Two scoops of sticky rice, one scoop of mayonnaise-laden macaroni salad, and an entree: The Hawaiian plate lunch hews to a simple formula, but it’s one that’s been selling out Ono Hawaiian Plates’ pop-ups for the past year and half.
“People are waiting in line for an hour, hour and a half," says Warren Seta, who runs Ono Hawaiian Plates with Jess Kelley. "At the last one, we served about 500 people—it’s beyond our wildest dreams how people in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the metro area have taken to it. ”
“Our catering is going bananas right now,” says Kelley. “We’re getting all these inquiries from people who don’t want to wait until the next pop-up.”
For both Seta, who was born and raised in Hawaii, and Kelley, who lived in Hawaii for 17 years, Hawaiian plate lunches are comfort food, a taste of the islands served up in generous portions.
“In college, I would save up my money and eat off of one for three days!” Kelley says with a laugh.
“My first experience with plate lunch, I was probably four or five years old, sitting on the beach with my grandfather,” says Seta. “I remember eating beef stew and rice and mac salad, holding that plate that was as big as I was. I remember the beach, the smell, the sound.”
“I try to recreate that,” he continues. “It’s important to me, and to us. The food itself is food, but if we can bring the aloha and what I felt when I was sitting on the beach with my grandfather, that’s where the soul comes from.”
But Seta and Kelley’s professional culinary experience was in high-end restaurants—plate lunches are akin to fast food. “When we came here, I never thought I’d do plate lunch,” says Kelley. “That’s kind of like working in McDonald’s on Hawaii.”
But unlike the cuisine at Mickey D’s, plate lunches reflect Hawaii’s rich cultural and culinary diversity—common entrees include Japanese chicken katsu, Korean barbecue, and Hawaiian kalua pork. The two scoops of rice represent a staple across many immigrants’ cultures, and Seta speculates that the macaroni salad hails from Caucasian plantation bosses.
“Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities,” Seta says. “Many years ago it was a plantation community—[there were] many immigrants in early 1900s to facilitate a workforce for the sugarcane and pineapple industries. There was an influx from the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Puerto Rico.”
“Our mix of food growing up was like, Grandma would make beef stew, an aunt would make fried chicken, there would be sushi over here, roast turkey here,” he adds. “Growing up, I thought the whole world ate like that. Going way back, you realize that we ate fusion before fusion was a word.”
Although they’re working within the plate lunch format, Seta and Kelley’s fine dining background is evident in the menu. “One of our most popular [items] is the chicken katsu,” says Seta. “We take it one step further because I’m classically trained: We butterfly it, then garlic brine it. That permeates into the chicken itself. Then we panko crust, not the day before, but almost just before service.”
The barbecue mixed plate, which features a Korean-style soy-ginger-garlic sauce, is served with house-made kimchi. Kalua pork is roasted in the oven for five hours. The macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi is finished with a Thai chili beurre blanc.
“We do this thing called spam musubi,” says Seta. “Some people would say it’s like spam sushi, with rice and nori, although from a culinary standpoint it’s not because the rice isn’t seasoned with vinegar. That sells out. If we make 80, we sell 80, if we make 200, we sell 200.”
“We’ve been doing high-end stuff for all our careers, we make Spam and people are lining up at the door. It’s crazy.”
In light of that popularity, the next Ono Hawaiian Plates pop-up on Saturday, April 20 will be held at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, a larger venue than previous pop-ups at Cook St. Paul. Officially, it’s scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m., but don’t expect the food to last until the bitter end: “All the pop-ups we’ve sold out, every single time,” says Kelley.
“I think the magic to the food and the concept is that the food is not pretentious,” Seta says. “Whether you’ve had a plate lunch or not, whether you’ve been to Hawaii or not, people want to try something different culturally…. Chicken katsu, beef stew, people can get into it—it’s palatable, and they’re not spending the bank if they don’t like it. I think the metro area needs it.”
Given Ono Hawaiian Plates’ runaway success, Seta indicates that “a brick-and-mortar is within reason,” but he emphasizes that he and Kelley are more focused on bringing Hawaiian soul food to Twin Cities than on the bottom line.
“It’s about sharing our culture,” he says. “When people come and say, ‘Wow, that brought me back to Hawaii’—I think that’s what we want. The financial benefits, that’s just icing on the cake. First we need to start with our culture, and wanting to share real aloha. We do it through food and cordial counter service. We bring people to the islands for 15 minutes, half an hour of their day.”
Kelley agrees. “The best compliment is when people who have lived on Hawaii come up and say, ‘Thank you, it makes us feel like home.’”