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Da Kine’s Plate Lunches reappear in La Mesa

After 25 years of island style, it still inspires smiles

A plate lunch loaded with kalua pork and kalbi short ribs
A plate lunch loaded with kalua pork and kalbi short ribs

For a moment, the two big ice cream scoops of rice resemble eyes looking back at me, and I imagine my plate lunch sort of looks like a smiley face emoji. I must really be hungry.

Place

Da Kine's Plate Lunches La Mesa

7436 University Ave., La Mesa

And clearly, I’m projecting. The only smile here is the one gracing my lips, as I look down on a combination plate of kalua pork and kalbi short ribs (and don’t forget the macaroni salad!). It’s a Hawaiian meal, par excellence, and one that’s been available to San Diego diners for a quarter century, though not always in a restaurant setting.

Way back in 1997, caterer “Uncle” Nelson Ishii opened the first iteration of Da Kine’s Plate Lunches, in Pacific Beach. That’s before my time, but word is he’s responsible for introducing San Diegans the concept of a plate lunch, and to its assorted, multicultural influences. His popular plate lunch entrees includes Japanese style teriyaki and Korean-style kalbi short ribs, as well as Hawaii originals including the ground beef and egg dish, loco moco.

"Uncle" Nelson Ishii preps behind his latest lunch counter.

The term da kine itself hails from the multicultural creole language, Hawaiian Pidgin, where it derived from similar sounding English words, “the kind.” It’s used as a sort of catch-all, placeholder noun, often compared to the slangy whatsit, though da kine takes on so many possible uses, only true born and bred Hawaiians may fully understand it.

Though Mr. Ishii has consistently kept Da Kine’s active as a catering operation, the original restaurant closed in 2008, and subsequent locations he opened in National City and, more recently, Linda Vista remained short-lived. In other words, for the past fifteen years, we’ve only enjoyed brief windows of opportunity to dig into these plate lunches, without having to book an entire party to do so.

What has me smiling is that Uncle Nelson has brought Da Kine’s Plate Lunches back, this time to the west side of La Mesa. Certainly, prices are up from the Pacific Beach days, but the $15 to $17 per plate spent still provide plenty of bang to your 2022 century buck. Heaping portions of meat, individually or in combination, fill the plate, along with those scoops of rice and a salad. You can make that a regular, made with lettuce, salad, but I’ve never personally witnessed someone opt for anything other than macaroni.

A mural depicts a Hawiian king surveying his lands and seas.

Hawaiian music and vibes fill out the new location, which features a lunch counter and large mural depicting King Kamehameha surveying island waves, and the proprietor engaging with guests old and new.

I went for a combination plate featuring both the kalbi and kalua, and though the sweet, cross-cut short ribs have their time and place, my first pick here will always be the excellent, smokey, pulled pork shoulder. Mixed with shredded cabbage, it’s about as good as kalua gets without cooking in a hole in the ground. Whether it makes you smile, I can only speculate, but it’s bound to inspire some sort of emoji.

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A plate lunch loaded with kalua pork and kalbi short ribs
A plate lunch loaded with kalua pork and kalbi short ribs

For a moment, the two big ice cream scoops of rice resemble eyes looking back at me, and I imagine my plate lunch sort of looks like a smiley face emoji. I must really be hungry.

Place

Da Kine's Plate Lunches La Mesa

7436 University Ave., La Mesa

And clearly, I’m projecting. The only smile here is the one gracing my lips, as I look down on a combination plate of kalua pork and kalbi short ribs (and don’t forget the macaroni salad!). It’s a Hawaiian meal, par excellence, and one that’s been available to San Diego diners for a quarter century, though not always in a restaurant setting.

Way back in 1997, caterer “Uncle” Nelson Ishii opened the first iteration of Da Kine’s Plate Lunches, in Pacific Beach. That’s before my time, but word is he’s responsible for introducing San Diegans the concept of a plate lunch, and to its assorted, multicultural influences. His popular plate lunch entrees includes Japanese style teriyaki and Korean-style kalbi short ribs, as well as Hawaii originals including the ground beef and egg dish, loco moco.

"Uncle" Nelson Ishii preps behind his latest lunch counter.

The term da kine itself hails from the multicultural creole language, Hawaiian Pidgin, where it derived from similar sounding English words, “the kind.” It’s used as a sort of catch-all, placeholder noun, often compared to the slangy whatsit, though da kine takes on so many possible uses, only true born and bred Hawaiians may fully understand it.

Though Mr. Ishii has consistently kept Da Kine’s active as a catering operation, the original restaurant closed in 2008, and subsequent locations he opened in National City and, more recently, Linda Vista remained short-lived. In other words, for the past fifteen years, we’ve only enjoyed brief windows of opportunity to dig into these plate lunches, without having to book an entire party to do so.

What has me smiling is that Uncle Nelson has brought Da Kine’s Plate Lunches back, this time to the west side of La Mesa. Certainly, prices are up from the Pacific Beach days, but the $15 to $17 per plate spent still provide plenty of bang to your 2022 century buck. Heaping portions of meat, individually or in combination, fill the plate, along with those scoops of rice and a salad. You can make that a regular, made with lettuce, salad, but I’ve never personally witnessed someone opt for anything other than macaroni.

A mural depicts a Hawiian king surveying his lands and seas.

Hawaiian music and vibes fill out the new location, which features a lunch counter and large mural depicting King Kamehameha surveying island waves, and the proprietor engaging with guests old and new.

I went for a combination plate featuring both the kalbi and kalua, and though the sweet, cross-cut short ribs have their time and place, my first pick here will always be the excellent, smokey, pulled pork shoulder. Mixed with shredded cabbage, it’s about as good as kalua gets without cooking in a hole in the ground. Whether it makes you smile, I can only speculate, but it’s bound to inspire some sort of emoji.

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