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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) and we didn’t mind waiting in the inevitable long line in front of the counter. 

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.

These 7 O‘ahu eateries take plate lunches to delicious new heights by focusing on fresh local ingredients and offering items normally seen on the menus of upscale restaurants—think risotto, filet mignon, and rack of lamb. Lucky we live Hawai‘i, indeed.

Note: Prices at these eateries ranged from $6.95 for a mini plate lunch to $24 for regular size at the time of research. However, prices may be on the rise, in part because of Hawai‘i’s ban on plastic and polystyrene foam food ware due to health and environmental concerns (compostable plates, cups, utensils, and containers generally are more expensive).

1. The Food Company

Plate lunch from The Food Company

The Food Company has been serving island comfort food since 1992. Photo by Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

From the time she could hold a spatula, Brenda Tanaka helped her mom, aunties, and grandmothers—all excellent cooks—prepare ‘ono meals from scratch. Such delicious, hearty comfort food has been the hallmark of The Food Company ever since she launched it in 1992.

Among the best sellers are fresh ‘ahi or Atlantic salmon sautéed, grilled, blackened, seasoned with teriyaki sauce, or crusted with furikake or sesame seeds. Hotyah Chicken perks up mochiko chicken with furikake, kalbi sauce, and sriracha aioli. In addition to the usual teri beef and chicken katsu, bento items include crab cake, misoyaki butterfish, and house-made corned beef hash.

Go ahead, succumb to the sweets (it’s hard not to). Everything from triple chocolate brownies to sweet potato haupia pie is also made in-house. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

You may also like: Shop local at these 7 farmers markets in Hawai‘i

2. Kau Kau Grill

Plate lunch from Kau Kau Grill

Kau Kau Grill satisfies with its stick-to-your ribs food. Photo courtesy Kau Kau Grill

Kau Kau Grill offers stick-to-your-ribs food that owners Miles Oyasato and Ty Takishita and chef Ryan Souza love to eat. Topping that list are slow-cooked baby back ribs, finished on the grill with a house-made barbecue sauce. The meat is so tender, it falls off the bone with little prodding from a fork.

Pork butts are marinated in a teriyaki, garlic, and chile pepper sauce, then smoked with kiawe wood for 12 hours. Slices of the succulent smoked meat are sautéed with onions for an oh-so-‘ono entrée. Proving that simple can also be sublime, pūlehu beef short ribs are seasoned with just salt and pepper.

Underscoring its fresh focus, Kau Kau Grill gets ‘ahi for its poke and garlic ‘ahi from the Honolulu Fish Auction and flies Ora king salmon for its furikake salmon straight from New Zealand. Closed Sundays.

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3. Alicia’s Market

Alicia's Market roast pork

The poke and meats at Alicia’s Market, including roast pork, are made in-house. 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, and furikake salmon on the menu. Roast pork and char siu—both so moist, tender, and flavorful you’ll want to also buy a few pounds to savor later—are in demand every day. Closed Sundays.

You may also like: 7 irresistible Island dishes

4. 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 aunt and uncle owned a café. It was his first taste of the restaurant business, and he gladly helped clear tables and fill water glasses. Ro, who earned a business degree from UH Mānoa, 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.

You may also like: 5 kid-friendly hikes on O‘ahu

5. 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 have a lip-smacking smokiness. Three locations on O‘ahu: Kalihi, Kapahulu, and Pearlridge. Kalihi location closed Sundays.

You may also like: 4 fun foodie neighborhoods in Hawaii

6. 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.

You may also like: 7 O‘ahu parks perfect for family gatherings

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 on O‘ahu.

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 alohas. Seniors 65 and older receive a 20% discount on Wednesdays.

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

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