342 Euclid Avenue #402, San Diego
Look at the skyline: this could be the land of Ali Baba. Blue domes, red towers, gold domes. Right now, evening time, even the Food 4 Less looks muy romantica. Or, you could be thinking: space colony. Domes look like giant moons, rising.
This is Market Creek Plaza. I’m here looking for — what else? — food. Problem: only Food 4 Less and a Starbucks seem to be open. But it’s only a problem until I remember the last time I was here, a year or more ago. Grand opening, lunchtime, meals for a buck. But I had no time to stop. It was one of those L&Ls, the Hawaiian BBQ chain with new locations opening as frequently as Mount Kilauea erupts. By now, there are more restaurants in the chain than islands in Hawaii’s chain — and that’s 137.
I remember when the Hawaiian thing started up here in SD. Around 2000, places like Da Kine came out with the pā mea ’ai, the famous Hawaiian plate lunch. The food was like Hawaii itself: crossroads of the Pacific. All of it was delicious, and none of it was healthy. Like, two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad, and a meat, like kalua pig. Apart from that pig, it was as Hawaiian as Indian fry bread is traditional American Indian, meaning, no way. This is Hawaiians adapting to the stodgy eats that rushed in with the new colonial masters. The plate lunch comes from the 1880s, when big-time haoles (non-Hawaiians) needed laborers for their sugar and coffee and pineapple plantations. The laborers had to take their lunch with them, and it was usually leftovers — things like rice, and later, that great World War II GI staple, SPAM (you know, Something Posing As Meat), and macaroni mushed in mayo. Now, if you can believe it, that lunch plate is Hawaii. Or take the Hawaiian breakfast, Loco Moco. It’s gravy on top of a fried egg on top of a hamburger patty on top of a pile of rice. Poi and poke it ain’t.
Whatever. Tonight L&L is still open. I come in under the purple arch to a yellow, red, cream, purple, and orange-colored room with surfboards and palapas and beautiful tropical-wood tables (or if not, pretty darned good imitations).
But only a couple of people. Turns out it’s 20 minutes till closing. The crew is already starting to clean up. And they have a menu board stacked with so many items, I’m never going to make up my mind in time. Everything from Hawaiian-style fish tacos ($2.25) to Big Kahuna burgers (with a pound of beef, plus bacon, triple cheese, pineapple, onion rings or fries, and a drink, $9.45), to a Spamburger for $2.95, to ahi poke ($4.25), seared ahi plate ($6.95), and a seafood combo ($8.95), which combines mahi, shrimp, and a BBQ meat like chicken, beef, or pork katsu. And, hey, they also have saimin soups — noodle soups the Hawaiians adapted from Asian immigrants — with, like, SPAM ($3.75), Portuguese sausage ($4.25), or shrimp ($4.75) swimming in them.
Then, of course, there are actual island platters, like the grilled BBQ chicken, pork chop, or kalua pork with cabbage, all $6.25 for the “mini” plate (though don’t take that “mini” part too seriously) and $7.45 for the regular. Short ribs and sweet BBQ beef cost 50 cents more. All come with the macaroni salad and rice.
Time’s a-ticking. Irene at the cash register persuades me to go for the BBQ mixed plate ($8.95), which is the sweet beef, short ribs, and chicken. I get a fruit drink ($2.29) and sit down to wait for the food. “L&L Drive-Inn, since 1976,” it says, around the paper cup. Guess that’s the old name. Then, around the base, it promises “huge portions at low prices.”
They got that right. Slab upon slab of meats, two piles of rice, another of macaroni. I chomp in. Okay, this may not be true-blue Hawaiian in the ancient sense. But the meats are seriously delicious, and tender. The traditional way to do pig is underground on hot rocks, wrapped in, say, banana leaves. The imu. Short of that, hey, I ain’t complaining. I love the sweet BBQ beef the best. Next time, I’d like to do the same, except I’d get the seafood combo. Or, just once, that giant, one-pound burger.
Caesar and Christian, the two cooks, come out from the kitchen. They look bushed. “I was a customer here,” says Caesar. “Asked for a job. I love it. Lunchtime’s busiest. Those four hours go racing by. You don’t even realize the time’s passed.”
Irene packs the half I’ve still got left. Wow. It may not be health-food central, but hey, it might just keep the marriage healthy. Carla the Carnivore’s gonna go loco moco over it, guaranteed, or guarans ball-barans, as they say in Hawaii. ■
The Place: L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, 342 Euclid Avenue, in Market Creek Plaza #402, Southeast San Diego (619-264-1888)
Type of Food: Hawaiian
Prices: Hawaiian breakfast, Loco Moco (rice topped with hamburger patty, fried egg, gravy), $6.75 (mini), $7.95 (regular); Hawaiian-style fish tacos, $2.25; Big Kahuna burgers (1 lb. beef, bacon, triple cheese, pineapple, onions or fries, drink), $9.45; Spamburger, $2.95; ahi poke, $4.25; seared ahi plate, $6.95; seafood combo (mahi, shrimp, BBQ meat, e.g. chicken, beef, pork katsu), $8.95; saimin soup (noodle soup with, e.g., SPAM, $3.75; Portuguese sausage, $4.25; shrimp, $4.75); island platters (e.g., BBQ chicken, pork chop, kalua pork with cabbage, all with macaroni salad, rice), $6.25 (mini), $7.45 (regular); with short ribs and sweet BBQ beef, $7.75 (mini), $8.95 (regular); BBQ mixed plate (sweet beef, short ribs, chicken), $8.95
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 3, 4, 5, 13, 916, 917, 955, 960
Nearest Bus Stop: Euclid Avenue Transit Center, Market and Euclid
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Euclid Avenue Transit Center, Market and Euclid