Friday, December 18, 2009

Legendary Lunchwagons

I grew up visiting my dad's favorite lunchwagons and hole in the wall restaurants.   As a State worker, he was somehow always privy to all of the best little eateries and greasy spoons in town.  I was indoctrinated into the history and legacy of the lunchwagons, how they evolved from worker's lunches during the plantation days, to become some of Hawaii's best eats available only when they magically appeared.   My dad shared with me some of the best places in town, like my beloved Kanda Lunchwagon at the pier at Kewalo Basin, my favorite lunchwagon of all time, and they became some of the fondest memories of my youth.   So when I started working full time on my own, I really wanted to explore and find some of my own places.   Maybe even return the favor and take my dad to some really awesome little places that he'd never been to.

My very first day on my first (full time) job, I was just getting to know my co-workers and get oriented in my new company.  So when they decided that it was about time to grab some lunch, I followed along like a little lost sheep, trying to make friends.   Fatefully, they brought me to what I would consider one of the greatest lunchwagons of all time, second only to the Kanda Lunchwagon at the pier.   It was the Kanak Attack lunchwagon, parked in the back of a nondescript parking lot, adjacent to a strip club on Kona Street.  Now, I had seen Kanak Attack before, driving past the restaurant they used to have on Kapahulu Ave., but I had never visited them or known that they had a lunchwagon.  Naturally, I was quite excited to be trying a new lunchwagon that I had never heard of before.  Everyone ordered mini-plates, but as it was my first time and I was curious I ordered the full size, and I quickly figured out why everyone ordered mini's.  I ordered a hot turkey sandwich, and the plate was just plain huge.   Not only were there about 4 slices of bread, but a good 2 lbs of turkey, and it was stuffed with mashed potatoes and stuffing, and covered with perfect turkey gravy, with even some cranberry sauce on the side.   In Hawaii, we've got an expression, "Local boys don't eat til they're full, they eat til they fall asleep."   The ensuing nap that follows is referred to as a "kanak attack", and the lunch from this little lunchwagon was quickly living up to its namesake.   It wasn't just huge either, the turkey was just about the best turkey that I had ever gotten from a restaurant.  Of course it didn't compare to my mom's Thanksgiving turkey, but it was real slices of turkey breast, and not the pressed turkey that you normally get from a diner (like Kenny's or Like Like), and it was really tasty.

The Kanak Attack lunchwagon quickly became my favorite place to go for lunch.  Not only were their portions huge, but they were really cheap.  They remain, to this day, the only place I ever found you could get a full plate lunch for about $5 + no tax (and a mini plate for $3.50).   Often their plates were so huge, I would eat half one day, and save the other half for the next day, making them even more economical.  This of course made a huge difference for a newlywed, living on his own budget for the first time.  I quickly became a regular there.  The food there was awesome.   They were the only place I knew of that even put tuna in their potato salad, making it much more of a real side dish, than a cheap filler.   The lunchwagon had a different menu every single day, and you needed to pick up one of their printed menus for the month, to plan ahead what you're going to order.   You had to be quick, because often the best stuff would be sold out by noon.   Fridays were always Hawaiian food days.   But my favorite days were Tuesdays.   In addition to their other specials, Tuesdays would regularly feature my two favorite dishes from the lunchwagon, their roast pork, and their braised shortribs.   Their roast pork was thick, credit card sized pieces of  supremely tender pork, swimming in some of the best brown gravy I have ever had at a restaurant.  But it was their braised shortribs that were the ultimate order.   In my life, I can count on one hand the places where I have ever had short ribs that tender, among them the kal bi chim at Sorobol and teri short ribs at Suehiro's.  But while those were more Oriental tasting, Kanak's was more local tasting.  Covered in a different gravy from roast pork, but equally as delicious, I often wonder if I will ever have short ribs like that again.

Kanak's was more than just nourishment for me though, it was like a confidant.  Unfortunately, in my new job, I had a coworker that just totally had it in for me.  He would criticize, with great hostility, every single little thing that I did, to the point that I went home depressed every day.   I really wanted to quit, but as I was a newlywed who really needed to provide for his new family, I desparately tried to tough it out.  Lunch was my only reprieve from his relentless onlaught of degredation and scrutiny, and I would find myself wandering over to Kanak's, picking up a plate and hiding away on some stairs in the back alleys on Kona St.   It was my only moments of quet and solice, enough to give me back some of my composure.  Kanak's was a much needed respite and for that they would always hold a special place in my soul.  Much later, when my son turned 2 years old, I had a big picnic at the zoo for his birthday, and shared my beloved roast pork and braised short ribs with all of my friends and family, and with them some of the warm fuzzies that Kanak's gave me when I so needed it.  Unfortunately, the Kanak Attack lunchwagon has long since closed on Kona St.   They no longer have their Kapahulu location either, but for a while they were serving lunch out of the St. Louis Alumni clubhouse on Isenberg St..   That location has also disappeared, and I am not sure when or where they will magically reappear again, but when they do, I will certainly be one of the first in line.

As time went on in my office, I eventually found a working relationship with my co-worker (largely due to the patience and tolerance that I afforded him, which no one else in the office did).  I began going out to other clients and wandering around town.  This, naturally, gave me more opportunity to continue my quest for little local places.   One of the places I found, was the Tsukenjo's Lunch House on Cooke St.  A little ironically, I became familiar with their actual restaurant, and not the red lunchwagon they were famous for on Ward Ave.  But I quickly came to know what everyone liked about them so much.

Roast Pork from Tsuekenjo's
Their most famous dish is their also their roast pork.   However, unlike Kanak's which featured big tender pieces of pork, Tsukenjo's roast pork is sort of like kalua pig with gravy on it.   Of course, this gives it all of the tenderness and smokey flavor of good kalua pig, with the addition of terrific brown gravy.   It's not quite as good as Kanak's was, but at least they're always there (every day) for you to enjoy.

Shoyu Chicken from Tsukenjo's
Tsukenjo's also makes some terrific shoyu chicken.  Their chicken is smaller than the big pieces of chicken thigh that you normally expect from shoyu chicken.   But the chicken is literally fall off the bone tender.  In fact, it's somewhat difficult keeping it on the bone, as it falls apart at your touch.   But it is infused with a delicious gingery shoyu taste.   The stronger ginger taste makes their shoyu chicken stand out, and show you what's so great about Tsukenjo's.

As I began to do work for more State agencies, I found myself coming full circle, to find places that State workers like my dad, went to eat.   Perhaps the best downtown lunchwagon, is the famous, yellow, Nicky's Lunchwagon & Catering, with 2 locations, right between the State Library and Honolulu Hale, and right next to the King Kamehameha Statue across from Iolani Palace.   This little lunchwagon is where I would go whenever working downtown, and on the right days, I would pick up lunch and head over to the Iolani Palace bandstand to hear the Royal Hawaiian Band play.   Recently, I brought my wife and son downtown for just that experience.

Shoyu Chicken & Chicken Long Rice from Nicky's Lunchwagon
The shoyu chicken I had at Nicky's is more like your traditional shoyu chicken.   The mark of a perfect shoyu chicken is of course how buttery, melt in your mouth, the chicken skin is, and the one at Nicky's is up there with the best of them.   My only complaint was that they didn't put enough of the shoyu sauce over the chicken to keep it moist, and so the rice can soak up all that wonderful shoyu and oil.  But of course, I never asked for them to give it to me that way either.   Conversely, their chicken long rice has a very light, clean taste.  It is almost too bland, and doesn't have enough of the ginger or broth that makes for a good chicken long rice.  In retrospect, I would have gone for just a shoyu chicken plate, rather than the mix, but I'm just compulsive about having a little variety.

Beef Stew from Nicky's Lunchwagon
My wife ordered their beef stew, which was very generous in all of their ingredients.   Lots of tender, if a little fatty, beef.   Lots of big hunks of potato (which she loves).   Lots of tender pieces of stewed celery (which she doesn't, but which I do).   Lots of everything in fact, which is the mark of a good lunchwagon.   Not having a permanent venue, with the overhead of rent, gives the lunchwagons more room to do the food just right, with lots of quality ingredients.  This is exactly what she found in her beef stew.  For my taste though, their stew had a little too much of that tomato tartness.   It didn't compare with the salty, savory, stew from Fresh Catch, but it was tasty nonetheless. 

The lunchwagons are as dear to our culture as hot dog carts are to New Yorkers.   They serve more than just fantastic local cuisine and fantastic value.   They serve the workforce of Hawaii, with the warmth and strength to get through the work day.   They are the hidden jewels in our society that my dad shared with me, and which I was so happy to share back with him in his retirement.

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