At least not the dishes people in my native state would call “Hawaiian.” On the islands, the term is properly used to denote something with roots in pre-contact island society. King Kamehameha was Hawaiian; Bruno Mars and Barack Obama are just locals.
So Hawaiian food means raw ahi or dried aku, luau leaf and poi. Mostly poi. The food mainlanders think of as “Hawaiian” is what we would call “plate lunch.” There’s white rice and/or mac salad with meat, usually pork, teriyaki beef or chicken, or katsu. It’s what you’d eat after going to the beach back in Hawai‘i.
In truth, most plate lunches on the mainland are pretty bad. But WW decided to travel the city looking for the best. We kept it simple, sampling the kalua pig plate at 10 restaurants.
kalua pig is roasted in an underground oven using hot lava rocks. At
its best, it’s juicy and moist, but still stringy. The rice should be
sticky and come off in chunks like cake. The macaroni salad should be
simple, with mayonnaise as the dominant flavor. Here’s what we found.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
4328 SE 82nd Ave., No. 1500, 200-5599, hawaiianbarbecue.com.
I’d lost my faith in kalua pig by the time I walked into this L&L in a Lents strip mall. It only took one bite of the kalua pig plate ($8.75) to bring my entire Hawaiian childhood back to me. It’s tender and juicy, but also firm, with clumps of sinew and pockets of fat. L&L has restaurants in every neighborhood on O‘ahu. It was voted best plate lunch on the island in 2008 by The Honolulu Advertiser. There really is no reason to get plate lunch anywhere else in Portland. ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.
Southwest 9th Avenue and Washington Street, 713-8008, 808grinds.com.
I’ve had Hawaiian on the Big Island, and the kalua pig plate from 808 Grinds’ food cart downtown is the closest thing I’ve had to it here. For $7, you get perfectly seasoned and tender pulled pork—just a little stringy—plus white rice that gets better with a drizzle of semi-sweet soy or tangy teriyaki and a scoop of appropriately unmemorable macaroni salad. The salty, delectably rich slow-roasted meat is heaped generously atop the rice. Lilo and Stitch would be proud. SAVANNAH WASSERMAN.
2454 E Burnside St., 445-6101, ate-oh-ate.com.
Ate-Oh-Ate probably has the most highfalutin culinary pedigree of any of the Hawaiian spots in town; it’s the product of Laurelhurst Market and Simpatica co-owner (and emigrant haole) Ben Dyer. The bare-bones shop is one of the few in town to offer taro-leafed lau lau, not to mention three varieties of housemade kimchee. The generously heaped kalua plate is monotonous by its end even though the pork is tender and smoky and the cabbage, steamed separately, maintains a bit of snap. The basic mac salad makes blessedly liberal use of pepper and something that makes it…orange. Still, think past the merely serviceable plate lunch and make use of a varied menu that includes complex saimin soup, kimchee burgers and a solid beef hekka. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
The Local Grind
Southwest Park Avenue and Montgomery Street, 853-0807, localgrindpdx.com.
Most of the food carts I can remember back in Hawai‘i peer out from under clouds of roadside dust along the North Shore stretch of Kamehameha Highway, where the smell of salt lingers in the air from tradewinds blowing off the Pacific. So, shivering in a Northwest downpour waiting for a food-cart plate lunch feels as jarring and alien as being raised by a mumbling robot nanny with clinical depression. The food itself, at least, carried the comforts of home. The main event, the kalua pig (small $5.50, large $6.50) is competent: tender, a little smoky, and moist, but the tongue can still tell from the intact sinews that it was once part of an animal carcass. It’s served on a bed of white rice that’s still a little starchy, but enhanced immeasurably as the pork’s juices drip down into it. The macaroni salad ($1 extra) has a few bells and whistles (green onions, red onions, carrots) that give it a more nuanced texture. They’re not traditional, but not objectionable either. ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.
6504 SE Foster Road, 477-7224.
The paintings of topless Polynesian women hanging from the east wall of Da’Hui are probably worthy of a master’s thesis on the dual nature of colonialism and sexualization, but the décor, while kitschy, is authentic. There’s a rattan bar and a traditional war helmet hanging between sea turtle shells next to the door. The kalua pig plate ($8.50) is definitely high on the authenticity scale. The meat was soft and mushy, like canned tuna, which is not what you want, but it tasted right, and the texture of the rice was perfect. The macaroni salad, with egg salad and potato chunks, was more elaborate than you’d usually find in the Islands. It all reminded me of something very familiar: the monthly kalua pig plate at my elementary-school cafeteria. ALEX TOMCHAK SCOTT.
505 NW 14th Ave., 459-4040.
Part of an eight-link chain, this Hawaiian Time is located inside a renovated gas station now adorned with hibiscus flowers—as is common on the Islands. The chain offers plate lunches, a few sandwiches and a salad. The restaurant’s take on luau-style pulled pork, the No. 4 kalua pig ($8.45), was moist and tender. The meat comes with white or brown rice (scandal!), plus very creamy mac salad. Soy sauce squirted from reused Sriracha bottles livens things up. Cans of Hawaiian Sun “juice”—it is Hawaiian even if it’s mostly not juice—are available in many flavors. A beachside mural completes the scene for dine-in guests, but like most customers, the construction worker in a neon-pink hoodie boogying in line was taking his to go. LYLA ROWEN.
Ohana Hawaiian Cafe
6320 NE Sandy Blvd., 335-5800, ohanahawaiiancafe.com.
With its wood-and-stone exterior and vaguely Japanese design, Ohana looks like a chic sushi bar from the outside, and if you wind up at the establishment with the same name on Northeast Broadway, that’s what you’ll be eating. Inside, though, the place gives off a touristy Waikiki vibe, all orange hues, framed flower photos, pineapple-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers and a reggaefied cover of “Drift Away” on the stereo. Ohana has a good reputation, but on a recent visit, the kalua pork ($12 for a large, but the $9 regular is more than enough to satisfy) was more soggy than juicy. The mahi-mahi ($14) fared better, but the side of salt-cured salmon mix ($3.50) tasted like pico de gallo lightly seasoned with fish food. On a more positive note: Kona Brewing makes a pretty satisfying pale ale, and it pairs well with the restaurant’s sticky rice and macaroni salad. MATTHEW SINGER.
2201 Lloyd Center, 734-9246.
Ocean Aloha is in Lloyd Center’s food court, right next to McDonald’s Express (for when regular McDonald’s just isn’t fast enough!) and within earshot of the Zamboni. I’m not sure how speedy McDonald’s Express is, but it’s unlikely to operate any faster than Aloha, which hands over a massive kalua pork plate in roughly 25 seconds. A half hog was shredded and cooked with cabbage until it tastes a lot like the porky counterpart to slow-cooker sauerkraut. No sauces are offered or visible, the rice is gummy, and the macaroni salad might as well have come from Safeway. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe
2525 SE Clinton St., 233-5301, nohos.com.
Noho’s is Portland’s swankiest Hawaiian joint, a warm room with wood floors, customized surfboards hanging from the walls and a massive menu that includes stir-fried ahi, short ribs and a three-quarter-pound burger. It’s priced for date night, and the “regular”-sized kalua pork plate is $12 and actually a bit smaller than most. The pork is buttery rich and flavorful even without the house’s bottled teriyaki sauce, but the rice is starchy, and a scoop of macaroni salad has a mayo sauce that’s too thin and sweet. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille
515 SW Carolina St., 977-2771, bghawaiiangrille.com.
The Grove has been a longtime favorite in the oddly foodless Johns Landing corridor, a hibiscus-painted theme restaurant complete with novelty longboards courtesy of Kona beer. But unless the rest of the menu is a damn sight different from the kalua plate—or the Grove’s entered a benighted phase of its existence—“Johns Landing favorite” may be damning with faint praise. The pork was a wet salt lick, otherwise limp in both flavor and texture, and the cabbage had melted into the pork in muculent strands. Meanwhile, the macaroni salad was viscous, flavorless and disconcertingly…biological. The rice was simply dried-out cooker fare. Which is to say: I enjoyed the rice the most. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.