I love Hawaii. Last spring, I treated myself to a vacation on the Big Island and want nothing more than to go back. Forever. It's hard to pinpoint exactly where all this affection comes from—the slower pace, fresh fruit, and hot beaches have something to do with it. But from the moment I stepped off the plane in Hilo, everything and everyone seemed oddly familiar. It makes sense, I remember thinking to myself at the time, I'm still in America. I was amazed when the realization later hit me: I've never been to another state in the union where most people actually look like me.
Hawaii is brown-people paradise, populated with Polynesians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Portuguese—and, appropriately, Hawaiian food reflects this mixture of people. While Hawaiian food incorporates all of these cuisines, it's far from fusion. A Hawaiian menu is typically vast and somewhat disorienting, listing many dishes from different countries under their original name and in mostly original form (tonkatsu, adobo, gyoza, kimchi), side by side. Spam is heavily represented. What brings these divergent elements together is something decidedly American—macaroni salad. The cultural mishmash of Hawaiian food fills my heart and soul up as much as my stomach. And make no mistake: A Hawaiian plate lunch—one consistently enormous serving of protein, two scoops of rice, one scoop of macaroni salad—never fails to fill.
There's no shortage of Hawaiian restaurants in Seattle—Hawaiian Barbecue Restaurant in the University District, Kona Kitchen in Wedgwood, Aloha Plates in the International District, Kauai Family Restaurant in Georgetown, Northshore BBQ in Greenwood, to name a few. After talking to friends from Hawaii, reading countless online reviews, and eating at most places, I discovered that most of the Hawaiian restaurants in the area are worth checking out for one meal, but beyond that, opinions vary wildly and are highly personal. (Some people are willing to overlook mediocre barbecue for superior mac salad; some people insist their restaurant of choice is the only one that makes proper Huli Huli chicken.) I also discovered that, tragically, my favorite Hawaiian places are located far, far away from my house.
Last month, when Northshore BBQ opened a second location at the intersection of 12th Avenue, Boren Avenue, and Yesler Way, I made a beeline for the place. While thrilled by the prospect of having Hawaiian food within quick walking distance, I remained cautious because I have always believed that the odd triangle lot, formerly home to the doomed Lloyd's Rocket, is cursed. Sadly, my visit did not allay these fears. Northshore has painted the walls bright orange and thrown festive-looking surf boards up on the wall, but it doesn't make up for the ice-cold breeze that blows through the building and the pervasive feeling of impermanence. Kalua pork with cabbage ($7.99), while decently flavored and moist, did not even remotely resemble the traditional dish in which an entire pig is wrapped in ti leaves and roasted in an underground pit. Instead, it was obviously boiled and stringy, not quite worthy of its name. The macaroni in the mac salad was overcooked and mushy, and desperately needed a few shakes of salt and pepper. Loco Moco ($6.99)—scoops of white rice, a hamburger patty, and a fried egg all covered in brown gravy—was also fine, the gravy was a bit bland, and the hamburger patty gristly. Northshore's food is entirely serviceable and will do in a pinch, but it's well worth the trek to other Hawaiian joints for a truly satisfying meal.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue is a popular fast-food chain that's branched out into the mainland, and now has over 200 locations, including three in the Pacific Northwest. Its tiny location in Renton, tucked away in the far end of a strip mall behind an Arby's, is a hidden gem. L&L may be fast food, but everything is fresh and made to order, and the portions are massive. A barbecue mix plate ($8.95) contains three mountains of what is essentially teriyaki sliced beef, short ribs, and chicken breast, perfectly grilled, a little charred and smoky, but still moist. Soul-draining trips to Ikea should be rewarded with a visit to L&L.
The best Hawaiian food around, hands down, can be found at Kauai Family Restaurant in Georgetown. I routinely dream about Kauai's kalua pig with cabbage ($8.25)—a dense pile of moist, silky, and delicate shreds of smoky pork. You can taste the time it takes for the meat to cook down and grow so rich and delicious. The accompanying cabbage is soft and sweet, but still retains its crunch and bite. Kauai's Loco Moco ($5.50) is my favorite, go-to comfort dish in town. The hamburger patty is salty and sweet (do I detect some Lipton Onion Soup Mix in there?), thick and hand-formed, and grilled to perfection. It's served in a bowl, atop a mountain of white rice and beneath a runny fried egg, and swimming in a brown gravy that's got more peppery depth than any other I've tasted. As the name suggests, the beauty of Kauai Family's food comes from the fact that it's real, home-style cooking. This is the kind of food family members gather together and spend a whole day cooking for themselves—and the feeling of community and comfort extends from Kauai's kitchen to the restaurant's tables.
Standing up after a plate lunch of kalua pig and cabbage at Kauai Family Restaurant, making my way to the front register to pay, I always feel as though my stomach has expanded—only slightly, but perhaps permanently. I am more ready to lie down than make the drive home. On my last trip, the sweet woman running the register asked me how my meal was. "Delicious," I replied. "Although now I'm a little bit sleepy." "Good," she said, patting my hand and smiling. "That's the way it's supposed to be."