A scoop of rice. Macaroni salad. Fried chicken. Disassemble a typical Hawaiian plate lunch to its components and you’re left with things that, by themselves, aren’t very special. But put them together in a clamshell container, and something magical happens. They let you relive past Hawaiian vacations as if they are the Pensieve in Harry Potter, bringing back a flood of happy thoughts in a way that flipping through photos never could.
Vacation nostalgia is the most potent flavor in a Hawaiian plate lunch. The L&L chain and other similar takeout joints on the mainland know they’re not just selling food; they’re selling memories. L&L uses posters of Hawaiian surf competitions to help set the mood. Some play Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s Facing Future CD on a loop.
Dave Faka, owner of the new Faka’s Island Grill at Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market, has neither the room for posters nor a sound system since taking over the stall that was formerly Graze. But he, too, is out to remind you of the good times you spent in paradise. And more than any other vendor, he does it with his food. Faka serves several plate lunches, but the one called “Surf N Chick” triggered a tsunami of flashbacks: There’s the garlic shrimp I had from that truck on the North Shore of Oahu and the crispy chicken katsu from a hole-in-the-wall takeout place in Honokowai that I ate on my hotel room’s balcony.
And with this plate lunch, I noticed something different, something a little more gourmet. Faka added special touches his competitors wouldn’t bother with. He buttered the sticky rice and sprinkled it with furikake. He dusted the mac salad with red pepper so thickly it resembled a Kilauea eruption. And in between the Styrofoam compartments, he crammed chunks of curried pineapple that recalled my trip to the Dole Plantation and the sugary, juicy samples of the fruit I had there. Most of all, I realized Faka’s garlic shrimp was better than that North Shore food truck’s; he layered on the minced garlic so generously the shrimp wore it as a coat. The sauce that enrobed each shell-on crustacean was a bona-fide emulsion, an upgrade from Giovanni’s greasy slick of olive oil that happens to have garlic in it.
Faka’s chicken katsu was also exemplary—a crispy, juicy benchmark against which others should be compared. The panko crust tasted buttery without using butter, and the meat was gristle-free despite being dark meat. I couldn’t ask for a better plate lunch or a more authentic person to make it for me than Faka himself. With an outward appearance of a rough-and-tumble rugby player, the man is actually a gentle giant. He was all grins when he told me he’d been operating his eatery as a pop-up inside another restaurant in Covina when the opportunity to move into this stall opened up. His San Gabriel Valley fan base is sure to follow him, if they haven’t already.
It’s because of his easygoing “shaka” charm that I can forgive the messy pork-belly sandwich Faka constructed with four unbroken King’s Hawaiian rolls. He split the bread, stuffing it with slaw and small pieces of belly. While they were supposed to function individually as sliders, the braised pork was still a little chewy.
Faka redeemed himself with a Spam taco—a dish over which I had doubts, but it turned out to be the best thing he makes. Rather than pan-searing, Faka cocooned the slices of processed meat in panko, plunged them in oil for a quick fry, then wrapped lightly fried corn tortillas around the spears. The result could stand as an offering to Pele. After I breached the crunchy outer crust, the Spam melted in my mouth and tasted like the best version of itself, its saltiness balanced by the sweetness of Faka’s mango pico de gallo and shredded cabbage. A flurry of cotija and a squirt of a sauce called “Faka’n Awesome” completed a fusion taco that could give Kogi a run for its money. After I inhaled the first, I immediately ordered a second.
As with all plate-lunch purveyors, I should note that Faka also boasted a complete collection of Hawaiian Sun beverages. And when I washed down my plate lunch and tacos with a sip from a can of punch with the word lilikoi on it, my trip back to Aloha memory lane was complete—which is good because I’m fresh out of vacation days.
Faka’s Island Grill, 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (626) 346-7444; fakasislandgrill.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tacos, $2.50; sandwiches, $6-$8.50; plate lunches, $9.50-$14. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.