Just as craft-cocktail conoisseurs are abuzz these days with the renaissance of tiki bars, Hawaiian cuisine is once again on the tip of many a chowhound’s tongue. But while the former group is going retro with fogcutters and Singapore slings, foodies are eschewing the pupu platters of the midcentury Trader Vic’s era for that staple of what islanders simply call “local food”: the plate lunch.
Grounded in the traditions of the Polynesian natives, local food also reflects the cookery of the myriad peoples who have settled in Hawaii over the past couple of centuries—primarily Asians from Japan, Korea, China, & the Philippines, along with Portuguese and even Puerto Rican immigrants. If that sounds like quite a mishmash—well, it is. On the menu at any given plate lunch joint here in greater Denver (& there are quite a few, most links in multi-state chains), you’ll find Korean short ribs (kalbi) side by side with Japanese cutlets (katsu), Portuguese sausages, & good old American hamburger patties topped with gravy & fried eggs in a dish called loco moco. Any of these (& more) may be featured on a typical plate lunch, accompanied almost invariably by scoops of island-style sticky rice & macaroni salad. But it’s kalua pig, the quintessential pit-smoked centerpiece of luaus, that packs the biggest Hawaiian punch.
Tucked away in an Aurora strip-mall sports bar called the Oasis Grill, Da Hawaiian Kitchen does not have an imu (as the aforementioned pit is known) at its disposal. But chefs Eric Semingsen & Kalani Kamanu, who grew up together in Kailua, replicate the classic masterfully nonetheless—rubbing the pork with native sea salt, wrapping it in ti leaves, & oven-cooking it “on Hawaiian time,” in Semingsen’s words (that is, very slowly). The result, mixed with cabbage for contrast, is mouthwatering—tender & richly savory. It comes with macaroni salad that’s actually seasoned well enough to be flavorful, a rarity. It also comes with the ultra-soft white roll known as “sweet bread,” an adorable orchid-blossom garnish—&, if you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s available, kimchi-fried rice speckled with bits of Spam.
That’s right, Spam—the notorious canned pork loaf that achieved lasting popularity in Hawaii during World War II due to a surplus from military rations. It makes all kinds of cameo appearances on plate-lunch menus, perhaps most surprisingly in the sushi-inspired snack known as Spam musubi.
Though Da Hawaiian Kitchen offers them too, the pictured rolls come from Hawaiian Hut BBQ in Golden, whose backstory alone warrants it a mention. First of all, it’s inexplicably set on the premises of an indoor flea market called the Home Décor Outlet—separated from the huge, tchotchke-cluttered showfloor by little more than some strung leis and paper cutouts of tiki gods. And second, its owner, Paul Ho, just so happens to be a cousin of Don Ho, the late ukelele-slinging crooner of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Pearly Shells.” In short, it may just be the most fortuitous amalgam of kitsch this side of Casa Bonita.