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Hawaiian I 

Not Spam-a-lot, just delicious, inexpensive, and comforting island fare

Wednesday, May 24 2006
On the whole, though I find film festivals more festive when I'm attending them in a city not my own (where mundane matters like, oh, cleaning the house and dental appointments and work deadlines don't exist, and therefore don't interfere with total immersion in culture), I was pleased with the way this year's San Francisco International Film Festival was going. There were masterpieces (Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle), part-masterpieces (Hou Hsaio-Hsien's Three Times), and interesting movies by master directors (Tsai Ming-Liang's The Wayward Cloud).

And both the Kabuki and the Castro, the festival's main venues, are located in neighborhoods full of interesting and inexpensive eateries: I love ducking into Suzu, in the Kinokuniya mall right next to the Kabuki, for a bowl of the best handmade Japanese noodles in the city, or stopping at Rossi's Deli, across the street from the Castro, for an Italian sub or a freshly made BLT.

Everything was going swimmingly until the day I found myself walking into the Kabuki 10 minutes before the Raul Ruiz movie I thought I was going to see there started unspooling across town in its actual venue, the Castro, an occurrence that usually happens in my dreams rather than in reality. I don't know how I managed to fly across town and land in an aisle seat several miles away before the beginning credits ended — that was dreamlike, too. A BLT with extra mayo soothed my jangled nerves, after.

But 10 days into the festival, after hearing Tilda Swinton's amusing and trenchant State of Cinema address, I wanted something other than noodles, and I knew what, too (always a gift from the gods, when you know what will satisfy your hungers): Hawaiian barbecue.

Hawaiian cuisine (luaus! Two scoops rice! Spam!) hadn't figured much in my private gastronomy until a trip to Maui a few years ago, when I discovered that a classic Hawaiian plate lunch, with, yes, two scoops rice and a scoop of macaroni salad nestled next to some tender lau lau pork or thin-sliced marinated beef or grilled chicken fragrant with lime juice, could be a divine thing. I wondered if it tasted so good because of the matchless view of sand and sea, but back in the Bay Area, I found delicious Hawaiian fare at Tita's Hale'aina, whose windows showed nothing more than 17th Street, and a number of miles northwest in Vallejo at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, with an even less inspiring vista of a shopping mall parking lot.

Tita's is now sadly closed; but a branch of L&L, which started small in Hawaii in 1976, recently opened on Kearny Downtown, and that's where I was headed. When I found the storefront covered by locked metal gates, I felt even more despair than when I realized I was at the wrong theater. On Saturday, it seems, the place shuts up promptly at 6. And Sunday it's closed all day. I thought longingly of the lunch my father and I had shared at Wikiwiki Hawaiian BBQ (2417 Shattuck, Berkeley, 510-548-3936): a plate of kalua pork — not flavored with the coffee liqueur that's spelled similarly, just slow-roasted and shredded — had been not only delicious, but also enough for three meals. We'd been headed for Japanese noodles up the block, only to find that place shuttered for renovations. It was raining, and we ducked into the bare-bones Wikiwiki without great expectations, and it proved to be one of our better finds.

Alas, that Saturday night I wasn't going to be digging into pig. Two days later, after viewing the shattering The Bridge, which movingly documents a number of suicides off our seductive Golden Gate Bridge, I needed comfort food, and this time L&L welcomed me with open arms (or open doors, anyway). It's even more bare-bones than Wikiwiki: a tiny room with a counter where you order and receive your food, which comes in Styrofoam containers whether you're taking it out (as most do) or perching at one of the high shelflike counters that line two walls.

But the food makes up for the lack of ambience. Hawaiian cooking is often referred to as the original fusion cuisine: Added to the native Hawaiian ingredients such as coconut, taro root, bananas, sugar cane, seaweed, and seafood, are elements of the cultures that colonized the islands, including Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Korean, as well as mainland American, and the ingredients they brought, such as pigs and pineapple. (And Spam.) That day I brought home the barbecue mix plate, which included tasty skin-on boneless barbecue chicken, a thin-sliced short rib that crackled from its sweet marinade, and a heap of barbecue beef (as well as the inevitable rice and mayonnaise-y macaroni salad); a pleasing shrimp curry, whose lumps of potato, which had absorbed the lightly cornstarched curry sauce, were as satisfying to eat as its firm shrimp; and a plate of roast pork, a thick chunk which seemed quintessentially Midwestern under a light gravy. The curry and the pork, like many of the dishes here, are available in "mini" or "regular" sizes; for me, a mini is a meal, and a regular guarantees leftovers.

You're not going to find labor-intensive, traditional Hawaiian dishes such as poi (gluey pounded taro root) or haupia (coconut pudding). L&L is a classic Hawaiian plate lunch dive, offering four variations each on seafood (shrimp fried, curried, cooked with garlic, and fried mahi-mahi); chicken (barbecue, or breaded and fried served plain, with gravy, or curried); pork (kalua, lau lau, roast, or barbecue pork chop); and beef (short ribs, barbecue, loco moco, and curried). This L&L also offers saimin (soupy Hawaiian noodles) topped with your choice of Spam, chicken, beef, or shrimp, a few sandwiches, and hamburgers (OK, but not what you're there for). L&L is a franchise, yet each outpost is a little different; the Vallejo spot does indeed offer haupia, as well as manapua (known in China as char siu bao, aka barbecued pork buns) and malasada (beignets), two of my favorite dishes there, leading me to think of that L&L as a place for getting M&M.

Out of curiosity, I tried the grilled Spam and the Portuguese sausage musubi, big thick blocks of rice — like sushi on steroids — topped with nori (seaweed), and thin slices of the processed meats, barely enough to flavor the rather bland concoction. (Try a bit of the bottled Asian hot sauces on hand, to encourage the musubi along.) The familiar spicy tang of the Portuguese sausage wasn't recognizable in the mild version used here; there was very little reason to choose between it and the Spam, an extremely fatty mixture of ground ham and faintly musty-tasting spices. I like the idea of it more than the actuality. And it looks cool. Musubi are guaranteed to fill you up cheaply, the everlasting gob-stoppers of the menu.

Not that you'll be hungry after, say, consuming loco moco, one or two Salisbury-steak-style hamburger patties topped with fried eggs, with rice and macaroni, the whole drenched in a salty, indeterminately brown, but pleasantly pearly gravy. I tucked into a mini version one noontime at the counter (fried eggs don't travel well), surrounded by dozens of hungry people, patiently awaiting their No. 9 plate lunch (fried mahi-mahi fillets with tartar sauce) or No. 10 (chicken katsu, another of my favorites, a thin pounded breast of chicken, breaded, fried as knowingly as a perfect schnitzel) or No. 15 (lau lau pork, shredded pork wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed). Nobody was going to be out more than $8.50, and everybody was happy.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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