The Hamburger Steak Plate: The Familiar as a Gateway to the Unfamiliar
By Richard Melendez, Digital Editor
The classic hamburger steak plate, in all its gravy-licious glory
I’ve previously sung the praises of the iconic Spam musubi, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of food in general. Hawai‘i’s unique melding of diverse cultures and traditions makes for a fascinating culinary landscape that food-lovers can revel in.
When I first moved to Hawai‘i oh-so-many years ago, I admit that I was intimidated by the local food choices. Sushi and Japanese food, in general, hadn’t yet reached the masses, the selections at the mon & pop Chinese restaurants here looked markedly different than the NY variety of Chinese food that I was used to, and authentic Hawaiian food was unheard of on the mainland (don’t get me started on the stereotypical, and patently un-Hawaiian, “Hawaiian” pizza).
Now, there’s absolutely a great argument to be made for stepping outside one’s comfort zone and trying new foods while exploring new surroundings. "When in Rome" and all that. My current adult self would definitely advocate for taking the path less-traveled and expanding one’s culinary horizons. But 20-year old me wasn’t having it. When faced with an unfamiliar menu, hamburger steak was a safe (i.e. cowardly) choice. And I have to say, looking back, there was no better entry point to local cuisine than via the hamburger steak plate.
Mainlanders may be familiar with its cousin, the Salisbury steak dinner, a frozen TV dinner staple for a couple of generations. Replace the overly-processed mashed potatoes with white rice, and the freezer burned peas & carrots with macaroni salad, and you’ve got a hamburger steak plate. Not only that, but you've also got the basic formula for local-style plate lunches, in general.
There’s much to be said for its simplicity. Take a hamburger patty (or two or three, depending on where you go), white rice, and macaroni salad. Oh, and the most important part: It's all topped with gravy. It may seem like there’s really not much to it, but… there is. Everyone makes their patty differently. Same goes for the mac salad. The gravy, however—that can make or break the plate. Is it housemade stock? Is it the canned stuff? Dark, light, thick, lumpy, runny? Onions, mushrooms, both or neither? So many factors to consider and wrestle with.
The great thing about hamburger steak is that its uncomplicated nature makes it ripe for modification. Brown rice instead of white? No problem. Replace the beef with a vegetarian patty? Done. Chili instead of gravy? Okay, I like the way you think. The most famous variation, by far, is the loco moco. It’s the traditional hamburger steak plate but topped off with a fried egg, elevating the experience to new heights. When you consider all the food options available, local or otherwise, the possibilities are endless.
Don’t be shy! Go all out in your experimentation. I once had a version that consisted of a hamburger patty on a bed of mac n’ cheese, covered in chili, with a fried egg on top! (Yes, and I lived to tell about it. Nope, no regrets, whatsoever.) It’s hard to beat the original version, though. There’s a lot to say for keeping things simple. Stray too far and it becomes something else entirely, and why would you want to do that?
Perhaps the saddest sight on Earth...
Now that you're familiar with the tried and true formula of protein + rice + salad, take some detours! Next time you go out to eat, try the chicken katsu or teriyaki beef. Venture into a Korean restaurant and sample one of their plates, like meat jun or kalbi short ribs. Instead of macaroni salad, try kimchi or choy sum. Hawai‘i's rich history means that there are dozens of cultures mingling here, and their cuisines can be found everywhere. By all means, enjoy the comforting tastes of hamburger steak, but don't stop there. Once you've dipped your toes in, take a leap and try something new. The vast ocean of local menu items isn't so intimidating once you're in the water.
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