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7 of O‘ahu’s best plate lunch spots

Waiahold Poi Factory poi, laulau, lomi salmon, and kalua pig ‘Ono Hawaiian food in the form of poi, laulau, kālua pig, and lomi salmon at Waiāhole Poi Factory. | Photo courtesy Waiāhole Poi Factory

Back in the day, at least twice a week after our last morning class at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, my friend Fay and I would make a beeline for Metcalf Street, where Grace’s blue lunch wagon would be parked. We never tired of Grace’s plate lunches (my favorites were beef stew and chicken katsu).

Years later when I was a busy single mom, plate lunches were my go-to meals when I didn’t have time to cook. It was convenient, tasty comfort food, and the portions were so big, I knew there would be leftovers for my young son and me.

As we all know, the humble, soul-satisfying plate lunch typically comes with 2 scoops of rice; a protein (beef, chicken, fish, or tofu); and a side of mac salad. It is a core of our local dining experience, and these 7 O‘ahu eateries take the dish to delicious new heights.

(Note: The prices for the eateries mentioned here ranged from $8.60 for a mini plate lunch to $32.45 at the time of research.)

1. Alicia’s Market

Alicia's Market roast pork

The poke and meats at Alicia’s Market, including roast pork (pictured), are made in-house following carefully guarded family recipes. | Photo courtesy Alicia’s Market

In 1949, the late Raymond and Alicia Kam founded this Kalihi landmark, which is now run by their son, Leonard; his wife, Gerri; and their sons, Chris and Brad. It is known for its wide variety of poke and seasoned meats. Everything is made in-house using carefully guarded family recipes.

Customers build plate lunches with their choice of poke and/or meats. But choosing isn’t easy, with items such as smoked tako, spicy ‘ahi, furikake salmon, and roast chicken on the menu. On Fridays and Saturdays, the additions of roast duck, smoked prime rib, and beef brisket make decisions even harder. Roast pork and char siu—both so moist, tender, and flavorful you’ll want to also buy a pound or two to savor later—are in demand every day.

Info: 267 Mokauea Street, Honolulu. 10 a.m.–2 p.m.; closed Sundays. (808) 841-1921.

2. Dean’s Drive Inn

Dean's Drive Inn chops

Rack of lamb at a down-home neighborhood eatery? Dean Mishima grills the chops to order. | Photo courtesy Dean’s Drive Inn

After heavy rains flooded Dean’s Drive Inn last March, the community, led by the Castle High School classmates of owner Dean Mishima, pulled together for a fund-raising drive to help pay for repair costs. That’s how much they love Mishima and his cooking, which the Food Network called the “epitome of casual gourmet.”

Grilled-to-order pūlehu rack of lamb earns raves, as do the ‘ahi cakes with sweet chile aioli and the catch of the day, both featuring fresh local fish. Plates come in mini or regular sizes, and include a choice of white or brown rice and macaroni salad or tossed salad. The regular plate also includes a third choice, a creamy or broth-based soup, such as chicken vegetable, egg drop, corn chowder, or cream of spinach.

Info: 45-270 William Henry Road, Kāne‘ohe. Lunch: 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner: 4–7 p.m. Closed Fridays and Saturdays. (808) 247-1300.

3. Diamond Head Market & Grill

Diamond Head Market & Grill mushroom burger plate

Diamond Head Market & Grill’s mushroom burger plate, with a portobello mushroom and a hand-made beef patty. | Photo courtesy Diamond Head Market & Grill

As a boy, Kelvin Ro enjoyed summer vacations with his family on Kaua‘i, where his uncle and aunt owned a café. It was his first taste of the restaurant business, and he gladly helped clear tables and fill water glasses. Holding a business degree from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Ro owned a catering company and 2 restaurants before opening this mecca for foodies.

Gravies, dressings, and sauces are made from scratch, including the barbecue sauce that glazes pork ribs, the miso-ginger sauce that enlivens fresh salmon fillets, and the fruit mustard that accompanies the garlic herb chicken breast. The Mushroom Burger Plate (a portobello mushroom and a handmade beef patty with caramelized onions and roasted-garlic balsamic jus) is a must.

Info: 3158 Monsarrat Avenue, Honolulu. 10 a.m.–8 p.m. (808) 732-0077.

Read More: 4 fun foodie neighborhoods in Hawaii

4. Guava Smoked

Guava Smoked meat plates

Butterfish collars, duck, pork, and galbi—all of Guava Smoked’s entrees are smoked with waiawī (strawberry guava) wood. | Photo courtesy Guava Smoked

Scott Shibuya served in the Air Force and worked as an aircraft mechanic and high school graphic design teacher before finding his true calling as the proprietor of Guava Smoked. As its name implies, all the entrées are smoked, but instead of using the usual kiawe wood, Shibuya opted for waiawī (strawberry guava), which imparts a well-rounded, slightly sweet flavor. A bonus: Waiawī is an invasive species, so burning it contributes to environmental conservation efforts.

Meats are marinated in garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and rock salt; smoked for 4 hours; and finished in the oven or on the grill. Spicy pork is the top seller, but other tempting possibilities include duck and butterfish collars. The chili, omelet, beef stew, and fried rice also offer a lip-smacking smokiness.

Info: Two Honolulu locations: 567 Kapahulu Avenue, second floor (enter via Campbell Avenue). 11 a.m.–8 p.m. (808) 913-2100; 1637 Republican Street. 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Closed Sundays. (808) 351-0003.

5. Kahai Kitchen

Kahai Kitchen filet mignon

Kahai Kitchen’s ever-changing menu may include grass-fed Hawai‘i filet mignon over local-style spinach and mushroom risotto. | Photo courtesy Kahai Kitchen

Kahai Kitchen started in Kalihi as a catering company. Passersby would smell the wonderful aromas drifting from the kitchen, flag down employees at the entrance, and ask if they could order takeout. Seeing the potential to expand, owner Naohisa Iwata introduced plate lunches, which were an immediate hit.

Now in Mō‘ili‘ili, the eatery boasts an enticing menu of regular items (among them, kimchi chicken, guava barbecue beef brisket, and furikake catch of the day). But the cooks really shine with their ever-changing specials. Think Island grass-fed filet mignon with local-style risotto, bubu arare–crusted ‘ōpakapaka donburi, and herb-marinated chicken breast with edamame and corn succotash.

Info: 946 Coolidge Street, Honolulu. 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Mondays, 10:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturdays. (808) 845-0320.

6. Monarch Seafoods

Monarch Seafoods stuffed 'ahi

Monarch Seafoods’ best-selling plate lunch, stuffed ‘ahi, is filled with fresh fish and seasoned crab and vegetables. | Photo courtesy Monarch Seafoods

Tommy Mukaigawa started Monarch Seafoods 30 years ago, then strictly wholesale, when he was a University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa student working part time as a commercial fisherman. Over the years, he garnered such clients as Chai’s, Nick’s Fishmarket, Kahuku Superette, and Shima’s Supermarket because of his reputation for providing high-quality local fish.

That remains Monarch Seafoods’ specialty, and today, customers flock there for plate lunches. The hands-down favorite is stuffed ‘ahi: a layer of fresh ‘ahi and a filling of seasoned crab and vegetables that’s wrapped in nori and a panko crust, then fried and drizzled with a wasabi aioli.

Info: 515 Kalihi Street, Honolulu. 10 a.m.–1:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. (808) 841-7877.

7. Waiāhole Poi Factory

Waiahole Poi Factory poi

Waiāhole Poi Factory customers can watch Liko Hoe or another family member pound poi starting around 11 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. | Photo courtesy Waiāhole Poi Factory

Starting around 11 a.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays, owner Liko Hoe or a family member makes poi at Waiāhole Poi Factory as their kūpuna did, with a stone pounder and long wooden board. He grew up participating in the gathering, preparation, and cooking of locally sourced food, and it’s a tradition he’s committed to perpetuating.

The Hoe ‘ohana’s farm in Waiāhole Valley supplies all the hō‘ī‘o for the salad and some of the kalo for kūlolo. Additional kalo and young kalo leaves for the laulau, beef lū‘au, and squid lū‘au come from Maui and Kaua‘i, as well as from local farmers in Kahulu‘u.

Most dishes are made on-site.

The best-selling plate is the kālua pig and laulau combo, but whatever you order will be real ‘ono Hawaiian food imbued with a lot of aloha.

Info: 48-140 Kamehameha Highway, Kāne‘ohe. 10 a.m.­–6 p.m. Seniors 65 and older receive a 20% discount on Wednesdays. (808) 239-2222.

Rib-sticking, palate-pleasing, heartwarming—avid foodie Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi asserts plate lunches are the ultimate comfort food.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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