If you’re from the mainland, it’s understandable that you may not know the Hawaiian plate lunch. This is something you must remedy in the new year. That is, if you want this year to be extremely delicious, or ono, as they say in Hawaii.
The Hawaiian plate lunch is simple and satisfying: two scoops of sticky white rice, a scoop of mayo-slathered macaroni salad and a protein, which can be breaded chicken, pork cutlets, barbecued pork, beef or Spam. Hawaii’s melting pot of cultures—Japanese, Polynesian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese—has played into the evolution of this dish.
The idea of plate lunch began in the 1800s as a cheap, satisfying lunch for hungry workers on Hawaii’s booming pineapple and sugar plantations. It was more in the form of a portable bento box than a plate. As plantations faded, the plate lunch survived, in the form of a diner dish that’s revered—and craved—to this day by young and old alike.
Dean Wright, director of dining at Brigham Young University (BYU), Provo, Utah, first experienced the plate lunch years ago while working at BYU’s Hawaiian campus on the island of Oahu. A few years ago, he started thinking that plate lunch would have a strong appeal for the college students in Utah that he serves now.
“The concept is that it’s a very filling and affordable lunch,” Wright says. “I had the idea several years ago, and last year I finally convinced the retail GM to give it a try.”
So the concept Aloha Plate was born. It stands alongside—and often outsells—nationally branded concepts in the food court, doing $900,000 in sales since opening last year. At first, the BYU chefs tried to put their own culinary stamp on the plate lunch, but Wright reined them in.
“I kept saying, ‘No, make it just like it is in Hawaii,’” Wright says.
Executive Chef John McDonald was concerned with authenticity as well, and was determined not to cut corners.
“The key was we wanted to make it authentic and done really well,” McDonald says. “We could’ve cut corners but we didn’t. Prebreaded chicken would be easier and hand-breading is more labor-intensive, but there’s a quality difference.”
The soy sauce served on the side and used as a marinade is a Hawaiian brand called Aloha, which is a little milder than most soy sauces. The important little authentic touches like this have gained approval from Hawaiian and Polynesian students, and a football coach from Tonga.
Proteins for the plate lunches include shoyu chicken, katsu steak, Kahlua pork, grilled Spam and garlic shrimp. Variations show up on a rotating basis and also as limited-time offers, which include a “chili and rice” plate, which was a big hit at a recent football bowl game held in San Diego, where that football coach polished off about four helpings, according to Wright.
The plate lunches are prepared in a central production kitchen, and special care was taken to make sure that the macaroni salad recipe is proprietary to the Aloha Plate concept.
There was talk of making the macaroni salad recipe the standard to be served elsewhere on campus, but Wright refused, saying, “Aloha Plate has its own flavor profile and we didn’t want to dilute the brand.”
Another factor that mattered a lot to Wright was the price point.
“At first, some said it had to be $7, but we knew the price point students want for lunch is right around $5.50,” he says. “This is the perfect price for students and they can get very full.”
The plate lunch has served as a jumping off point for a deeper dive into Hawaiian cuisine, McDonald says, describing a Hawaiian chili made with Portuguese sausage, a sweeter flavor profile and a secret ingredient: mayonnaise.
With Hawaiian poke bowls, Filipino food and tiki culture (hello, teriyaki and pu pu platters!) trending everywhere, Wright and McDonald say they’re ready to say aloha to even more island-influenced eats in the future at BYU.