Why I Love Hawaiian BBQ: In Praise of One of the Bay's Great Multicultural Cuisines

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Hawaiian plate lunch with grilled chicken, short ribs, macaroni salad, and rice in a Styrofoam container.
A classic Hawaiian plate lunch at iLava comes with macaroni salad and two scoops of white rice. (Alan Chazaro)

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or most of two decades, I grew up in a single-parent home in the South Bay with a Mexican immigrant father. I remember that our first apartment complex was surrounded by Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, many of whom didn’t speak English. Still, we all learned how to communicate and mix our customs, spending time in each other’s homes and eating each other’s food. For me and my brother, that meant an extra dose of potstickers and noodles as kids. Our world opened up beyond the tortas, bistec, and quesadillas my dad would often make for dinner, and as I grew older, I understood what it meant to constantly translate cultures through taste.

In our neighborhood, we had access to everything from Round Table Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken to Middle Eastern rotisserie and German hofbrauhaus. But as a first-generation Mexican American with all of these options, there was one plate I grew to relish more than any other: Hawaiian barbecue.

The “plate lunch” combo was my favorite, no matter where I got it. It always arrived in a steamy container with a creamy scoop of macaroni salad, a lump of sticky white rice, and strips of grilled chicken on a bed of greens—all for a relatively affordable price. Occasionally, I’d mix it up with some breaded katsu for the extra crunch, or order two scoops of mac instead of rice. A can of sinfully sweet Hawaiian Sun completed the meal. I never questioned the origins of the dish.

But eventually I wondered: Did this really come from Hawaii? And how did it get to become such a popular meal for Northern Californians? 

What I’ve come to understand is that…it’s complicated. There’s a distinction between “Hawaiian-style” foods and foods that are part of the “true,” original Hawaiian diet, such as fish, poi (a mash of starchy vegetables like taro or plantain) and certain fruits that are native to the islands. The rest has been modified over years of migration, colonialism and interchange.

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Spam musubi? A mix of Japanese sushi and U.S. infantry rations from World War II. Loco moco? A mash-up of Spaniard-introduced beef, British gravy and Chinese rice that a group of young cooks tossed into a bowl at a diner in Hilo, Hawaii, in 1949. (One of the teens, George Takahashi, later migrated to San Leandro.) “Hawaiian pizza”? Don’t even think about it. Even the ukulele was brought over by the Portuguese, along with their sausages, oils and batters—key contributions that led to Hawaii’s eventual boom in fried treats like poi doughnuts.

iLava Hawaiian Barbecue owner Nicolle Jacinto makes a "hang loose" hand gesture in front of an ocean mural inside her East Oakland restaurant.
Nicole Jacinto fell in love with barbecuing in her native Philippines. Now, she runs a Hawaiian barbecue spot in a Latino strip mall in East Oakland. (Alan Chazaro)

Fusion in an Unlikely Place

The story of Hawaiian barbecue isn’t a story about the sanctity of the purest Hawaiian foods. Instead, it’s a celebration of what it means to be from many places at once, of having mixed upbringings, of melting together a multitude of deliciously imperfect cultural elements and serving them in a Styrofoam to-go box. Most importantly, it’s about finding and tasting that fusion in the most unlikely places—like a Central American strip mall in East Oakland.

“Hawaiian food isn’t just 100% Hawaiian food, especially in the Bay Area,” says Nicolle Jacinto, owner of iLava Hawaiian Barbecue, which sits in the aforementioned strip mall. “It’s a mix of many cultures. There’s a fusion and variety of ethnicities here, and since we all eat different foods, Hawaiian has been able to become so popular.”

The restaurant is located on a metaphorical island on High Street and International Boulevard. It’s a barely noticeable independent shop surrounded by taco trucks, mega-mercados, lavanderías, pawn shops, armed security guards and fast food joints. Yet right in the heart of this predominantly Latino epicenter, you’ll find this tropically inspired restaurant, serving classic plates of island-style food to a diverse clientele of Spanish-speaking immigrants, high-schoolers and other non-Hawaiians.

Jacinto opened the business in 2017, when her former employer at Hawaiian Grill Express in San Lorenzo asked if she would be interested in running her own restaurant as a part-owner. Since then, Jacinto has overseen iLava’s success, expanding into catering services and a food truck that circulates the entire Bay Area.

The business serves classic Hawaiian-style plate lunches that feature dishes like barbecue chicken, beef and short ribs, kalua pork, lau lau and garlic shrimp. There’s also a menu of fresh tropical smoothies like the “Hawaiian Sunrise,” a tangy blend of passionfruit and mango. 

The one Yelp reviewer who says iLava is “not a true authentic Hawaiian place” because they don’t serve poi seems to miss the point about what the restaurant does do well: a Californicated version of Pacific Island sustenance, served at reasonable prices, in a part of the city that otherwise lacks any major Polynesian presence.

In many ways, Hawaiian culinary history seems to be just that—a whirlpool of various, inexplicably linked ingredients from miscellaneous sources that can be cooked on the spot for anyone who’s hungry. Jacinto embodies this fusion in her own journey. After immigrating to the East Bay from the Philippines in 2009, Jacinto missed the flavors of her past. Though she isn’t Hawaiian by birth, many of her Filipino family members migrated to Hawaii in the 1990s. During yearly trips to the islands, she learned about the nuanced varieties of regional foods while helping her mother cook for relatives. According to Jacinto, the parallels between Hawaiians and Filipinos are unmistakable, highlighted by “a great sense of hospitality, an appreciation for tropical weather and a love of grilled meat.”

“My favorite Hawaiian dish is kalua pork,” she tells me. “It’s slow roasted, and it’s basically lechón in the Philippines. It’s prepared slightly differently—lechón is crispier—but it’s almost the same.” (A Latina employee at iLava excitedly compared the dish to carnitas.) Filipino ube (mashed purple yam) has a distinct purple hue, just like Hawaiian poi.

From a young age, Jacinto would cook skewered meats in the streets of her native country, grilling them over open flames and selling them to neighbors and passersby on their way to work. It was relatively inexpensive and convenient, she explains, to prepare food in this fashion. That’s where she gained an appreciation for barbecuing.

A Bay Area Classic

Of course, Hawaiian food is much more than grilled meats. But that particular style, commonly known as “Hawaiian BBQ,” is the one that’s the most widely available here in the Bay Area—especially the classic style of meal known as the plate lunch. Born from a working-class context of mixed leftover foods—scraps from previous night’s meals consisting of rice, macaroni and a protein, heaped in a to-go bento box—the plate lunch has become an indisputable California favorite. 

Patrick Landeza mixes poke inside a large metal bowl..
Patrick Landeza, a Hawaiian cook and musician based in Hayward, specializes in poke. But he appreciates the way Hawaiian barbecue spots make the culture more accessible to the mainstream. (Courtesy of Patrick Landeza)

“A plate lunch is just a mixture of things. We’re talking about Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian and more. We’re here in the Bay Area, and this is our taste profile, so that’s why it’s popping up everywhere,” says Patrick Landeza, a Hawaiian cook and musician who owns Landeza's Island Poke & Catering in Hayward, and is a member of the Hawai’i Chamber of Commerce in Northern California.

Though Landeza believes most Hawaiian barbecue outlets lack “true aloha,” or a sense of soul and genuine service, he also admits that they are good at “doing what they do by serving comfort food.” Raised on the “island of Berkeley,” Landeza specializes in poke—bowls of diced raw fish and other ingredients—which is a certified Hawaiian staple. As a Bay Area Hawaiian OG, he acknowledges the importance and accessibility of mainstream Hawaiian barbecue among the non-Hawaiian population.

The cuisine’s origins on the mainland date back to 1999 when Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores, Jr. opened their first L&L Hawaiian BBQ outside of Hawaii. This was already three decades after the pair had successfully launched the original L&L Drive-In in 1976, in the Kalihi neighborhood of Oahu.

Their brand of quick, simple Hawaiian fare reached California’s shores when a former employee relocated to San Francisco and began to serve his own Hawaiian-style plate lunches as a side hustle, Landeza explains. That initial success eventually led to the commercialization of Hawaiian food services that have since proliferated under the L&L brand name. Nowadays, the chain boasts over 200 locations throughout the United States, including a recent opening of their first franchise as far east as Florida. 

Like the plate lunches they serve, L&L’s take on “the state food of Hawaii” is a fusion of past traditions with modern business opportunities. They were able to offer ownership to anyone willing to invest in their franchise model—whether Hawaiian-heritaged or not. A wave of shops selling what we now know as “Hawaiian BBQ” emerged as a result, often owned by immigrants like Jacinto.

There are other reasons Hawaiian food has reached trending status in the Bay. For starters, the region is home to the largest population of Polynesian islanders who’ve transplanted to the contiguous stateside, making this the world’s biggest Little Island, with the cities of Hayward and Vallejo boasting the most Hawaiian residents. This proximity for cultural exchange largely explains why so many Americanized Polynesian trends have been popularized in the Bay, including tiki bars and the disputed origins of the mai tai cocktail

For many, these can come across as a form of cultural appropriation and “colonial nostalgia.” I’ve seen the same exotic simplification happen with Mexican food—it’s tricky territory to mindlessly enjoy a tiki beverage or “Aloha burger” without considering the layers beneath the surface. On the one hand, it represents some attempt to offer the flavors and experiences of a region. But when done poorly, it comes off as kitschy, tone-deaf and imperialistically exploitative. 

In the case of iLava, though, eating a Filipino-prepared Hawaiian plate lunch in Oakland served by Latino employees represents the beauty of what food can teach us about our human similarities.

“Food is a vehicle for building community, creating and nurturing that community,” says Landeza. “I don’t do Hawaiian barbecue. I am a Hawaiian caterer who does Hawaiian food. But coming from the mainland with Hawaiian roots, we miss these foods because we identify with it, and we want to relive that however we can. I’ve lived in both worlds, and there is a way to share that aloha, through food and music.”

Whatever your personal preferences may be, I can only speak for mine: I’ll take a Hawaiian-style barbecue plate lunch any day of the week. There’s just something refreshingly simple about it, and it reminds me of how we’re all a mixture of histories that are outside of anyone’s control or simple definitions. In a way, this mishmash is the only thing I know. It’s a place of comfort for me as the child of immigrants.

Jacinto, an immigrant herself, feels similarly. “Hawaii reminds me of my home—the warmth, the green, the beaches,” she says. “It’s the closest where I can feel like I’m home.”

Who can’t stomach that?

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iLava Hawaiian Barbecue is open 11 am–8:15 pm daily  at 1446 High St. in Oakland.