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Plate Lunch on O'ahu: Recommendations and Warnings

Here's a thread to talk about your favorite place lunch places, and maybe even warning about places not to go to. Also, I hope people can talk about new plate lunch places they've checked out.

Yesterday, I went to Koi (on Dillingham, near OCCC) for the second time. I had their bento (a little under $10) which came with steak, garlic ahi and garlic chicken. The steak were cut up into pieces like they do at Time's Supermarket or Blazin' Steaks (but they're a little better I thought). The garlic ahi is basically deep fried in panko with a wasabi cream sauce drizzled on the top (You might want to try and ask for a side dish, although they put just the right amount for me.) Finally, the garlic chicken is in the mold of Mitsuken and Sugoi: very crispy, not very oily.

All in in, it was very tasty and well-prepared. I'd definitely go back. They also serve brown rice here, which I like.

Another place: Kahai Street Kitchen.

I didn't go here recently, but I almost went today as they had some good items on their menu. (You can see their website.) They had a prime rib for under $10, shiso and nori wrapped ahi katsu stuffed with crab ($9), a combo with the ahi kastsu and steak; pork trio (guava bbq ribs, pork chops and polish sausage ($9) and some other stuff. I like this place, but there's only street parking, and they're open only T-F. This is one of the better plate lunch places, imo.

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Kahai Street Kitchen
237 Kalihi St, Honolulu, HI 96819

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  1. What do you guys think about Kahai Street Kitchen? I think they're good, but they have a different menu every day. They're Friday specials look really good, too. I'm not sure if the quality (or the hassle of finding parking) is worth it for out of towners, but if I worked near there, I wouldn't mind eating there on a regular basis.

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    Kahai Street Kitchen
    237 Kalihi St, Honolulu, HI 96819

    1. One of my favorite plate lunches is the Furikake Ahi plate at Nico's - Pier 38. Comes with green salad, and is healthier and tastier than most. Is in the same Kalihi Kai area as previous posts. I think it runs in the $9-10 range.

      3 Replies
      1. re: macaraca

        By the way, 4 Kings Kitchen has just opened next to Kokua Market on King Street in Mo'ili'ili...they are in the former Buffalo Wings place...I walk by there all the time and see they are claiming upscale plate lunch stuff with local ingredients, but a sports bar ambiance which makes me think twice about going in. Has anyone tried it yet?

        1. re: macaraca

          Nope. Let us know how it is if you try it.

          1. re: macaraca

            I just came back from 4 Kings Kitchen in Moili'ili, here is a link to my thoughts on it. I enjoyed it.

            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/764965#

        2. OK, there are a ton of places claiming to be “plate lunch”, but come on... the Pineapple Room at Ala Moana? Goma Ichi Ramen? Sorabol? Libby Manapua? I don’t think so. Great places, each of them, but not “Plate Lunch.” I’m not gonna limit my replies to places that give you a white cardboard box and wooden chopsticks, because a lot of places don’t do that any more. But if you can’t get a couple of scoops of rice and a scoop of macaroni salad, it’s not plate lunch. I’m also excluding places that are mostly Okazuya, that’s a whole different family. Also places that are primarily table service diners (Big City, Like Like, Jake’s hideaway), again not bad places, just not ‘plate lunch’.

          No doubt I have left out some important places. After all, I do eat other kinds of food.

          PLATE LUNCH - CHAINS

          Ziippy’s: The ‘big brother’ of the plate lunch business. Not the best, far from the worst, reasonable but not generous portions, a little on the expensive side, but very reliable. Best known for their fried chicken (no longer broasted), their chili frank plate, and the infamous chili spaghetti with garlic bread and rice. They generally do a really good job on the fresh fish special of the day, and following up with a look in the bakery case makes up for a lot. The specials are usually good. A bit outside of ‘plate lunch’ the portuguese bean soup is always good too. Avoid the chicken katsu. It’s like a rock. It is the one thing they totally miss the boat on. Zippy’s qualifies as plate lunch because it’s takeout/counter service far outweighs the dine-in traffic.

          Grace’s: Grace’s was the first place I ever had plate lunch, and it was from the lunchwagon at UH. Hamburger steak, gravy on the rice... my firends ordered it for me, along with a can of passion-orange. That was my lunch 4 days out of 7 for the next year, although over time i did try more and more items. They still make a good hamburger steak, some of the best katsu on the island, and have arguably the largest regular menu around. For specials the Hawaiian Plate on Fridays is really good, and a good value. I also like it when they have meatloaf. As with most plate lunch places, avoid the hamburger and fries, stick to what they do best. Two scoops rice with TWO scoops of mac salad (ok, small scoops.. or you can get greens) The chili is on the sweet side, plan to put some tabasco on it before you walk away.

          L&L: Most stuff here is grilled, which would make it healthy.. until you eat the mac salad. Want some macaroni in that mayo sir? Bleah. Some people must like it, i think it is the most disgusting mac salad in Hawaii. It’s usually not even cold. Count me out on L&L.

          Da Kitchen: One on Oahu and one on Maui make it a chain. Upscale, a little expensive, portions that approach the old Masa’s, good quality food. Limited parking, and the place is usually packed at lunchtime.

          PLATE LUNCH - INDEPENDENT

          Rainbow Drive In: Possibly the best known plate lunch on the planet, I’ve met people here from places as diverse as Tokyo, Zurich, Sidney, New Orleans, and Durban. The most popular items are Chili Dog plate, BBQ Steak (teriyaki style), Boneless Chicken with Gravy, and Roast Pork (sun, wed, fri). Even the fries here aren’t too bad, and they make a mean Loco Moco

          St. Louis Drive in: It’s really close to me, but I rarely go. It seems to be a big nostalgia place, and it has been around forever. I thought everything, even the gravy, was greasy. I know that it is a special place for a lot of people, but next time Imma gonna stick to the bento... thats pretty good.

          Tsukenjo’s: Ono Roast Pork. Not much more needs to be said. (lunchwagon or lunch house) Quality may not be what it once was, depends who you ask. As a side note it the lunch house is said to be the oldest wood commercial building in Honolulu, although it has been altered many times over the decades.

          HK’s: Well liked by several hounds, best known for the yum yum chicken, and roast pork. pretty broad menu. Parking sucks, the food doesn’t.

          Sugoi: Huge portions, good food, decent prices, especially for what you get. Best known for their Garlic Chiken, the have many other good menu items (pork chop for one.) This place is a definite must-try.

          Mitsu-ken: Garlic Chicken, Garlic Chicken, Garlic Chicken. A cross between a okazu and plate lunch place, they open before you wake up (almost) and sell out early. They do a lot of catering as well. Hard as it is to believe the garlic chicken may be better than sugoi’s, they have sure been making it longer. I’m sure they have other menu items. They must.

          Bob’s Giant BBQ: Burnt Meat, caveman style as Tim Allen would say. Mainland people would say it’s not BBQ, although a couple of items do have red bbq sauce instead of japanese or korean style. So good. Even the hamburgers and fries are good here, but the plate lunches are the specialty. Large portions, reasonable prices, Mediocre but pleasant service. This used to be a small chain, as far as I know only the Kalihi location remains. Very busy at lunchtime.

          Kakaako Kitchen: Upscale, barely squeeks under the wire as far as being plate lunch, but good food, and you do get rice and mac salad (or greens.) and it is served in disposable containers.

          Nico’s Pier 38: Again, barely qualifies as plate lunch, does it have mac salad? OK, I just like it and it needs to be here. Some of the best seafood in Honolulu, and at a good price.

          Byrons Drive-In: Another one that has been around forever, gravy on everything. A huge menu, bigger even than Grace’s. You can feel your arteries hardening as you eat, and it’s open 24 hours. Don’t forget a slush float or a green river to wash it down with, or some battered fried pickles or zucchini on the side.

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          Kakaako Kitchen
          1200 Ala Moana Blvd # 135, Honolulu, HI

          Da Kitchen
          925 Isenberg St, Honolulu, HI 96826

          6 Replies
          1. re: KaimukiMan

            I must concur with your criteria for this "plate lunch" thread. I also agree with your comments on the places listed. A couple notes, Nico's does not have mac salad. You get a choice of Nalo Greens or white or brown rice. I am completely a huge fan of Tsukenjo's. The Lunch House on Cooke street (the original location.) I also love their meatloaf sandwiches. Pure and simple. Meatloaf, mayo, ketchup a piece of iceberg on a hamburger bun, what a delight. I am wondering though where the red lunchwagon is. It used to be parked by the furniture store next to Sports Authority. They had said they were retiring that after so many years of hard work for both branches and were doing the Lunch House only. Have you seen the wagon and where? I'm so there if you say it's back! Say it's so! :-)

            1. re: KaimukiMan

              Awesome work, K-Man. I'll try to come back later and comment. (I think I mostly agree with much of what you wrote.)

              1. re: KaimukiMan

                Wow KM, if you ate at Grace's lunchwagon at UH you go back a long way! Those lines used to stretch all the way down Metcalf at lunchtime. My regulars were the teri hamburger or pork cutlet plate with extra mac salad if I was really hungry.

                My favorite memory of Grace's was in high school. We would go over after school and they would throw together a plate of whatever was leftover for the day, 10 cents, luck of the draw. Had some incredible after school snacks that way, fried rice, chow fun, a little hamburger steak, a slice of teri beef, curry stew, whatever they had.

                The drive in is fine, but for me it never equaled the original lunchwagon in taste when the parents ran the operation.

                1. re: curiousgeo

                  I have always wondered why the lunchwagon tasted better myself. most of my friends don't agree, they say we were just hungrier back then. i think the pork cutlet was probably the second type it tried. And yes, it was 35 years ago. But you obviously go back much further than that. 10 cents? Wow - even for 'leftovers', and I'm sure they gave plenty.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    Yeah, the leftovers were generous, not a whole plate, but a bit more than half for a dime.

                    By the way, St. Louis Drive In is pretty good. I like their fresh corned beef and cabbage, roast turkey, teri ahi belly and of course their bentos. If you want something unusual try their deluxe japanese plate, maybe not quite up to restaurant standard, but pretty amazing for a plate lunch place.

                    1. re: curiousgeo

                      ah, the cry for additional research is endless.
                      I'll have to get back to you on St. Louis Drive-In

              2. Aiea Bowl

                If you didn't know they've renovated and added a restaurant--which serves neo-plate lunch and other diner-ish food (burgers and pizza). Dining is equivalent to dining in at Big City Diner or Zippy's, but they do serve mac salad and two scoops of rice with their entres, so I'm counting them as a plate lunch place.

                They're on the pricier side (around $9-$12), though. Known for their tasty chicken, which is similar to Mitsu-ken and Tsugoi's garlic chicken. They also have a furikake ahi and salmon and some other stuff that I can't remember now. They also have some decent desserts--although not cheap.

                My theory about the higher price is that, like a movie theater, they're making money off of the bowlers who hang out and inevitably want something to munch on. The food is pretty good here, though--better than your average grease pit plate lunch place.

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                Big City Diner
                3569 Waialae Ave Ste 3, Honolulu, HI 96816

                4 Replies
                1. re: Jazzaloha

                  +1

                  I always forget about Aiea Bowl, but I've been a couple of times and Jazz is right on the money on this one. Great job on the fish there too.

                  1. re: Jazzaloha

                    I liked the chow at Aiea Bowl too. Don't you think the higher prices are reasonable when you get table service, silverware, and food served on a real plate instead of Styrofoam?

                    1. re: macaraca

                      Well, I guess it depends on how much you value table service, etc. (They were really crowded and we had to wait quite a bit before our waiter came over. It was a little better as the meal progressed, though.) However, when you're eating food that you could get cheaper in a take-out place, you sort of feel like you're getting a little ripped off. (Think of the restaurant prices of Zippy's, particularly in the restaurant versus on take-out.)

                      I will say that the quality of food is better than your typical plate lunch, place (similar to Big City Diner).

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                      Big City Diner
                      3569 Waialae Ave Ste 3, Honolulu, HI 96816

                      1. re: Jazzaloha

                        "when you're eating food that you could get cheaper in a take-out place . . ."

                        but the thing is, you wouldn't get food that good in most take-out places, and you are always going to pay extra for table service. I think you pretty much hit the mark on your initial review. Very good food, a little more than a plate lunch (face it, take out at zippys is in the $8-$10 range also, more for the specials or the fresh fish), but all in all I believe a better value overall considering the quality of the food. But yeah, the service isn't great, in fact its not really good. Oh well, it is after all a bowling alley.

                  2. maybe i'm expecting too much.....

                    I went to Grace's for lunch today, one of the specials was teri-chicken. I haven't had Grace's teri-chicken in years, I guess I don't go on tuesdays very often. It was seriously disappointing. It looked like they had simply grilled and sliced the chicken thigh, then dumped the teri sauce over it. The sauce was fine, but the chicken clearly had not marinated in it at all, nor had it been cooked with it. Sad, sad, sad.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                      I never tried their teri chicken and I don't think I ever would. My feeling with Grace's is that besides the chicken katsu and lemon chicken--everything else is basically typical plate lunch quality (which is not that great, when you think about it; I do like their roast pork with brown gravy, though). However, to be fair, I haven't tried a lot of other things on the menu, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

                      1. re: Jazzaloha

                        the meat loaf is pretty good, not fantastic, but good. The chili is on the sweet side, but with a few healthy shakes of tabasco, its good. The roast turkey is generally good, and I like the kalua&cabbage just fine. Spaghetti is not bad either..not great but I've had a lot worse. The sweet chili / korean chicken is good too. And yes Jazz, we agree...the katsu is the best they have. Was just really disappointed in the teri chicken.

                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                          I'm not necessarily saying the other entres are terrible--just that I expect the quality to be similar to many other plate lunch places. I don't think I've tried their sweet chili/korean chicken, but I think that could be good. Have you tried their lemon chicken? I think it was unique and one of the better lemon chickens I've tried.