Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chicken Katsu Curry

L&L's Chicken Katsu Curry Mini Plate with French Fries and Curry on the side where it belongs.

Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, a place in Honolulu called I Love Country Cafe quietly started serving a dish called Chicken Katsu Curry. Their version featured the ubiquitous chicken katsu (an island variation on a Japanese tradition) smothered in a brown curry sauce over two scoops of brown rice and a green salad. It was the "healthier" version of the typical Hawaiian plate lunch.

Fast forward to today and it seems that every plate lunch joint has incorporated this dish into their menu - to the point where I think a new generation has grown up in Hawaii (and elsewhere) thinking that Chicken Katsu Curry is as "Hawaiian" a plate lunch as is Kalua Pig and Lau Lau.

So, whenever I visit Honolulu (or the West Coast), I try to make a point of it to stop at a favorite plate lunch joint. Beyond all others is the now ubiquitous L&L Drive Inn, also known on the mainland as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Now, how "barbecue" and "plate lunch" has become synonymous with each other is only known to the mind of Eddie Flores (the owner of L&L). What was once a couple plate lunch joints on Oahu is now a multi-state franchise that reaches all the way from Hawaii to 64 Fulton Street in New York City.

I've been in L.A. now for over a week. I used to come here a lot for work, both when I worked in the movie and paintball businesses. It's nearly a second home for me. I was even invited to join The Grand Havana Room in 1995 when it first opened. Because of this, being in L.A. is really like being at home - kinda boring. What's there to do? What's there to do at home? Exactly! Nada. The only thing there really is to do of interest is eat, so off to L&L I go.

The Hawthorne branch of L&L is an average sized plate lunch place with all the usual menu items. The biggest problem with L&L is their exclusivity with Pepsi. I abhor Pepsi and refuse to drink it. But I'm here for the curry.

When visiting any L&L beware of the serving sizes. Their plate lunch is huge. I can't finish it. And if I do, I'm hating myself for it. It's a monster. Better to go with the "mini plate" that consists of less meat, one scoop of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. It's much more manageable and still quite filling.

Everything is prepared as expected. There's no surprises here. It's fried food galore and nicely done. Good thing I got the curry sauce on the side because one bite reminds me that I hate L&L's curry sauce. It's this yellow muck that's just lame on flavor. Their tonkatsu sauce would have been the better choice. Did I say their curry sauce sucks? I did? Well, let me say it again: I hate their curry sauce. It's just nasty. Mostly coconut milk with some coloring and very little flavor to make it pop. After a few bites, I abandoned the sauce altogether and stuck with the Tabasco.

I'm a texture freak. Which means that I love all sorts of textures while eating. The crunchy batter of the katsu, the pillowy softness of the rice, the spice of the Tabasco, the chewiness of the macaroni and the crispiness of french fries. The truth is, like rice, I can eat french fries with anything. It's my addiction. It's my version of crack cocaine. The L&L version is typical Sysco-style frozen crap but it does the job.

One thing I've learned over the years is that while L&L may be everywhere, it's really just perfunctory in quality. Whether you're in Hawaii or on the West Coast, there's typically some other plate lunch joint that's doing it better. When I'm back in Honolulu, I prefer You Hungry? In Vegas, I prefer Ohana's Hawaiian Barbecue, and in L.A., I'm starting to prefer Bruddah's. Conversely, when I'm in a pinch (or in Washington state or New York City) and I need my plate lunch fix, L&L fits the bill.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue
5257 West Rosecrans Street
Hawthorne, CA 90250

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