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Feb 21, 2018

The (Re) Mixed Plate

Let's take a look at the seemingly humble plate lunch. Ubiquitous in Hawaii, it could be argued that the plate lunch is as iconic to our collective identity as surfing and hula.

As beautifully diverse as our own culture, navigating your way through a plate lunch can feel like taking a culinary tour around the world: steamed short-grain rice heaped next to chicken katsu and beef stew or Korean-style fried chicken or chow mein—the global combinations that deliciously present themselves here are endless. From the hungry plantation workers of old to the ravenous longshoremen of the early 19th century to the modern-day reinvention at the hands of Chef Russel Sui at Kaka'ako Kitchen, the history of this dynamic meal has proven to be an ever-evolving mixed plate.

At its essence, boiled down to its marrow, the plate lunch traces its lineage back to the mid- to late-19th century plantation workers. As immigrants of Asia, China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines poured into the islands to work the fields, a new culinary identity that melded the best of each of these cuisines was born. However, it wasn't until the 1920s that the plate lunch as we know it today came to be. Under the hand of a young woman named Moyo Iwamoto, who sold her mixed plates at Honolulu Harbor, a new chapter in the state's culinary history would unfold.

"For 50 cents, hungry dockworkers and other customers could buy an eight-inch paper plate piled high with rice, a vegetable, macaroni salad, kimchee or takuan pickles and a main entrée," wrote Honolulu Magazine in their quest to uncover the first plate lunch. "Entrées included beef stew, beef tomato, butterfish, chop steak, pig's feet, chicken long rice, pork chops, ham hocks and saimin."

While there are few of us who don't crave the occasional traditional gut-busting plate lunch, it can't be denied that the quintessential local meal has evolved to suit our ever-changing palettes. Take Kaka'ako Kitchen, right here at Ward Village, as an example. For more than two decades this iconic eatery has attracted droves of famished patrons craving their gourmet take on the traditional plate lunch.

The restaurant's founder, Chef Russell Siu or "Chef Rus," first gained recognition after opening 3660 on the Rise in Kaimukī in 1992. His second restaurant, Kaka'ako Kitchen, would serve as his personal project. Having first opened their doors more than 20 years ago, Kaka'ako Kitchen made a monumental impact on Hawai'i's culinary scene by becoming one of the first restaurants to serve high-quality food at approachable prices, essentially reinventing the plate lunch and marking another evolution for this age-old staple.

Chef Rus' unique menu was one of the first to offer a brown rice option and elevated options like mahi mahi with a lemon ginger beurre blanc instead of the common tartar sauce. It was one of the first establishments that allowed you to take away modern restaurant-quality food in that oh-so familiar Styrofoam shell. As hungry customers converged in droves upon Kaka'ako Kitchen, Chef Rus carved his menu into stone, creating stalwart dishes like seared-ahi chopped salad with a sesame soy dressing. The dish perfectly balances salty, sweet, and nutty flavors. And of course, despite its elegance, this gourmet plate lunch can be taken conveniently away to enjoy on the beach or wherever you please.

As one of the most ethnically diverse states in the country, it's perhaps unsurprising that our collective tastes have manifested in the humble plate lunch. By including elements of Japanese, Korean, Philippine, and American cuisine all on a simple paper plate, we've created culinary magic. And that's a very beautiful thing.

Now who's hungry? We know the perfect place for a gourmet plate lunch.

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Kaka‘ako Kitchen

1200 Ala Moana Blvd

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