Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Purist Plate Lunches

You can't talk about local food without at least mentioning L&L.    Ignoring that elephant in the room, is like talking about American fast food and leaving out McDonald's.   It's just not possible.  L&L has become so prolific that they are starting to represent Hawaiian food to the rest of the country, the way that KFC is like the first gateway into Southern food for many people.   The big question is, are they an accurate representative?

You can't deny the success of L&L.   L&Ls not only dot our entire landscape, but they are spreading like locusts all over the mainland as well.   There are almost 300 L&Ls around the world, and that number is still rapidly growing.   I really can't say anything bad about L&L.   L&L Founder Eddie Flores, is not only one of the 2 most successful and brilliant businessmen I've ever met (the other being Victor Lim who was recongized by McDonald's corporate as one of the top McDonald's executives in the world), but Eddie is also a family friend and long time business associate.   I'm told that Eddie was even one of the first people to come visit me when I was born. We also went on a long tour of China with Johnson Kam, L&L's other founder.  So I really can't dispute how successful they are or how much impact they've had on our community.  However, I will say, that not all L&Ls are created equal.   Some are definitely better, more authentic, more local, and better tasting than others.

Back when we were in high school, L&Ls were far less prolific than they are now, and I used to keep a mental map of all L&L locations so we could quickly find the nearest one.   Hanging around UH?   Well, you can quickly duck into a secret L&L location, hidden in the parking lot behind Magoo's Pizza in Puck's Alley (actually the 2nd L&L ever).   Leaving Ala Moana?  Well turn the corner on Young Street and there was an L&L tucked away in business complex there by Shiseido.  Of course, these days, trying to remember all of the L&L locations is a daunting and pointless task, as they're everywhere you look, even all over the mainland.   Just like McDonald's of Hawaii offering saimin, Portuguese sausage breakfast platters, and the McTeri, at the L&Ls in Texas, you can choose between Hawaiian sides (rice & mac salad) and Texas style sides (like baked beans or corn). 

Back in the old days, each L&L was actually very different.   Many offered very different menu options.   As L&L was the offspring of a Filipino business man and a Chinese business man, some L&Ls offered more Filipino dishes like pork adobo, while other L&Ls offered more Chinese dishes, like lemon chicken or cold ginger chicken.   At some L&Ls the katsu sauce was thicker with a ketchup like consistency and more of a tangy taste (the more original Japanese way), while at others it was as thin as egg yolks with a sweeter taste (the way I actually prefer it).  As L&L expanded. especially to the mainland, they did a lot to standardize and homogenize the franchises.  So the chain is much more consistent now in its offerings.  This actually waters down L&L's street cred a little, as they are seen as trying to appeal to the mainstream populace a little too much.  But even with their mass standardization, they are still my favorite place to get at chicken katsu, and there are still some L&Ls that are slightly better than the others.

My wife used to work near Sand Island, and occasionally I would pick her up and take her to lunch.  When craving a good chicken katsu, we would head over to the L&L in Dillingham Plaza, behind Sizzler, by the Foodland and Pricebusters.   That L&L has all of the signs of a good L&L.   For one thing, it's not in a mall or shopping center.   The patrons are all working class, local people from Kalihi.  It's clean, but not too clean, modern, or new looking (it's got that worn out shoe look).   Best of all, it's a great sign when after placing your order, the girl behind the counter yells to the back in Cantonese "yut goh dai katsu, yut goh sai see-tiu!!".   Those are all the signs of a good plate lunch to come.

Chicken Katsu & Beef Stew Mix from L&L
The 2 dishes that I like best about L&L in general are their chicken katsu and their beef stew.   Let's face it, chicken katsu is pretty hard to screw up.   At worst, they can skimp on the chicken and you get lot of hard batter, or the batter isn't crunchy.    But the chicken katsu at this L&L is always good.  Meaty, lean pieces of chicken, and crunchy batter, and the katsu sauce is the thinner, sweeter one that I really like.   Beef stew on the other hand is easy to get wrong.   If you don't stew it long enough, the big cubes of beef can quite easily be tough and unchewable.   You could also easily get a plate with very few pieces of beef and just a lotta stew. But the one at this L&L, the meat is always quite tender, and you get a lot of beef, potatoes, celery and carrots.   The stew at L&L isn't nearly as good as the classic old Hawaiian style stew you get at Fresh Catch, but they are pretty much the gold standard, the benchmark, for modern local style beef stew, the kind with the thicker, red-orange gravy.  Some places that make this kind of stew, make it with too much tartness from the tomatoes, but at this L&L, it isn't tart at all, in fact the sweetness of the carrots shines through.

Cold Ginger Chicken from L&L
The other great thing about this L&L is that you know it's one of those classic old Chinese L&Ls.  They've still got classic Cantonese dishes like cold ginger chicken (bak cheet gai) on the menu.   In fact, their cold ginger chicken is awesome.  For one thing, it's actually cold.  Just came out of the refrigerator cold in fact.  Which is good because I hate lukewarm ginger chicken.   But unlike coming right out of the refrigerator, the chicken isn't dried out.   It's still plump and moist, and there is a lot of good white meat, not just all bones.   Some places also make the sauce with too much ginger (with big chunks or scraggly ginger hairs still sticking out).  This sauce is the perfect balance of oil, ginger, and green onion, all of which are very finely minced.   They've also got classic lemon chicken on the menu, however at other L&Ls they've reduced this great dish to fried chicken with some lemon sauce on the side for dipping (which frankly smells like lemon detergent), instead of the nice post frying, glazing bath the way it's supposed to be done (the way it used to be done at Patti's Chinese Kitchen).  So I just didn't have the heart to order it, for fear of disappointment.   But still, this L&L is much better than some of the other L&Ls I've been to.

While L&L's push for homogenization has lead to better consistency in their offerings, the biggest problem is that they lose out on the individual character and uniqueness that made all of our little plate lunch places so great.   It is the little ones that have the most flavor, because with no other ambiance to speak of, they need it to maintain their customer base.  My friend, Eric, owns a little place called LoCo MoCo Drive Inn.  They make the best deep fried crab puffs in town.   Cruncy little deep fried won tons, with a creamy crab center, they're just totally addictive. 

Pot Roast Pork with Mushroom Gravy from Regal Diner
I have also been very vocal about my favorite little plate lunch place, Regal Diner, in McCully Shopping Center.   In the past I have talked about how they definitvely have the best loco moco on the island, how they have also have an awesome corned beef and cabbage, and how   my dad is especially fond of their special mix with beef curry or beef stew.  What I haven't mentioned how much I like their super tender pot roast pork with mushroom gravy, which is second only to the supreme roast pork that used to be offered by the Kanak Attack lunchwagon.  The pork is so savory, and the mushrooms are so packed with intense mushroom flavor which bleeds into the gravy as well.  Their signature Regal Special mixed plate even has mussels and deep fried squid rings.   What other plate lunch place offers mussels or calamari on their mixed plates??    In fact, there is very little on their menu that I don't like, and after merging with Island Manapua Factory, they have even more good stuff to offer!

Honey Garlic Chicken & Fried Rice from Regal Diner
However, for the ultimate, grubby gourmet, greasy spoon, grungy, dingy, local dive experience, you have to go to a little place my dad found called, Kevin's Drive In.  The main location is in Kalihi, on King Street, one block from Gulick (next door to Ray's Cafe).  They also had one in the Chinese Cultural Plaza, right next to Nuuanu Stream, but while retaining the same menu, they changed the name to Kent's Drive Inn.   In fact, my dad used to frequent the one in Chinatown so much, that they used to call him "Ah Sook" (or "Uncle").  Whether you go to Kevin's or Kent's, you will get the real local plate lunches, that are unabashedly oily, salty, artery clogging, and super delicious.   My dad would go there to get the chili dog plate so often, that the girl behind the counter would know his order before he ordered it.  But the two items on the menu that to me that really capture how tasty they are, are the chicken steak fried rice and their pork cutlet.  

Pork Cutlet from Kevin's Drive In
Their fried rice is some of the best greasy spoon fried rice you'll ever have.  It's just filled with little bits of char siu, egg, and shrimp, and it's not afraid to be a little oily (it is fried after all).  Layer on top of that some beautiful pieces of chicken, that have the full on shoyu and oil taste.  It is the kind of chicken that L&L has made famous as Hawaiian barbecue on the mainland, but this is the real deal.  This awesome dish is only topped by their even more awesome pork cutlet.   Even though its battered and fried, the pork is still moist and tender inside.   Their salt and pepper batter is, well really salty.  And peppery.   It's not excessively salty that it's overwhelming and you can't swallow it, but it's not afraid to use enough salt to bring out the full pork flavor.   Then it's drowned in fantastic brown gravy, that you know they made themselves, because it has that oily, fresh from the frying pan quality.   Mmm, oily and salty, and so so good.  Face it, if you're going to have a plate lunch, you might as well go all the way to the dark side.

L&L has done a fantastic job of giving the plate lunch, more nationwide recognition.   But it is the little places, with their individual character and uniqueness that made the plate lunch so special to begin with.  That is the culinary heritage we need to enjoy and preserve.

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