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Eat like a Hawaiian, without the airfare

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EVANS MILLS — When your meal comes with two generous heaps of both white rice and mayonnaisey macaroni salad, not to mention the pound or so of juicy pulled pork nestled next to it, you have to give in, calorie count be damned.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in the J&J Plaza (no relation) near Fort Drum, has healthy options too, but they’re not nearly as much fun as the kalua pork with cabbage, my choice this particular afternoon.

L&L is technically a chain, but if there is only one location east of the Mississippi, does it still count? In fact, if there weren’t a lone straggler in Plano, Texas, the next closest location would be Colorado Springs.

A search of the website’s map uncovered that most of the locations on the continental U.S. are near San Diego. A scroll of the mouse to the left, however and I hit the mother lode right near Honolulu. I figure it’s a good sign that the chain is popular in Hawaii. In fact, the restaurant started in Honolulu in 1976 and eventually moved to the Lower 48 in 1988.

Sometime between then and now, it made its way to Evans Mills, which is good — because while I’d certainly enjoy a Hawaiian vacation, it’s not exactly practical just for a Tuesday afternoon lunch. So instead of the 5,000-mile-flight I took an 8-mile drive in search of authentic Hawaiian cuisine.

In addition to my slow-cooked pork, the menu consists of shrimp, fish, beef or chicken, either breaded and fried and served with various sauces, stewed into a curry or in a ramen soup. There are burgers too.

The fried and stewed entrees are all Plate Lunches — which, you notice, is capitalized, because it refers to more than just what the food is served on. Actually, all the food is served in Styrofoam or plastic containers regardless if the customer is eating in or taking out, so there aren’t any actual plates involved.

No, the Hawaiian Plate Lunch is a thing in and of itself. Don’t believe me? Google it. There’s a New York Times article all about the foam clamshell delight.

I’ll admit, when I received my Plate Lunch, I was skeptical that the macaroni side was there only to appeal to mainland American tastes. There was also the choice of a tossed green salad, but at this point, you can probably tell that I’m not going to opt for that. But much to my chagrin, the big scoops of macaroni salad and white rice (brown rice is also available) are classic for the dish.

I don’t know how macaroni salad became the standard side for a Hawaiian lunch, but I bet it was around the same time that Spam, everyone’s favorite salty meat in a can, became a Hawaiian favorite.

And like the proper Hawaiian restaurant that it was becoming clear L&L is, Spam is on the menu. Here it’s in the form of musubi, a sushi-like roll with rice, a sweet soy glaze and a roll of nori, a type of dried seaweed.

The last time I ate Spam was probably on a camping trip years ago, and it was not wrapped in seaweed or calling itself “Hawaiian Sushi,” as L&L bills it.

But maybe it should have been, because the musubi was really quite good. It’s easy to look at a canned salty pork product wrapped in seaweed and think poorly of it, but that would be to misjudge the balance L&L was able to achieve.

Somehow the thick slab of Spam was not overpoweringly salty and worked really well with the sea freshness and slight funk of the nori. The Spam version will run you $2.10, but for a quarter more, all the unadventurous eaters can opt for barbecue chicken or katsu, which is breaded and fried chicken.

When I received my bag of food from the woman behind the counter, I thought she’d accidently put one of the bricks from the J&J Plaza in the bag. But no, no building materials, only lots of food.

All the Plates are available in mini and regular sizes. The mini includes one scoop of each side, while the regular includes two. As a first-time customer, I opted for the regular size, figuring I’m a regular guy with a possibly above average appetite.

If by regular, they mean regular couple or regular family of four with small children, then it’d be accurate. I typically don’t bring a bathroom scale to a restaurant, so my estimation is far from official, but it felt like at least two pounds of food.

And it was two pounds of really good food too. And at a great price: $8.25 for the Plate.

The pork, advertised as “smoked-flavored,” was indeed smoky. The terminology leads me to believe the smoke may have come from a bottle rather than wood, but kalua cooking is a traditional method in which the food, typically a whole pig, is buried in an underground pit filled with hot coals, and unless the owners of the J&J Plaza don’t mind a few large potholes in the parking lot, the pit ovens might have to be saved for later.

Fire pit or not, the pork was quite good. It comes mixed with slow-cooked cabbage, which soaks up all the fat and juices from the pork as the two cook. The best kinds of vegetables are vegetables cooked in meat juices, so I wholeheartedly approve.

The meat remained tender and juicy, and fortunately, L&L is generous with including a good dose of the cooking liquid as well. That works well for the white rice, which is a bit soft but pleasantly sticky and apt to soak up all the meat juices. Long story short, the more meat juices, the better.

The macaroni salad scoops alongside were warm, which may shock an amateur eater, but as a proud upstate New Yorker who has enjoyed his fair share of Rochester garbage plates, where the warm but sturdy macaroni salad is an integral component, I quite enjoyed it.

I could draw an analogy between the macaroni salad and a fine red wine, saying how both need to be served at the ideal just-below room temperature to unleash the full bouquet of flavor, but that would be ridiculous. I found myself spearing a few noodles and a chunk of pork on the same bite anyway, so it was going to warm up no matter what.

Due to L&L’s close proximity to Fort Drum, it was no surprise the restaurant was largely full of uniformed soldiers chowing down. There’s free Wi-Fi available in the restaurant, if you count the signal emanating from the Dunkin Donuts on the corner.

Some of the soldiers appeared to be opting for a more healthy meal than I, a request that the restaurant caters to with its “Healthier Plates” section, consisting of chicken, shrimp, salmon or mahi-mahi served with brown rice and tossed salad.

If you’re like me and fatty pork sounds more appealing than lean chicken, come on the weekend for the pork lau lau, a bundle of slow-cooked pork wrapped in taro leaf and steamed. Unfortunately, I came during the week and was unable to sample it.

Fun fact: taro leaves are toxic when raw. I like to take risks with my foods, so I’ll be back.

Rating: 3.5, because of the seriously tasty food in huge portions and at affordable prices. If the meat was smoked in a large underground pit, it would have easily gotten 4 spoons.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

26390A U.S. Route 11, Evans Mills

629-5998

www.hawaiianbarbecue.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Delivery:

4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday

Noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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