Friday, November 13, 2009

The Gourmet Plate Lunches

When we think about plate lunches, we think typically of something fairly cheap, and kind of greasy spoon.   It's typically starch and meat heavy, and usually not that healthy for you.    Somehow, what started out as all of the various cultures of Hawaii sitting around in plantation squat and sharing the food of their cultures atop a common bed of rice, has kind of degenerated into the most fatty and greasy representatives of each culture.   Instead of a few, super fresh pieces of sashimi, you typically get the crispy fried chicken katsu with your plate lunch.   Instead of a bi bim bap with the big variety of vegetables in it, you typically get kalbi or Korean fried chicken.   Instead of pinakbet vegetables, you typically get pork adobo.    These dishes are by of course very tasty, which made them popular plate lunch fare to begin with.   But typically, you don't generally think of plate lunches as a) very healthy, or b) very gourmet.   However, this isn't always the case.

As time has evolved the plate lunch from the sharing of common farmer foods in our cultures, to the common fast foods of our cultures, time is continuing to evolve our plate lunches to adopt to the changing world that recognizes the nutritional needs of our modern lifestyle.    In many places these days, instead of getting a mac salad with your plate, you can get a tossed salad  (most often a simple serving of lettuce, or the better yet the cabbage you usually get as the bed under your teri beef).   Often instead of getting 2 scoops of white rice, you can get 2 scoops of brown rice (except that I really hate the texture of brown rice, so that's just not doing it for me).    I really hate to sound like my sister, but there are options out there to make your plate lunch healthier.    There are also places that try to make it a little more gourmet as well, or at least give it a little more variety (which is what I'm much more interested in).

When I used to work down by Ala Moana, one of my co-workers was eating a plate that looked quite good, and wasn't your typical chicken katsu or beef stew.   When I asked him where he got it, he directed me towards a little hole in the wall, on the corner of Atkinson and Kapiolani, called You Hungry?.  For such a small little place, it was always super crowded.  You were really lucky if you could get a seat at one of their tables, with the plush, floral patterend, easy chairs.  But even if you had to take it back with you to the office, they had such a great variety of plates to choose from.   Besides their awesome teri-meatballs, they had a whole slew of chicken and fish dishes.   My favorite thing there was their baked chicken.   They gave you 3 beautifully baked chicken thighs (which had a light shake-n-bake type of coating on it), which was smothered in a creamy mushroom gravy.   It still wasn't the healthiest thing for you, but honestly, the soft chicken skin with the light shake-n-bake type of seasoning soaking up all of the creamy mushroomy goodness was just heavenly.   Instead of rice and salad though, I would always go with the more unusual option of mashed potatoes and corn.   It was like a country plate, but a plate lunch, and having one in the middle of the day just perked my spirit for going back to work.  

Crab Stuffed Salmon from You Hungry? Lunchwagon
Sadly, the You Hungry? restaurant closed.   I was there in fact, on the last day, when the original owners sold the restaurant to new people.  What did those people do with it?   Well, instead of having a restaurant, they went backwards and opened a lunchwagon.   You can still find You Hungry? plates being served downtown on the corner of Alakea and Beretania.  Their selection is much more limited than the original restaurant, but they still taste quite extraordinary for a plate lunch.   I really like their crab stuffed salmon.   The salmon is perfectly baked, so you still have the healthy oils from the fish keeping it moist and tasty.   It is certainly not your typical plate lunch fare.

You Hungry? may have gone from being a prominent fixture to a limited mobile operation, but when it comes to the gourmet plate lunches the foremost place would have to be Kakaako Kitchen, on the corner of Ward Center (where Bernard's New York Deli used to be).   The first time I walked into Kakaako Kitchen, I really didn't know what to make of the place.   For one thing, their plates are about $12, twice the price of what you would expect for a normal plate lunch.  Pricier than I would normally want to pay for a daily lunch.   For another thing, their menu didn't look like the standard plate lunch fare either.   They were obviously striving for a slightly more upscale palate.   Anytime you hear words like "pan-seared" or "whatever-crusted", you immediately know that this isn't going to be the familiar hamburger steak and teri-beef kind of place.  Even their containers are a hard plastic clamshell, rather than a simple styrofoam.  Their portions were also a bit smaller than some plate lunch places that really pile on the food, which makes their pricing even more daunting.  On the other hand, it was clearly a take out or plastic table/chair, kind of plate lunch place.   It wasn't the kind of place that you'd want to take a client or a date.  It didn't have the ambiance for even a family dinner really.   So I really just didn't understand the niche that Kakaako Kitchen was trying to target at all.  

Then, I tasted some of their food, and I was immediately taken aback.   They certainly weren't your standard plate lunch fare, but they really did taste like more upscale local food.  My favorite thing there by far, was their bubu arare crusted wild salmon with shichimi aioli.    Sounds really interesting doesn't it?   Bubu arare are really tiny balls of kakimochi.  They're roughly the size of really tiny ball bearings, and they have the texture of the rice crispies in a Nestle Crunch bar.  Obviously, these tiny little beads of salty sweet crunchiness make for a perfect crust of the wild salmon fillet.   The biggest complaint people usually have about salmon is that it's overcooked, but theirs was just perfectly cooked to maintain the natural butteriness that salmon should have (even moreso than the one at You Hungry?).   It was absolutely fabulous.   But, for reasons that completely escape me, they've taken it off of their menu, and I couldn't even get them to special make it for me.  So, these days, I had to revert to my second favorite thing there, the furikake tempura catfish with ponzu sauce.   This too is a fantastic dish.   The catfish is far meatier in texture than the flakiness that you get from other types of fish.  The tempura batter is light and crispy.  The ponzu sauce has that slight citrusy tang that you don't get from straight tempura sauce.   At Kakaako Kitchen, I even prefer their green salad over mac salad.  That really says something.   We're not talking about simple iceberg lettuce or shredded "bedding" cabbage, but real Nalo Greens (gotta support those farmers out in Waimanalo).  Other places may have mesclun or spring mix, but they can't compare to the fresh, dark green, leafy varieties that we grow here in the islands.  I also really like the tangy lemon miso dressing that they use.  These are all totally local flavors, but in a presentation you just don't expect.

Furikake Tempura Catfish with Ponzu Sauce from Kakaako Kitchen
So what do you do with the fancier plates that you get at You Hungry? or Kakaako Kitchen?   They're a little too dressed up for a daily lunch, but a little too under dressed for a night out.   Just how do they fit in to our lifestyle?   Well, when my first son was born, naturally I stayed with my wife in the hospital.  But not being one of the patients (ie. mom or baby), husbands are kind of treated like second class citizens.  Yes they do have a single pull out easy chair for you to sleep on.  Yes they do feed you one dinner the first night your baby is born, but for all the other meals you're on your own.   But luckily, with a brand new baby around, the rest of the family couldn't help but come and stay with us during every available visiting hour as well.   What did they decide to bring me for dinner, but the stuff salmon from You Hungry?.   It was just perfect.  Holding my newborn baby, while enjoying a meal that was dressed up enough for the celebration, but available to come to me in the hospital.

The best meal I ever had from Kakaako Kitchen however, was one Valentine's Day.   Throughout the time we've been together, my wife and I hardly ever made reservations.   Somehow, we found them too restrictive to our lifestyle, and usually, with just the two of us, we liked being able to just walk into a crowded restaurant whenever we want and get a seat (even if it is at the bar or in the lounge or someplace like that).   However on Valentine's Day it's usually impossible to do that.  Even at Verbano, where we almost always get a seat, we once weren't able to have dinner til after 9PM when the rush died down.   So one year, I decided to do something special.   Rather than fight the crowds and the traffic on Valentine's Day, we decided to go to Kakaako Kitchen for dinner.  But rather than staying there, we took the meals to go and headed just around the corner to Ala Moana Beach Park.   We found a nice clean stone table, and set up a dozen or so candles around us.   We had a fantastic meal of salmon and catfish.   The full stary sky was twinkling overhead, and we could hear the gentle roar of the ocean next to us.   There was a cool night breeze all around us, and it was so peacefully quiet, compared to a noisy restaurant.  It was a mere fraction of the cost of what I would have paid at a fancy fine dining restaurant, yet infinitely more intimate.   It may be the single most romantic Valentine's Day dinner I have ever had. 

Even if you're a little high school student, and can't afford to go to a chic restaurant, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy really innovative haute cuisine in Hawaii.  With the continuing evolution of plate lunch, it's completely logical for it to adopt the unique flavors of the star chefs of Hawaii regional cuisine as well.   It is just another facet in the collidescope of cultures that defines the plate lunch.

1 comment: