Photo by Joy BastForget that touristy pig-on-a-spit, fish-and-poi, hula stuff. At L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, you'll eat what Hawaiians really eat: Spam. For reasons still fascinating to anthropologists and gastroenterologists alike, Hawaii has developed an all-consuming taste for meat products: pork, chicken, beef and the omnipresent Spam (a holdover from the imperialist-war-machine days, I'm told), all prepared and presented with a definite island flavor. To a haole (if you don't know what a haole is, you are one) like myself, L&L's specialties are an unsettling but appealing collision between the familiar and the exotic. It's the alternate bizzarro universe comics always promised me made flesh (barbecued flesh, more precisely). Then again, I grew up in Arizona, and North Shore notwithstanding, that's as haole as you can get without including other planets. To a homesick Hawaiian, L&L might be just what you've been searching for.
It's hard to find these sorts of non-pretentious island comforts out here on the mainland. L&L just made it over here in the past year, tapping into a primal hunger for Spam-related foodstuffs that runs deeper than anyone could have guessed. The first store in the Puente Hills Mall food court (incidentally, a bastion of multiculturalism, if you've never been) sold out of everything edible on the first day and had to close early. People drove for hours to get there. Newspapers in the Philippines reported on it. This isn't just a restaurant—it's a religion.
In Hawaii, I'm told, L&L's (known as Drive-Inns) are as ubiquitous as McDonald's and typically humble little drive-in shacks on the corner of every other block. Over here, they're as rare as, well, popular Spam-related foodstuffs, with only two locations within convenient day-trip distance and only one lonely outpost in Orange County. It's easy to see how you could grow up living off this stuff and how you could go into withdrawal without it.
L&L's most popular dish is the barbecue mix plate lunch: continental-shelf-sized hunks of beef, chicken and short ribs marinated in that special island style and served (as custom dictates everything be served) with two scoops of rice and a dainty little ball of macaroni salad. It's all piping-hot and stick-to-your-ribs greasy, with that tangy sweetness that defines the Pacific Rim carnivorous experience. Pick the chicken if you have to choose only one dish; it's grilled just right and is deliciously tender and supple. More chicken, perhaps? Try the chicken katsu plate lunch, a ziggurat of folded and fried poultry strips with dipping sauce that comes on like an appetizer and then muscles into your gut like a four-course meal.
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For a real Hawaiian appetizer —or snack, or light breakfast, or dessert, or, heck, nightcap—you're going to have to come to terms with Spam. Fret not, effete bourgeois gourmand: although it's an acquired taste, it doesn't take too much acquiring to reawaken the doughty American serviceman within. Just don't think about where it probably came from as you tear into a scrumptious Spam musubi (sushi made with Spam, seaweed and a block of rice; it's strangely addictive), a Spam and egg sandwich, or even grilled Spam soup (saimin).
No matter what you get, there's gonna be a dollop of macaroni salad and two scoops of rice waiting to hop down your gullet, but don't worry: the rice is just perfect at taking the edge off the grease, and the macaroni is picnic-style —chilled and creamy. If you're feeling extra Caucasian, you can opt for the French fries instead. In fact, if you feel like defeating the whole purpose of visiting L&L, you can cop out with a burger and fries, though I've heard some people complain that even that tastes like Spam. Those people should shut up—it's probably supposed to.
At around $6 or $7 for a plate lunch —delivered on a foam tray—your American dollar might not seem so big anymore. But unless you're one of those monolithic linebacker types with a stomach the size of a volcano crater, you won't finish it. You'll take it home and nibble at it for days, occasionally swigging down some Hawaiian Sun fruit drink (try the Lilikoi flavor, the most coveted of these hard-to-find-on-the-mainland nectars) to keep your innards lubed. When you're finally able to move again, you'll want to come back. There's a spam musubi out there waiting for you.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, located at 19692 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, is open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (714) 968-1898. Dinner for two, $15, food only. Cash only.