Hawaiian BBQ is one of the Bay Area’s great multicultural cuisines

Jacinto started the business in 2017, when her former employer at the Hawaiian Grill Express in San Lorenzo asked her if she would be interested in running her own restaurant as a co-owner. Since then, Jacinto has overseen the success of iLava, expanding into restaurant services and a food truck that drives throughout the Bay Area.

The company serves classic Hawaiian-style plated lunches that include dishes like barbecue chicken, beef and 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 passion fruit and mango.

The one Yelp A reviewer who says iLava is “not a real authentic Hawaiian place” because it doesn’t serve poi seems to be missing the point of what the restaurant does well: a California version of Pacific Island food, served at reasonable prices, in a part of town that otherwise lacks any major Polynesian presence.

In many ways, Hawaiian culinary history seems to be just that – a whirlwind of diverse and inexplicably linked ingredients from diverse sources that can be cooked on the spot for anyone hungry. Jacinto embodies this fusion in his own journey. After immigrating to East Bay from the Philippines in 2009, Jacinto missed the flavors of her past. Although she was not Hawaiian by birth, many members of her Filipino family immigrated to Hawaii in the 1990s. During annual trips to the islands, she discovered the nuanced varieties of regional foods while helping her mother to cook for relatives. According to Jacinto, the parallels between Hawaiians and Filipinos are unmistakable, evidenced by “a great sense of hospitality, an appreciation of the tropical climate, 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 enthusiastically compared the dish to carnitas.) Filipino ube (purple yam puree) has a distinct purple hue, much like Hawaiian poi.

From an early age, Jacinto cooked meat skewers on the streets of his native country, grilled them over open flames and sold them to neighbors and passers-by on the way to work. It was relatively inexpensive and convenient, she explains, to prepare food this way. It was there that she gained an appreciation for barbecue.

A Bay Area classic

Of course, Hawaiian food is much more than grilled meats. But this particular style, commonly referred to as “Hawaiian barbecue,” is the one most widely available here in the Bay Area, especially the classic dining style known as plated dining. born of a working class context of mixed food scraps—leftovers from the previous night’s meals of rice, macaroni and a protein, crammed into a to-go bento box – the plated lunch has become a definite California favourite.

Hayward-based Hawaiian cook and musician Patrick Landeza specializes in poke. But he appreciates how Hawaiian barbecue spots are making the culture more accessible to the general public. (Courtesy of Patrick Landeza)

“A plated lunch is just a mixture of things. We speak Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian and more. We’re here in the Bay Area, and that’s our taste profile, which is why it’s popping up everywhere,” says Patrick Landeza, a Hawaiian cook and musician who owns Landeza’s Island Poke & Food at Hayward, and is a member of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce in Northern California.

Although Landeza thinks most Hawaiian barbecue outlets lack “true aloha,” or a sense of soul and genuine service, he also admits they’re good at “doing what they do.” they do by serving comfort food”. Raised on “Berkeley Island,” 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 recognizes the importance and accessibility of traditional Hawaiian barbecue among the non-Hawaiian population.

The origins of the kitchen on the continent date back to 1999 when Johnson Kam and Eddie Flores, Jr. opened their first Hawaiian L&L BBQ outside of Hawaii. It was already three decades after the duo successfully launched the original L&L Drive-In in 1976, in the Kalihi neighborhood of Oahu.

Their brand of quick and easy Hawaiian meals hit California shores when former employee moved to San Francisco and began serving its own Hawaiian-style plated lunches as a side-hustle, says Landeza. This initial success eventually led to the marketing of Hawaiian foodservice which has since proliferated under the L&L brand. Today, the chain has over 200 locations across the United States, including the recent opening of their first franchise as far east as Florida.

Like the plates they serve, the dishes of L&L “Hawaii’s state food” is a fusion of past traditions with modern business opportunities. They were able to offer the property to anyone willing to invest in their franchise model, whether they were of Hawaiian descent or not. A wave of shops selling what we now call “Hawaiian barbecue” emerged as a result, often owned by immigrants like Jacinto.

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