2 scoops of rice and 1 scoop of macaroni salad. New York has hot dog carts, L.A. has taco trucks, and Honolulu has lunchwagons.

Sadly, many of of the lunchwagons are disappearing. You can still find them, at U.H and around downtown during lunch. But many of the older ones are gone. This includes the one that was my favorite of all, the Kanda Lunchwagon, down at Kaka'ako Pier. It used to park, just Ewa of Ala Moana Beach Park, right in the parking lot that borders the park and the pier. The line for that one was always at least 8 or 9 people long. And it was well worth it.

I still remember my favorite plate from "the pier" as we used to call it. Their "Large Mixed Plate" consisted of
  • 2 scoops rice, 1 scoop mac salad (of course)
  • roast pork
  • a small piece of meatloaf
  • a shoyu shortrib
  • sometimes some teri-beef
  • a thin triangular slice of luncheon meat
  • a shoyu hot dog
  • all on a bed of pork long rice
  • and if you wanted it, gravy from the roast pork over the rice

It seems like a lot, but it wasn't really that big compared to the gut busting plates you can get these days. Heck, the piece of meatloaf was only about the size of a fig newton. But they gave you a little bit of everything on the menu. And everything was delicious. Even the mac salad, which is done all over town, I remember as being my favorite one. On the surface, it just looked like mayo, macaroni, and some shredded cabbage. I'm not sure what they did to it, but it was always colder and more flavorful than anyone else's. The best thing on the plate though was the long rice. To this day, I have never tasted long rice like that. Not so thin, translucent noodles, in this savory, shoyu pork broth, with bits of cabbage and pork, that just made me want to slurp up every last noodle at the end of my plate.

Even the presentation was unique. They didn't hand em out on those styrofoam lunch containers that every one uses these days. They handed out paper plates, lined with 2 sheets of wax paper, and covered with 2 more sheets of wax paper. They were the only people I knew of, besides my Po Po, who actually used wax paper. It was really old school.

But perhaps the best part of this lunchwagon was the location. My dad would take me down to the pier, buy us a couple of plates, a couple of Diamond Head red creme sodas, and we would walk across the parking lot, sit on the dock and next to fishing boats, and eat lunch, just him and I. I would sit there and watch the tide lap against the rubber tires buffering the boats. Sometimes I'd even see some small fishes (probably Manini) swimming by the boats. It was such a simple little pleasure. But it's the kind of thing you always remember from your Hana Batta days. It's an experience I wish I could've shared with my boys. The Kanda Lunchwagon is gone now, and there is a different wagon that replaced it, but their food just doesn't taste the same.

I was really heartbroken when I found out that the Kanda Lunchwagon had closed. For about a year or two, their appearances at the pier started becoming less frequent, and regular. I kept wanting to take my wife (then girlfriend), down there to share the experience with her, but every time we drove past they wouldn't be there. Until ultimately I found out about their closing. As the lunchwagons disappear, the worry sets in that we're losing a bit of our culture, a bit of our history, a bit of ourselves. I worry more that the people of Hawaii will lose the bond that they formed working on the plantations together, that newcomers won't understand the cultural tolerance we learned by working the sugar cane fields together, growing up together, and sharing our lunches together. More than anything, that is what I want to share with my sons, even if we have to find a new lunch place to build that memory on.


  1. They put miso and ajinamoto in that mac salad. And don't forget that Daddy took me to eat down there too!!

  2. haha! Jen makes me laugh.

    So your first blog is about a place we can't even go eat at anymore? Zagat's you're not. :)

  3. Ha! Kanda Lunchwagon! A.K.A. "Kewalo Lunchwagon". The "Large Mix Plate" was also my regular favorite as well! What a bargain too. IIRC, the last time I ordered that plate it was just $5.59 and that included a drink!

    What Kanda's was good at besides GREAT recipes, is their food was always served MOIST and piping HOT. Unlike many lunchwagons that served food warm or not warm at all, and dry, dry dry.

    As you pointed out, their method of serving was classic too. The Chinette paper plate with the double wax paper, then finally they'd wrap it with a sheet of butcher paper and rubberband it shut. So classic.

    Shoots, I had a picture of my regular mix plate from "Kewalo's" but I lost it on of my old computer hard drives. Darned it.

    The Tasty Island