There are two phrases you need to know when you’re talking about Hawaiian food: “ono grinds” and “broke da mouth.” Both are pidgin-English slang for delicious. There’s no shortage of incredible authentic Hawaiian-style restaurants in Oregon thanks to the continued growth of Hawaii transplants looking for a taste of home. (The pipeline is nothing new: Native Hawaiians were among the first outsiders to come to Oregon — they sailed from the islands to Oregon in handmade ships as far back as the late 1800s for trading and later to work as laborers. Several Oregon destinations, like the Owyhee River, even hold Hawaiian place names after the trio of Hawaiian trappers who lost their lives there.)
The Portland region and cities throughout the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon (in general, nearby any college town) are chock-full of places to grab a traditional “plate lunch.” Those follow a standard formula of two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and a meaty dish like teriyaki beef or chicken, kalbi ribs, or chicken katsu. Don’t forget the classic loco moco — a hamburger patty on rice topped with brown gravy and a fried egg — and the humble Spam musubi, a portable rectangle of rice topped with soy-glazed Spam, which was a common military ration during World War II in Hawaii. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.
“Local” Food and Hawaiian Food
Easy and affordable takeout food, the plate lunch comes from the melting pot of cultures that melded in the 1880s as Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese and other immigrants worked in Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations. They brought their leftover dinner — fish, meat and rice — for lunch in metal tins each day. It soon became a national phenomenon, something you can find (always with wooden chopsticks) in nearly any American city at a food truck, cheery eatery or even taken up a notch at a chef-driven restaurant.
“You have a huge contingency of locals who have moved away from Hawaii because they’re looking for a better life — there’s more possibilities up here,” says Noho Marchesi, owner of Noho’s Hawaiian Cafe, one of Portland’s classic restaurants, around for three decades. With two locations (Northeast Portland and Medford, where there’s also a large Hawaii contingent), Noho’s is known for its large portion sizes and signature mochiko chicken — crunchy deep-fried bites battered in sweet rice flour and marinated in a sugar-soy sauce mix. Noho prides himself on making all sauces from scratch and keeping things consistent amidst the explosion of local island fare.
A quick word about the difference between “local” and “Hawaiian”: Hawaiian refers to the specific ethnic group and culture of Hawaii’s Indigenous peoples. Hawaiian dishes, which you might have tried at a luau, include poi (mashed taro root, often sweetened with sugar), kalua pork (traditionally slow-roasted in an underground oven), lau lau (fish and pork wrapped in banana leaves and steamed) and lomi lomi salmon (fresh salted salmon, tomato and onions), among others. These classics have lived on — and now are part of the plate-lunch culture. Most of what you’ll see on a menu, however, is considered “local” or “Hawaiian-style” food.
Here’s just a small sampling of some of Oregon’s favorite spots that are sure to bring a little dose of aloha to your day.
You can’t throw a Spam musubi in the Portland region without finding a great plate-lunch place. L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Roxy’s Island Grill and 808 Grinds are beloved classics, with multiple locations. Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grille has been serving up aloha along with large plates of island favorites and live music (temporarily suspended) in Southwest Portland since 1999. Also on the west side, hungry diners can find In Da Cutz, a popular food truck in Beaverton, and Kamaaina, a restaurant in Forest Grove that also has a food cart in Hillsboro and another roving truck. On the east side there’s GrindWitTryz, a food cart turned restaurant, and Smokin Fire Fish, both in Northeast Portland. Milwaukie is home to Ohana Hawaiian Cafe, a bright, cheery lunch spot downtown. With two Portland locations, Ate-Oh-Ate (named for the 808 Hawaii area code) is co-owned by Big Island-born chef Ben Dyer, who’s also behind Laurelhurst Market and other Rose City mainstays.
Maybe it’s the sunshine or maybe it’s the large pipeline of students from Hawaii to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, but there’s an insatiable appetite for Hawaiian-style food in this region. Auntie Carol’s Hawaiian Cafe and Catering and Hawaiian Hut in Medford serve much more than just heaping plates of tasty teriyaki — they are havens where homesick students and even longtime Oregonians can get a taste of home. Kona Bento in Central Point and Orchid Grill in Grants Pass also fill the niche for nostalgic flavors.
Thanks to the large number of Hawaiian students who attend the University of Oregon and Oregon State University and often stay in Oregon after graduating, the Willamette Valley is a hotbed of local comfort food. Local Boyz Hawaiian Cafe (opened in 1991 by Noho Marchesi and his brother, Roy) and Getsum Aloha Kine Grinds are favorites in Corvallis, serving up hefty plate lunches to students and visitors alike. Wild Pineapple Grill and Shaka Brah Food Truck in Salem are go-to spots for tasty fare — don’t miss the Pele’s Fury at Shaka Brah — a rum-based shave ice. In Eugene Makuahine’s Pacific Islands Streatery, Chacha’s Hawaiian Grill and Kalani’s Curbside Island Style Grinds are fast and fresh options for soul-warming curries, stews and saimin (local-style ramen) on a cool day. Hawaiian Time has three locations in Eugene, one in Springfield, two in Salem, one in Oregon City and one in Beaverton — most of which have a drive-thru available.
Even while the 363 miles of Oregon coastline are vastly different from Hawaii’s shores, there’s a kinship between islanders and foodies on the Oregon Coast. Part of the draw is the surf culture; another is the bounty of fresh ingredients that are the inspiration to every dish. Try Tropics Island Grill in Rockaway Beach, Nani Papa’a-Teri-Trucky Mobil in Tillamook and Pacific Restaurant, also in Tillamook, for elevated fusion flavors. The Hukilau in Florence is named for the Native Hawaiian tradition of pulling in a fishing net together; the restaurant was an outgrowth of their popular food cart. Owners Christian Jakobsen, a Maui-born sushi chef, and his wife, Natasha, serve tropical drinks alongside their Pacific Rim fare, including unique sushi rolls, curries and even tacos.
Mt. Hood and Columbia River Gorge
Islanders are drawn to the Gorge for its water sports and sunshine, and road-trippers looking for excellent local fare rave about Lilo’s BBQ, with locations in Hood River and The Dalles. The ahi poke, teriyaki salmon and huli huli (rotisserie-style) chicken are favorites, and a mai tai at the bar always hits the spot. In Troutdale, Da Pine Grinds food truck (an offshoot of Sugarpine Drive-In) has been a welcome addition to the area. Inspired by the owners’ experiences at Hawaiian luaus and vacations to Kauai, their food combines the spirit of aloha with local farmers market ingredients. Some dishes are even family recipes, with Pacific Northwest flair. Grab a plate lunch and picnic steps away at Glenn Otto Community Park, along the bank of the Sandy River.
With its arid, high-desert climate and Mt. Bachelor’s draw of surfers turned snowboarders, Bend is a hot spot for Hawaiian-style eats. Aloha Cafe, Aina Kauai Style Grill and Big Island Kona Mix Plate, located in the Old Mill District, are all reliable go-tos for hungry adventurers.