Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gravy Crazy

Anything with an egg on it instantly makes it breakfast right?    Even if you feel like eating something as substantial as a steak or a country fried steak, all you have too do is add an egg to it, and you've suddenly got a viable breakfast option.  Steak and eggs.  Country fried steak and eggs.   Hamburger steak and eggs.   That last one was so popular in Hawaii, that it grew into a famous dish in its own right, the loco moco. 

Just how did something ridiculously drowned in gravy come to be a viable breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) option?   Simple.  Financial scarcity.  As I've mentioned before, times were tough in the old days.   Both my dad and my wife's dad would recall how you were lucky to be able to afford just a small piece of meat, and that small piece would need to be shared with your whole family.   Making gravy out of it, was a way of making it last longer.   Even if you weren't able to have a lot of real meat, you could at least have the taste of it with your rice.   My dad often recalls (with some surprising fondness) his childhood days, where he would wander into the school cafeteria and order just a rice ball covered with gravy for a snack.   Lean times meant that gravy became engrained into culture, even when times got better and meat got more affordable. 

Nowdays, people look upon gravy laden dishes with understandable disdain.  Even I don't need my sister to tell me that that much gravy is unhealthy for you.   Just looking at it is enough to send your arteries whimpering away in fear.  But like everything, an occasional indulgence won't kill you.   It does taste sinfully good after all, the whole reason it's so popular in the first place.  As a local boy, I can't help but have a sentimental fondness for the gravy drenched goodness. 

When I was away at grad school on the mainland, my friend Sean and I decided to skip school and spend a week at Comdex, at one time the biggest computer convention in the world.   It was so huge that it took up 4 convention sites in Las Vegas for a week.   Imagine the entire Blaisdell, the Convention Center, the University of Hawaii , and the Hilton Hawaiian Village all running the same expo for a week, and you've got roughly the size of what Comdex was.   We were there in my 3rd month away from home, so naturally I was starting to get a little homesick.   Luckily, we were in Las Vegas, also known as the 9th Hawaiian island for the frequency with which local people visit.   So I dragged my friend to the bastion of Hawaii people in Vegas, the California Hotel & Casino.  There, I introduced him to the wonders of the plate lunch and specifically the loco moco.  Being from Taiwan, he was always dismayed with the meat & potatoes cuisine on the mainland.  It took him a long time to become accustomed to having that much potato on the menu, and he never really developed a fondness for it.   So when he tried the rice based loco moco for the first time, he was instantly enamored.

Naturally, when Sean came to visit the islands, I had to take him to have a true loco moco from one of our local hot spots.    We visited a number of places, but the one he liked the best, was probably my favorite plate lunch place in the world, Regal Diner.   The long time resident of McCully Shopping Center, gave me quite a scare a while ago, as I was walking to their location at the far Ewa end of the strip and discovered a vacant space with a "for rent" sign.   I was instantly and completely dismayed.  My favorite little plate lunch place was gone??   With all of the local places that we've lost recently, I was devastated to lose another favorite.   I wandered down the strip heartbroken and hungry, only to find that they weren't closed, but had moved to a new, bigger, much prettier location on the other end next to 7-Eleven (where Coldstone used to be).  Overjoyed and relived, I hurriedly ordered a loco moco and sat down to enjoy my lunch.

Loco Moco at Regal Diner
I really have to concur with Sean that Regal Diner has the best loco moco on the island.  His reason for liking it was because of their seasoning.  He said that somehow they had a more Oriental flavor to him than other places I took him too (which makes sense considering that I always speak to the owner behind the counter in Cantonese).   I kind of knew what he was talking about, as the gravy in their loco moco is somewhat lighter and has a subtle sesame oil flavor to it.  I had also taken Sean to Karen's Kitchen, but while huge, their loco moco was somehow heavier and not as flavorful.  Besides the gravy, Regal Diner uses some of the best hamburger patties anywhere.  Their meat tastes like real, quality beef.  Unlike other places that have a lot of filler in their patties.  I loved Masu's Massive Plate Lunch, but while their Hawaiian food was da bomb, their hamburger steak was probably the worst in terms of over breading.   Also, just because a loco moco is covered in gravy doesn't mean that the hamburger can't be dry.   I once orderd a loco moco at UH, that had a couple of really small dry burgers, a dry overcooked egg, dry hard rice, and the tasteless gravy couldn't make up for it.   Regal's hamburger on the other hand is always very meaty and very juicy.   Add to that an egg that is so perfectly fried that its got just a touch of brown crispiness to it, a yolk that is cooked just enough that it isn't runny but thick, sticky, yummy goo, and absolutely no air to give it any unwanted fluff.   Then lay that on some nice soft rice, and you've got a perfect classic loco moco.

Ahi Loco Moco at Sugoi
These days, people have been trying a lot of variation to the classic loco moco too.   Sugoi, in City Square (where the old Gem used to be), has a really great ahi loco moco.  Sugoi offers brown rice and tossed salad with all of their dishes, but honestly, we're talking about the loco moco here.  The infantesimal health benefit that you would gain is completely pointless, so you might ast well just enjoy yourself.  But their ahi is perfectly cooked.   It's a very thick and moist fillet, and even beneath all of that gravy you can taste the ahi flavor.  I'm no sure it is the batter around the fish or the gravy, but there is also a hint of sweetness to it as well.

For the true, authentic, quintessential loco moco however, you must travel to the island of its birth, the Big Island of Hawaii.  It is long debated whether Lincoln Grill or Cafe 100 were originators of the loco moco.   With Lincoln Grill long gone, Cafe 100 certainly has no real competition to the claim, and they are now the de facto place for a loco moco in Hilo.  Named after the famed 100th Battalion, one of the most decorated units in World War II, Cafe 100 certainly has a huge menu of variations on the classic loco moco.  The one to get is of course the "Super" loco moco, as it has all of the classic loco moco components, plus spam and Portuguese sausage.  Now there's a breakfast that will just put you back to sleep after eating it.  Getting a loco moco at Cafe 100 is also decidedly cheaper than getting one here on Oahu, as they are generally under $5.  

For all of its fame however, I didn't really think that Cafe 100 was the most flavorful loco moco.  They were good yes, but honestly I think I preferred the loco moco at Regal Diner better.   A little disillusioned, I asked my friends at the Hilo PD for their recommendations.  Figuring that cops always know the best places, cheapest, most local places to eat, I expressed my dissatisfaction to them, and they directed me to a little hole in the wall called Koji's Bento Korner.   They said that Koji's was by far much more flavorful, and the hamburger much more high quality.  Naturally, they were right.  The Koji Loco was super flavorful.  Koji's makes a fantastic, fresh, hand made burger patty with premium meat.  On top of that, it's a teri burger, so the teriyaki flavor blends with their gravy making it extra tasty.   Add some crisp Portuguese sausage, some kim chee, and wow, that thing was ono.

You just can't run out and grab a loco moco all that frequently, but when I do I can appreciate my dad's affinity for good gravy and rice.   The poor man's answer to leaner times endures even in the best of them.


  1. cafe 100 was always "ok", but nevah supah ono....back in hannahbattah days, blaines or k's drive in was da place to go ( in Hilo anyways )

  2. ok, i'm not going to knock the loco moco, even though it's horrible for you. it's still very yummy. i'm just saying that when you eat the "occasional" one, your "occasional" times should perhaps be longer apart.

    on the other hand, coming up on Thanksgiving, it's actually a really good way to have leftovers. Here, I made this up the day after my last thanksgiving:
    It doesn't have to be vegetarian, you could put the leftover turkey on top of the fried mashed potato pancake. i just didn't have leftover turkey. you could probably even mix it up w/ leftover stuffing, form a pattie, and make bubble and squeak: . Then put the egg and gravy on top of that. either way, it's a good way to get rid of leftovers.

  3. Justin, what do you think of Rainbow Drive In's Loco Moco? I don't care for their gravy at all, which tastes like a mixture of brown gravy with Chili.. yes chili. I thought I was imagining things, but after a second try, I knew that was how they served it.

    Once you said that Regal Diner's loco moco gravy was light and had a little sesame oil in it, I was immediately turned off, but of course I'll have to try it before knocking it.

    Speaking of "fillers" to stretch meat, that's probably why folks used to add bread crumbs into ground beef to make hamburgers. You could double or triple it's volume that way, and it still tastes decently "beefy". Nowadays many plate lunch joints still do that, not so much to stretch it, but just because folks like that breadcrumb texture in their beef patties. I believe to make a hamburger steak plate properly, the patty SHOULD HAVE breadcrumbs in it.