Cruising For Meals On Wheels

Susan Sunderland
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Wednesday - November 09, 2005

The city knows who’s important at lunchtime
The city knows who’s important at

Wherever you find surfers, construction workers or hungry office workers, you’ll find lunch wagons. These are meals on wheels at a great price. No frills, no fuss. One simply walks up, checks out the menu board, and carries away Hawaii’s state meal, da plate lunch.

The concept originated in the plantation days when trucks would bring boxed meals (bento) to the field workers. Lunch wagons flourished during World War II as dockyard and military workers grew weary of institutional food. My brother Gary Kang remembers the days of paper plate lunches at 50 cents.

Tradition is deeply rooted in our Island lifestyle. The lunch wagon is a dining icon that remains long after trendy bistros and sophisticated restaurants have come and gone. Quick service out of the side panel of a truck, friendly patter of the proprietor, contentment from a local-style meal ... these ingredients never change.

Warren Dabalos of New Eagle’s lunch wagon hands a mahi/ribs mixed plate to Mario Macaranas
Warren Dabalos of New Eagle’s lunch wagon
hands a mahi/ribs mixed plate to Mario

However, other changes are taking place, we found out on a recent tour of wagons. Fancier fare is being offered along with carbo-loaded favorites for which lunch wagons are known. Dash the thought of beef-stew-and-rice and hamburger-and-gravy meals. Today you can get prime rib, steamed mullet, teppanyaki steak, and even lobster tail at a lunch wagon. Would I kid you at lunchtime?

Here’s a roundup of lunch wagons in our town.

Operating hours are generally 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (or when the food runs out). Let us know where your favorite is - there are 571 permitted lunch wagons on Oahu.

Serge Canesco hands a mini stew to Victoria P. Lum at Nicky’s
Serge Canesco hands a mini stew to Victoria P.
Lum at Nicky’s

Lucky’s Island Plate & Shrimp

Pensacola and Hopaka streets

Loveal Sing’s claim to fame is that she was on the KHON 2 Morning News with Manolo Morales. A little media exposure put her lunch wagon on the map, which is a good thing because it’s not easy to find - but worth seeking out. Lucky’s is parked on the side of the Auto Audio shop, behind the Blackfield Building and a half-block diamondhead of McKinley Car Wash. Plate lunches range from $5.50 for stuff like Sweet Thai Chili Chicken, up to $11 for Salmon & Steak. The Surf & Turf Bento is a best-seller ($6) with tempura, garlic shrimp, fried chicken, steak, Spam on furikake rice.

Pu‘uwainani does a brisk lunch business
Pu‘uwainani does a brisk lunch business

New Eagle Café Queen Street, near Ward Avenue

This lunch wagon is wedged between a pink building and a fence. It looks like an abandoned vehicle or a major parking goof. But the hilarity ends there, because there’s seriously good food here. Taking orders from the back door of the white truck, Creighton Wong and Susie Nakashima offer delicious meals prepared by New Eagle Café on Nimitz Highway. Amazing choices listed on the menu board include Mongolian Beef, Ahi Poke, Short Ribs & Shrimp, Prime Rib, and even escargot. Pot Roast Pork, Teriyaki Meat Balls, Lasagna, and Garlic Chicken are available too. If they’re not, it’s because you’re there too late. Regular: $4.50, mixed (two choices) and daily specials $5.

Nathaniel Hasegawa picks up some meat jun plates served by Martha Botelho Simply Ono
Nathaniel Hasegawa picks up some meat jun
plates served by Martha Botelho Simply Ono

Nicky’s Mililani and King streets Downtowners know about the two lunch wagons on Mililani Street, near the Kamehameha statue. This one’s on the mauka corner in a faded blue truck, or is that pale white? Sergio Caneso helps you and chats while you decide on Garlic Chicken, Lamb Curry, Pork Gisantes, Kim Chee Fried Rice with Shoyu Chicken, Beef Tomato, or Grilled Ahi. Menu changes daily. Sandwich and soda at $2.75 is a best-buy. Regular plate: $5, mixed plate: $5, mini: $4, bowl meal: $3.

Pu’uwainani Halekauwila and South streets

Phone: 286-5388

Kevin Ahakuelo is ready to take your order at Tae's Teppanyaki
Kevin Ahakuelo is ready to take your order at
Tae’s Teppanyaki

OK, my secret’s out. This is a “find” I was keeping to myself and my frequent-diner card. But now I’ll reveal this treasure operated by Marcos and Lendy Rebisis. French cuisine-trained chef Rebisis bought an old Al Phillips the Cleaner truck three years ago and converted it to a lunch wagon. Garlic Ahi with sweet wasabi sauce, Furikake Mahi in wasabi tartar sauce, Fried Ahi Poke, Misoyaki Butterfish, and Crab Stuffed Salmon with white wine sauce defy typical lunch wagon fare. Priced $5-$6.75, it’s ono haute cuisine on Styrofoam, sans snobby maitre d’. C’est tres bon, with two scoops of aloha.

Simply Ono Kewalo Basin and Behind Honolulu Municipal Building

Phone: 255-2283

Doris Nabarro serves Gaylord Mook at the Tsukenjo lunch wagon - The'Queen of Lunch Wagons'
Doris Nabarro serves Gaylord Mook at the
Tsukenjo lunch wagon - The’Queen of Lunch

Voted best lunch wagon on several occasions, it’s hard to ignore an operation that offers Beef Wellington, Rack of Lamb, and Steamed Mullet-Chinese Style. Co-owners Cora Stevens and Harris Sugita left the formal kitchen of Kahala Hilton 10 years ago to pursue a dream of serving gourmet kau-kau out of a lunch wagon. You’ll find Simply Ono at the Diamond Head end of Kewalo Basin and behind the Honolulu Municipal Building, corner of King and Alapai Streets. Menu changes daily, but selections (from $4.75) could include Herb Roasted Chicken, Fishcake Patties with ponzu sauce, Okinawa Pork, fresh catch of the day, and home-style Baked Spaghetti. Winnah mixed plate at Kewalo Basin ($6) has hamburger steak, chicken, hot dog, and spaghetti.

Tae’s Teppanyaki Daiei-Kaheka Street Kalani grad Kevin Ahakuelo was Restaurant Suntory’s chief teppanyaki chef at one time. Today, he prefers to “turn and burn” on the grill in a lunch wagon parked behind the Pan Am Building. There’s a steady stream of patrons who savor his unique Ribeye Steak Rolls. For $5.50, there’s a choice of freshly grilled steak done one of five ways: Wasabi, Garlic, Spicy, Teri or Salt-and-Pepper. Each comes with white rice, ponzu sauce, romaine lettuce and steak wrapped around julienne potatoes. Wasabi steak gets my vote for best plate lunch presentation in town.

Lou Aquino picks up beef stew and teri chicken from Tommy and Daniel Kwon at Tommy's lunch wagon
Lou Aquino picks up beef stew and teri chicken
from Tommy and Daniel Kwon at Tommy’s
lunch wagon”

Tommy’s Mililani and Queen streets This is the second lunch wagon parked behind the downtown Post Office and Court House Building. In businesslike efficiency, patrons line up to declare choice of entrée, portion, beverage; pay and leave. Sort of like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. But it works beautifully, and the food’s really good. Try Teri Chicken, Meat Loaf, Roast Pork, Pork Adobo or Tripe Stew with requisite rice-andmac-salad. Regular plate: $4.50, mini: $3.50; and mixed (two choices): $5.50. Don’t dally, or you’ll be trampled.


Queen Street and Ward Avenue

Drum roll. Now, for the undisputed Queen of Lunch Wagons. The familiar red truck with white trim is a landmark in Kakaako, parked at the corner of Ward Avenue and Queen Street. Tsukenjo Lunch House was started 46 years ago by Tetsu and Mitsuko Tsukenjo. Today, daughter Doris Nabarro runs the Cooke Street diner and its popular lunch wagon. Roast Pork is the perennial favorite, but there are other fine choices (all under $6) such as Hawaiian Plate, Corned Beef Hash with Chow Fun, Curry Stew and Swiss Steak. Same rotating menu at the Lunch House is offered at the wagon. Check out the autographed picture of Teddy Randazzo at the wagon. Sigh.

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