When you come to Hawaii, you have to try a plate lunch. Plate lunches are the ubiquitous "blue plate special" in Hawaii. They consist of some kind of protein like breaded chicken or pork cutlet, beef teriyaki, fried mahi mahi, etc., two scoops of white rice and one scoop of Hawaiian style macaroni salad (which is about equal parts macaroni and mayonnaise!). While tasty, filling and relatively inexpensive, usually somewhere around $5, traditionally they are not very healthy and not very fancy. But that's not always the case. In fact, plate lunches can be healthy, and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated.
Many take out places and drive-ins are offering a choice of brown rice and green salad in addition to the standard white rice and mac salad. There are healthier choices of protein as well, even a fast food chain like L & L Drive Inn now offers "Healthy Plate Lunches" with garlic shrimp, garlic ahi or mahi, salmon patties and grilled chicken.
In Honolulu there are chefs with experience cooking at fancier restaurants who own more casual spots that specialize in plate lunches, offering amazingly fine food for the price, though don't expect table service and anything fancy in terms of presentation. Every time I come to Hawaii I seek out these hot spots. Here are three that that I recommend trying:
First off, Kahai Street Kitchen. Located in an industrial part of Kalihi right across the street from my beloved Ethel's Grill, this take out place has only 2 tables so like most customers you'll probably want to pick up your meal and enjoy it elsewhere. Check out the daily specials online. I had the Hong Kong Stuffed Chicken and it was filled with shiitake mushrooms, lup chong or Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, peanuts and sticky rice. It was outstanding, a perfectly balanced dish and a very large portion that I couldn't finnish in one sitting. I ordered it with salad, no rice and it cost $7.75. My only disappointment was in the salad dressing which didn't taste homemade.
Nico's at Pier 38 is located next to the Honolulu Fish Auction building and there is plenty of parking, though like Kahai Street Kitchen you'll need a car to get there. While there is no indoor seating, there are lots of outdoor picnic tables, some with a view of the harbor. My top pick is the Fried Tuna Belly which comes with two large pieces of ahi topped with a special lomi tomato salsa. This portion for $8.40 easily served 2 people. It was excellent and definitely worthy of a sit down restaurant.
Kaka'ako Kitchen also serves up gourmet lunch plates. Tucked away in the back of the Ward Center Shopping center you'll typically find a line of people waiting to order. I particularly like their salads, like the Ahi Chop Salad, with fresh Nalo greens, crunchy noodle strips and rare chunks of seared tuna, but the prices are a bit higher here and the salad is about $11. Baked goods are really good here though frankly portion sizes have drastically shrunk in the past year or so.