There is sushi. And then there is Spam musubi. Spam musubi is a brick of vinegared sushi rice, the size of a chalkboard eraser but with 20 times the heft, burrito-wrapped in a sheet of dark-green nori seaweed and stuffed with a pink, glistening slab of the luncheon meat. It’s substantial, Spam musubi, sweet, salty and faintly tart, porky more in its aftertaste than in its first full-frontal assault, with a density just this side of lead. You could, I think, wrap your knuckles around a Spam musubi and knock out a punk in a bar. A single Spam musubi — it is almost always served as a snack or a side dish — could probably feed three hungry kids for a week.
Spam musubi is a specialty of the other Pacific Rim cuisine, the spectacular miscegenation of Asian flavors and vernacular American technique that has made up street-level Hawaiian cooking for decades. Spam musubi, not the baroque, Frenchified concoctions of mahi-mahi, papaya and baby ginger that prettify the menus at
hotel restaurants, is the real soul food of Hawaii. So are square meals of saimin noodles, teriyaki and deep-fried pork with
curry; shave ice, chili rice and vast hamburger steaks with soy-flavored gravy.
The classic form of the Hawaiian plate lunch — two neat scoops of rice flanking a single scoop of macaroni salad, a few shreds of the Japanese pickled cabbage called tsukemono, and a heap of teriyaki pork or grilled short ribs — is as traditional and unchanging as a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder Meal or, more to the point, a Southern diner’s meat and
threes. (A current exhibit at the Japanese-American Museum in Little Tokyo proposes the evolution of the traditional multicourse Japanese bento-box lunch into the all-American Hawaiian plate lunch as a metaphor for the march of Hawaiian culture.) Hawaiian food, in its purest form, tends to be . . . basic.
Many places in Southern California, places that tend to involve costly imported fish and pretty ocean views, advertise ersatz Hawaiian cooking. But if you want to taste the real food, as authentically American as Creole cooking or Down East cuisine, you’ll have to visit one of the dozens of Hawaiian joints, often
masquerading as burger stands or teriyaki huts, in the San Gabriel Valley or the South Bay.
The best of the local Hawaiian places may be Shakas, a Formica-clad takeout restaurant near the southern edge of Monterey Park, in an area where the Chinese restaurants give way to somewhat older Japanese restaurants, pastrami stands and vast electronics stores. There are always a few football-player-looking guys in here — Shakas does not serve diet food — as well as a handful of kids eating powdery shave ice, and skinny computer geeks who can do serious damage to a teriyaki bowl. Shakas — a shaka is a hand sign, basically a fist with pinkie and thumb extended, indicating kinship — while wonderful in its way, possesses slightly fewer amenities than a Burger King.
You’ll find Spam musubi at Shakas, of course, green paving stones that mercifully don’t taste that much like Spam, and the fried Japanese dumplings gyoza, and a mild chicken curry with potatoes. The Chinese chicken salad, not too sugary, is terrific, spiked with crunchy, toasty bits of bird and shreds of fried wonton skin. The plate lunches — the gravy-soaked hamburger steak called loco moco, the fried chicken cutlet, the Spam and eggs — are absolutely classic, mounds of rice standing proudly as the nuclear domes up the coast from Trestles, and the macaroni salad even has a little flavor, though I couldn’t actually tell you what flavor it is.
Teriyaki beef is a mellow variation of the stuff you find topping the rice at Beef Bowl — for something closer to what we all grew up thinking of as teriyaki, try the sweet Korean-style grilled short ribs, a.k.a. kalbi. Sesame chicken, goopy deep-fried drumettes dipped in syrup and rolled in sesame seeds, is strictly steam-table grub, though after a couple of bites you may find yourself powering through a pound of the things.
Lau lau, bland pork steamed in taro leaves, has never been my cup of poi, though Shakas’ version is certainly fresher-tasting than the version at, say, Maui Boy in Torrance. Try it with a relish of lomi salmon, which is like a juicy pico de gallo spiked with little cubes of chopped, fermented salmon. Best of all is kalua pork, the stalwart of the luau pit, a pig baked at low temperature until the meat collapses in on itself, fatty, unbelievably rich, disconcerting at first because it is utterly unseasoned, but ultimately as satisfying as stringy North Carolina–style barbecue. Shakas knows how much of the stuff you’ll ultimately eat — kalua pork is sold primarily by the pound.
2300 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (213) 888-2695. Open daily, 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7–$13. No alcohol. Lot parking. Catering. Takeout. Cash only. Recommended dishes: lomi salmon, kalua pork, shave ice.