Portland Hawaiian cuisine honors long history

photos of three to-go boxes of rice and meat
Leila Diaz / The Mossy Log

Hawaiian food is one of the ultimate fusion cuisines in the world’s culinary catalog. As a people, a nation and then an American state, Hawaii has a complex history that has seen the comings and goings of a vibrant array of people. Each group brought their own techniques and flavors, evolving the once-simple dishes into luscious concoctions of local and imported ingredients alike.

Traditional native Hawaiian food is so married in modern consciousness to the imports that enliven it today that it can be hard to distinguish a pre-colonialist recipe from one coming after. But the island had many of its most beloved ingredients in abundance before colonists arrived in the 18th century. Pork, seafood, banana, taro and coconut have all been staples for centuries, with preparations like kalua pork surviving generations of colonialism. 

The kapu system (a religious system most directly translated as “taboo” or “sacred”) determined when food could be consumed and by whom, but was abolished in 1819 by King Kamehameha II. Since then, the cuisine has been democratized in creation and consumption, bringing outsiders (known as haole) to the table and the kitchen to cook and eat together.

Some of the earliest influences on Hawaiian cuisine came from Asian, European and American settlers. Asian settlers from Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines brought rice (their replacement for the staple taro dish known as poi), soy, ginger and green onion. Japanese techniques for working with raw fish married into the island’s abundant seafood to influence modern iterations of poke. Surprisingly, being one of the most iconic symbols of modern Hawaii, pineapples were brought to the islands by Spanish settlers in the 1700s and are not native to the islands. 

America’s influence on Hawaiian cuisine starts with the importation of wheat flour and beef by missionaries in the 1700s, but their real marks were not made until after Hawaii was brought into the U.S. Interest in “Polynesian” cuisine exploded in the US in the 1930s thanks to restaurateurs like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic Bergeron and the popularity of the Hawaiian islands as a tourist destination. As such, “tiki bars” became ubiquitous across the US, and Hawaii imported dishes like macaroni salad, a part of the iconic plate lunch.

During World War II, the reliance on Spam as a protein source incorporated the canned meat into local cuisine, combining Japanese sushi techniques to create the iconic dish Spam musubi (a roll of sushi rice, nori seaweed and fried Spam slabs). 

Today, following movements highlighting the traditional aspects of Hawaiian cuisine that began in the 1990s, Hawaiian food scenes are some of the most exciting and interesting in the world. Here on the mainland, the availability of non-local ingredients allows those of us not on island time to experience kalua pork, char siu, fried chicken, mac salad, Spam musubi, poke and a variety of tropical sweet treats in our own neighborhoods.

Hawaiian communities have thrived in the Pacific Northwest since the late 1700s fur trade brought ship workers from the tropics to the redwoods. Today, from Seattle to Portland, Hawaiian community members bring their unique culinary traditions to their neighbors, starting restaurants and food trucks to serve plate lunches and sit-down dinners with local and imported ingredients.

We went to three local spots near campus for some of the tastiest and most accessible examples of Hawaiian cuisine in South Portland.

Roxy’s Island Grill

We got takeout from Roxy’s Island Grill, from their Tualatin location, a plate lunch of teriyaki chicken and kalua pork. Hawaiian plate lunches are traditionally a meat or fish dish, with white rice and macaroni salad on the side. As a comfort food classic, they came about in the mid 20th century, and have been an enduring part of Hawaiian cuisine since.

The kalua pork was very flavorful, and portions were also very sizable. However, the pork itself was a little dry. The teriyaki chicken was excellent, with plenty of sauce. It was well-cooked, and the portion size was, again, excellent. The mac salad was top notch, absolutely no complaints. For an easy takeaway with lots of accessible locations, Roxy’s is it.

808 Grinds

“Grinds,” the Hawaiian pidgin term for food (think “grub”), is exactly what you will get at 808’s food truck location outside of the Gigantic Brewery near Reed College. Even with cooler weather, sitting outside at picnic tables while the setting sun painted the sky pink was as pleasant a way to spend an evening as one could ask for.

808’s most popular dish, their katsu-inspired 808 fried chicken, is served as one protein option for their take on plate lunch, a delightfully crispy pile of chicken bits over shredded cabbage, rice and their mac salad (808’s version includes peas, a controversial but welcome adaptation). Their kalua pork was moist and tender, with just the right fat content, made even better with their spicy habanero teriyaki sauce.

Not interested in plate lunch? My dining companions and I tried their take on Spam musubi, an expertly-sauced version of the classic, and found it delightful. The butter mochi (think pound cake made of rice flour, not the ice cream ball) was bouncy and rich. They also offer a wide range of poke, which we did not try, but next time we will.

Ohana Hawaiian Cafe

Out in Milwaukee, the family-friendly Ohana Hawaiian Cafe is less likely to be affected by bad weather, with their casually egalitarian dining room dishing up plate lunch at a slightly higher price tag than our other options.

Their Loco Moco (two hamburger patties, smothered in brown gravy on a bed of white rice with two eggs cooked to order on top) is not to be missed, because even at the $20 price tag it fed me handily for two meals. My dining companion’s salmon was not quite as remarkable as we hoped, but it was well-prepared and filling.

Hands-down the best part of the meal was Sandie’s in-house Hawaiian sweets. From a list including Sweet Potato Haupia (coconut custard) pie and Banana Cream pie, our charming server recommended the Lilikoi Dream Cake. A chiffon cake layered with lilikoi (passionfruit) mousse and topped with fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce, it disappeared from the plate almost before we could take a picture. A dream indeed.

In the doldrums of winter, dreaming of a tropical escape is something everyone does from time to time. Thanks to the Hawaiian communities of the Northwest, and the rich history preceding them, we can all have a taste of sunshine before it returns to us this summer.

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