When I’m on vacation, a big part of my budget (both money and time) is set aside for food. I research restaurants in the weeks before I leave, and sometimes I have my dinner reservations squared away before I even book a hotel. I’m almost as meticulous with my breakfast plans—seeking out the best French toast or eggs benedict wherever I am. Lunch, though, is usually an on-the-fly decision while I’m out exploring. You’ll probably find that the same holds true for you while you’re on Maui. And of course, you’ll find yourself among some of the best multi-cultural cuisine around—want Mexican? Chinese? Italian? Thai? Japanese? Maui’s got you covered. One more option, though, that I really hope you’ll try, is the wonderful world of “local” food. It’s a huge genre, and it brings together the very best from cuisines all over the planet, all with its own island flair. If you need some help navigating a menu, I’ll try and help you out a bit!
First of all, most local lunch offerings are in the form of a “plate lunch”: Protein, rice (one or two scoops of sticky white rice), and “mac salad,” the distinctly local variety of macaroni salad. I know what you’re thinking, and no, a plate lunch isn’t usually a healthy affair, and most people aren’t chowing down on these carb-and-fat extravaganzas every day. As a once-in-a-while indulgence, though, a hearty, filling plate lunch is the ultimate Maui comfort food. Additionally, most local eateries have started offering brown rice instead of white, and tossed salad instead of mac salad—so you can still sample our island flavors without going overboard!
Here are some of my favorite plate lunches that can be found almost anywhere in Hawaii:
If you see this on a menu, and are in the mood for a sweet, tangy, and umami-dense dish, order it! “Shoyu” is the Japanese word for soy sauce, and you’ll find that that’s how most locals refer to it. Shoyu chicken is slow-cooked in, you guessed it, soy sauce, along with brown sugar, garlic, and ginger. Simplicity at its finest, this is a dish you’ll find not only in local diners, but also in local home kitchens—it’s a weekly menu item at my house, and it’s always a hit. Usually, it’s served as bone-in thighs, and the meat is delightfully fork-tender. Mix your rice with the sauce, and you have a taste sensation that’s out of this world.
We’ve mentioned this one before, but I always think that it deserves a boost, since it’s one of my favorites. It starts with a bowl of hot white rice, which is then topped with a hamburger patty, an over-easy egg, and brown gravy. Sometimes some grilled or fried onions join the party as well, which just adds to the wonderful combination of flavors and textures. While it’s commonly served as a breakfast item, it’s also a favorite for lunch, and it’s one of the most ubiquitous dishes in Hawaii. Want to try a twist on this favorite? Get the Chili Moco at Zippy’s, where their famous chili replaces the gravy. Yum!
If this is on any menu, anywhere, I order it. No questions asked. The “mochiko” part comes from the rice flour that’s used in the dish. Mochiko is mixed with egg and seasonings (like garlic, ginger, shoyu, and sesame oil), and then used to batter tender chunks of chicken. Deep-fried, crunchy, and golden brown, this treat is simple and unique, and pairs well with both the traditional and healthier plate-lunch sides. You’ll see it at local eateries around Hawaii—give it a try!
Many plate-lunch dishes find their roots in Asian cuisine, and meat jun is no exception. Based on Korean jeon, you’ll find this at both local-style and Korean restaurants in Hawaii. Flavorful, marinated beef is sliced super-thin, and fried in an egg batter. You can easily cut this tender beef with the plastic utensils that come with your plate lunch, and you’ll find that it goes great with the accompanying spicy gochu jang sauce. Many places will serve it as a combination with fish jun—tasty fish fried in the same batter. Try them both!
Yep, this traditional luau fare has made its way to plate lunches all over Hawaii. Salty, smoky, tender pulled pork is sometimes served with cabbage, and is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Often, in addition to the standard “two scoops rice,” you’ll find this one served with poi (you gotta try it once!) and lomi salmon. Look for a “Hawaiian plate” and many places, and you may even find this served with laulau—another dish of tender pork, steamed in taro leaves. This hearty lunch is a great way to get a true “local” experience while fueling your Maui adventures for the day!
These are just some of the choices you’ll find at the many local Maui eateries—so find something new that you’ll love! One of the best things about plate lunches is that they’re inexpensive by nature, so you can try a few of them while you’re here without breaking the bank. If you run out of time, not to worry! Many local favorites can be made right at home—I’ve linked some of my favorite recipes below.
If you have some leftover rice after recreating your favorite plate lunches, it’s time to whip up a big batch of Hawaiian-style Spam Fried Rice!