To be sure, Kilohana Grill in San Ramon is decorated with a few pictures of tropical flowers, beach scenes, and a panoramic photograph of Honolulu. But that's just for the haole. The real Hawaiians flock to Kilohana Grill for the plate lunch.
Plate lunch is to Hawaii as Mickey D's is to the mainland. It's a multiculti fat fest that combines the food of every group of immigrants to the islands -- Polynesian pit-roasted pork, Portuguese sausage, Korean kalbi, Japanese katsu, Filipino adobo -- and of course, white America's contributions to gastronomy: macaroni, mayonnaise, and Spam. The myth that Hawaiians tell is that the plate lunch dates back to the time when all these immigrants worked together in the fields and shared their midday meals with one another. A century later, Hawaii has ended up with a tradition of fast food whose Asian-fusion pedigree far outclasses Wolfgang Puck's Peking duck pizzas.
What makes a plate lunch a plate lunch isn't the teriyaki, adobo, or sweet and sour. It's the sides: two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. Each is formed with an ice-cream scoop and plopped on the plate, so your entrée is surrounded by three baseball-size rounds of starch.
Catering to Californian tastes, one-year-old Kilohana offers you the choice of a green salad -- iceberg lettuce and Japanese-style Thousand Island dressing -- instead of mac salad. However, don't let your burgeoning distaste for carbohydrates scare you away from Kilohana's macaroni (they call it potato) salad. The rice may be on the mushy side, but the salad is one of the best I've tasted at a Hawaiian restaurant, with chewy wheat noodles, boiled potatoes, peas, carrots, and scallions in a thick mustardy mayonnaise with a little bite.
According to my dinner guests, who all had lived in Hawaii or spent considerable time there, Kilohana Grill has almost everything a plate lunch place should. Hawaiian chili? Check. Saimin noodle soup? Check. Owner Myron Kashima has even set up the restaurant Hawaiian-style -- that is, you pay for it at the counter and fetch your own plastic cutlery. In a small alcove to the side, Kilohana Grill sells Hawaiian tourist memorabilia and "seed," also known as "crack seed," which are Asian-style salted seeds, dried fruits, candy, and dried cuttlefish. And though it may look like just another strip-mall joint on the outside, Kilohana is clean, awfully friendly, and authentic where it counts.
Almost all the entrées that accompany your three scoops o' starch passed muster with both my native informants and me. The barbecue beef, a frilly mass of thinly shaved beef that had been coated in a soy marinade and grilled until it charred around the edges, was good, salty fun. So was the "island fried chicken," known on the island (and in Japan) as chicken katsu. A deboned chicken thigh encased in a thin layer of Japanese-style breadcrumbs came out of the deep fryer oillessly crisp and tender inside. There wasn't anything complicated about the grilled Portuguese sausage with a sunny-side egg on top, but the garlicky sausage had some oomph to it and the cooks knew how to fry an egg.
Vegetarians are going to have a rough time eating at Kilohana, and the management acknowledges the problem. You could take the teriyaki chicken off the chicken salad, leaving iceberg lettuce, mandarin oranges, and fried wonton strips in a slightly anemic sesame-oil vinaigrette, but you'd be removing the best part. Or you could order the saimin -- ramen noodles in a salty fish-stock broth -- without the fish cake, chicken, or Spam, but that wouldn't leave you with much. Might as well give in and order the sautéed mahimahi filet, accompanied by a small bowl of a lightly sweet, vinegary pineapple salsa that packs a bit of a kick.
There's a reason the restaurant fills up on Saturday afternoons with nostalgia-filled Islanders: Kilohana's weekend "luau specials" make a trip to San Ramon worthwhile; Kashima says folks come in from Vacaville, Modesto, and San Jose for a taste. You can get them all on a luau plate -- the lau lau, the kalua pork, and the lomi salmon. The cooks may not heat up rocks to toss into an imu (pit) they've dug out back, but the tender, shredded oven-roasted meat has that kind of meatiness only slow-cooking can coax out of it. As flavorful as freshly made carnitas, only moister.
For the lau lau plate, the cooks wrap fatty hunks of pork and fish in taro leaves and steam them until all the grease melts out of the meat and the leaves stew down into a black mush. The taro leaves have that earthy mineral-vegetable taste found in collard greens and kale. Every bite of the lau lau set off body waves of nostalgia in my companion. "Just smelling it I feel like I'm on the beach," he said.
With your luau plate you also get lomi salad, a sort of salsa of chopped tomato and raw salmon, which brings a bit of brightness to your pork and lau lau, along with a slight fishiness that islanders appreciate. For an extra three bucks, you can also buy a small tub of poi.
The woman at the counter tried to discourage us from ordering the poi: "I only like it with lots of sugar, maybe some cream."
The guy next to us spoke up: "Yeah, put in lots of sugar."
With that endorsement from the regulars, how could I not dig in? Every culture has some sort of stinky fermented dish that only insiders like -- I think it's part of the code of ethnic identity. But is poi any different from slimy, odorous Japanese natto (fermented soybeans), or British Cheddar so potent that one sniff will make your warts drop off? And do you know anyone but a Midwesterner who'd dip her spoon into a lime Jell-O salad with shredded onions, celery, and canned orange segments?
Kilohana's poi is grayish-purple and cold and has the texture of thick yogurt. Don't ask me why I know this, but it tastes a lot like Rejuvelac, the live-culture enzyme drink: sour, almost yeasty, but not stinky. Overall, I found it neither unpleasant nor pleasant. And sugar does not make it taste better.
The restaurant also serves another infamous Hawaiian dish. No, not fried Spam (which they have) or Spam sushi (which they don't) -- I'm talking about Loco Moco. One hamburger patty, grilled. Two fried eggs, sunny-side up. And brown gravy. Lots of it, soaking into a big mound of rice. One forkful, and I resigned myself to forever being an outsider: It's the kind of food only a native could love.