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Dishing on the Hawaii Plate Lunch

hawaii dining

Photo Credit: Crystal Yamasaki

Known for its diverse culture, Hawaii is often referred to as an ethnic melting pot. So it’s no surprise that one of the islands’ signature dishes is often referred to by locals as a “mixed plate.”

Dating back to the 1880s, plate lunches originated during Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar plantation era. As plantation workers from different ethnicities came together for a meal it became a common practice to bring a dish to share, often from their homeland. As the concept for picking and choosing the different dishes and serving them together on one plate became more commonplace, the plate lunch was born.

Made popular for its simplicity, variety of choices and affordability, mixed plates or plate lunches are a frequent go-to for many meals. Commonly enjoyed for lunch or dinner, the typical plate lunch can consist of a combination of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and Hawaiian dishes served with two scoops of rice and typically a scoop or two of local style macaroni salad.

Dishes frequently found in a plate lunch can include everything from teriyaki chicken, chicken katsu, garlic chicken, and pork cutlet to chow fun noodles, fried egg, shrimp tempura, and more. You can find them everywhere – from the traditional drive-ins in Kalihi to more formal sit-down restaurants in Waikiki.

If you’re eating up everything we’re saying, here is a list of some of our favorite plate lunch spots:

Highway Inn: Known for their outstanding Hawaiian dishes and family atmosphere Highway Inn is a favorite of locals all over the island. The local establishment has been dishing up authentic Hawaiian dishes for more than 60 years at two locations in Waipahu and Kakaako. Best known for their Hawaiian-style of plate lunch – which is literally served on a cafeteria-style plate – guests can enjoy Hawaiian dishes like lau lau, lomi salmon, pipikaula (smoked meat), and kalua pork.

L&L Drive-Inn: The self-proclaimed “original Hawaiian barbecue” shop – L&L Hawaiian Barbecue or L&L Drive Inn as it is referred to by locals — is still one of the best spots on the island to grab a plate of lunch. Whether you’re coming back from the North Shore or heading up to Koko Head for a hike, L&L Drive Inn is the perfect place to park yourself. Their menu of plate lunches is mixed, offering something for everyone including a Hawaiian Plate with lau lau and kalua pork and cabbage to the Hawaiian BBQ Mix Plate, which comes with barbeque beef, chicken, and short ribs.

Rainbow Drive-In: A short drive outside of Waikiki on Kapahulu Avenue, Rainbow Drive-In is known for driving up the standard of local plate lunches. The hearty plates come overflowing with local comfort food favorites like their ono (delicious) loco moco, chili, fried rice and mixed plates. Featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” and popular amongst both locals and visitors alike, this drive-in is a true pot of gold at the end of a long day at the beach or out exploring Oahu.

Zippy’s: Whether you’re looking to dine in or take out, Zippy’s offers an array of authentic local, bento-style options at fast food prices. They are best known for their original, island interpretation on comforting, simple dishes such as their famous Zippy’s chili and take on plate lunches like their Zip Pac – which comes with rice, a piece of fried chicken, Spam, fish and teri beef. And with more than 24 locations throughout the state you’re sure to zip across a Zippy’s wherever you are.

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