Hawaiian Barbecue

From Local Food to a Global Phenomenon

Loco Moco
Loco Moco. Sabrina S. Baksh/Regarding BBQ, Inc.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a dramatic change in the way Americans lived and worked. Leaving the country for the city, from the farm to the factory, people's lives changed and so did the way we ate. By the 1920s lunch counters and diners began spreading across the country and Hawaii, not then yet a state, was no different. These early restaurants served simple and traditional dishes that today we tend to label as comfort food. Of course, in Hawaii, everything took a unique turn.

At the center of the Pacific crossroads, Hawaii has one of the most diverse populations in the United States and a unique collection of both indigenous and imported agricultural products that is constantly changing and expanding. Once, one of the largest pineapple producers in the world, Hawaii is now home to a wide range of farming and ranching concerns giving it access to all kinds of ingredients as well as cooking traditions. 

The diners and lunch counters in the Hawaii of the 1920s and 30s offered both traditional American dishes as well as Asian and indigenous Hawaiian foods. This diverse blend of offerings became commonly know as local food and has remained a mainstay of the diets of the people who actually live in the state (as opposed to the millions of tourists). Here can be found variations of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hawaiian, American, and many more culinary traditions. Katsu Chicken would be served next to Kalua Pork, Fried Shrimp, and Hamburgers. 

By the 1990s, the popularity of Local Food had produced chains of drive-ins and fast casual restaurants and the opportunity to spread beyond the islands. Started in 1976 by Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores, Jr., L & L Drive-In had spread successfully across the islands and in 1999 was ready to move to the mainland. Hitting California with their unique lunch plates, L & L Drive-In became L & L Hawaiian Barbecue.

Of course, this restaurant doesn't serve barbecue in the traditional sense. Two scoops of rice and one of pasta salad on a plate with a hot entree that was neither smoked or generally grilled don't fit what the world now knows as barbecue, but the franchises spread and spawned a number of imitators, making Hawaiian "Barbecue" a phenomenon in the restaurant world. L & L alone has more than 150 locations, Ono Hawaiian BBQ recently passed 50 locations, and the dozen other chains comprise at least that many.

These restaurants have many items to choose from and there is variation from chain to chain. My personal favorite is the Loco Moco. This plate consists to the rice and pasta salad with a burger patty covered in brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. It makes a great breakfast for those mornings after, well, you know. You will generally also find Kalua Pork, slow roasted pork wrapped in a taro leaf, spam sushi, and the very popular Katsu Chicken, which is a bread chicken breast serves with a Japanese style katsu sauce. 

Regardless of what you think of the barbecue in the name, this is great food, great comfort food, served in large portions for a great price and if it isn't available in your town, it probably will be soon. Hawaiian Barbecue has recently begun to spread beyond the United States and promises to continue to grow in popularity and availability.