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Plate Lunch Presentation 101

Kalbi plate from Asahi Grill

When you think of a local plate lunch, the first thing that comes to mind are two scoops rice, one scoop mac’ salad and a huge helping of an entree fit for an energy-starved truck driver, right? Yet how about the plate or container which those are served on?

As you all know, the food service industry has embraced the ambiguous white styrofoam “clamshell” takeout container, which in my humble opinion is too sterile, lacks character and degrades presentation.

Take for example this Boneless Chicken and Teriyaki Beef Plate from Richie’s Drive Inn, circa 2008….

Ah yes, the classic paper plate with a cardboard box as its protective carrying vessel. I LOVE THAT! Isn’t this exciting?! Me thinks so.

Now fast-forward to 2010, even Richie’s has done away with this method, going the white styrofoam “clamshell” takeout container route, or as we’ll conveniently abbreviate here by acronym from now on as the “WSCTC”…

Now tell me which plate lunch presentation looks better to you: the one on the paper plate in the box, or the one in the “WSCTC”? I think it will depend on what you grew up with, which being for me having grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, obviously I’m going with the paper plate (wow, I make the 70’s and 80’s sound ANCIENT lol).

For those of you paper plate “traditionalists” (like me), rejoice! For Rainbow Drive In on Kapahulu avenue still sells their plate lunches on paper plates encased in a white cardboad box…

Including the square piece of butcher paper on top to keep the food hot!…

While I don’t work in the industry, I’m sure economics have lots to do with everyone going the “WSCTC” route, which may cost around 10-25 cents per container,  versus say 35-50 cents for the paper plate, box and paper lining that Rainbow’s Drive Inn still uses. If I’m wrong on those figures, please correct me, as those are just “guesstimates”.

Now if you REALLY wanna’ talk “old school”, check out how this Okazuya on Kauai in Koloa town sells their stuff…

Brah, nevah’ (never) mind da’ (the) plate. Just slap (place) one sheet wax papah’ (paper) inside da’ box and throw everything on top (of) that! lol Classic! I love, love, love, love, love this!

This, in comparison to, for example St. Louis Delicatessen (Okazuya), who now also goes the “WSCTC” route…

Then there’s those who still embrace the classic “Chinette” paper plate, although they don’t put it in the white box. One of which would be Jin Joo Korean Restaurant in Waimalu Shopping Center…

Here, they simply cover and wrap the paper plate with tin foil to keep the food protected and hot.

The one true “old school” plate I don’t have a photo to share of is from Kanda “Kewalo” Lunch Wagon. Remember them? Their plates used to be served on this really porous, thick paper plate that I don’t think are even made anymore. They would line the plate with wax paper, put the food on that, cover it with another square (on a round plate) sheet of wax paper, then wrap that in butcher paper bound by rubber bands. If you ordered multiple plates, they would stack them on an empty soda case box. The ULTIMATE “old school” method of plate lunch presentation!

Now when it comes to Hawaiian food, the classic way to serve it is in them light green ABS plastic partitioned school cafeteria trays. Whereas at a luau or for takeout, would be in the disposable paper version of that like they do here at Highway Inn

This way, the “juices” from the Squid Luau, Chicken Long Rice and Lomi Salmon won’t run into one another. That is, if I HAD Squid Luau and Chicken Long Rice on that plate, which I don’t. Dam-it. lol Oh, did I say Highway Inn makes da’ BEST Lau Lau on the island? Well they do!

Interestingly, Helena’s Hawaiian Food doesn’t even use that, but puts each item in their own separate container for takeout…

For those of you who don’t know, that would be Poi on the top left, Haupia on the top right, Helena’s AWESOME Pipikaula (dried and fried beef) on the bottom left, and Hawaiian Beef Stew on the bottom right.

Now in comparison, here we have another very old school place at Alica’s Market, now going the modern “WSCTC” route with their Hawaiian food plate..

Hana-koko-le-lei (I’m telling your mother), look, da’ lomi salmon juice wen’ (went) leak inside da’ odda’ (other) side wit’ (with) the Kalua Pig. lol While I’m not a fan of the “WSCTC”, I have to give Alicia’s props (points) for serving their HOUSE-MADE Laulau with the Ti Leaf still wrapped on it. And I must say, this was one MIGHTY TASTY “container” of Hawaiian grindz! Container, not plate. Get it straight! lol

While I have some problems/issues/whatever you wanna’ call it with the very sterile color, material and design of the white styrofoam clamshell takeout container, for some reason a black colored clamshell takeout container is much more appealing (and don’t call me a racist, because I’m not)…

That would be a plate (container really) of steak from where else? Blazin’ Steaks! But seriously, for some reason the black color looks so much more “elegant” if you will. Especially in contrast to the colors of the food that sits within it.

Even with this small round plate of sashimi from Alicia’s, the black plate looks so much better than if it had been that sterile white color…

I think it’s all about the color contrast that does it. With the black color, you tend to look at the food, while with white colored wares, especially if its styrofoam, your eye tends to attract more to the void of the white than the food within it. At least that’s my opinion.

Sheesh, this is getting deeper than I thought. lol

While we’re on color, what if you made it CLEAR?…

While that Tofu Poke from Alicia’s was FANTASTIC, these clear plastic vacuum-formed containers make food look CHEAP. Not bad. Just cheap. I think between white, black or clear, black plates and containers have a much richer, more elegant look to it.

So does a fantastic spread of sushi (lunchbox) like this look cheapened when placed in clear plastic…

Still tastes like a million bucks though, don’t get me wrong!

Even this otherwise delicious Greek Salad and Grilled Ahi plate from Matters of Taste (now Eat Cafe Honolulu) doesn’t look as good as it could being packed in clear plastic…

If there’s any local company that’s akamai (smart) about marketing, it would be Zippy’s. Here you see they’re in accord with my thoughts on the subject, as while they’ve long since abandoned the paper plate and box method (which they used to do), at least the’re now using BLACK styrofoam and plastic “plates”…

This would a “plate” of Zippy’s Teriyaki Beef, Mandoo, Kim Chee Fried Rice and Egg. Wow, somebody call me a doctor! lol

Now imagine if that “plate” had been white or clear? It would look so much less appealing in my humble opinion. Black is back, baby.

Then there’s the topic of plate/container shape and design. In Zippy’s case of the black container they now use as shown above, they’ve decided to go with one one main partition for where the entree goes, and a horizontal second partition to where normally goes the 2 scoops rice and 1 scoop mac’ sal’. In this case they’ve changed it up, only because the Kim Chee Fried Rice is the main entree.

Then you have their mini plate, which is round and doesn’t have any partitions at all…

Frankly, if you ask me, when it comes to plate lunches, I prefer all the hamburger steak gravy “kissing” my mac salad and rice like that. If it’s partitioned, that only leaves me the “chore” of having to scoop my rice over the “lip” and back into the sauce. Brah, that makes life that much more difficult! lol

Then there’s the single dish rectangle-shaped bento style box, like Zippy’s now uses for their Fried Noodles…

Yet, like the “traditional” paper plate, even this type of container can serve as a platform for a major mix of food, as is the Zip Pac…

Back to the white styrofoam “clamshell” takeout container, some are partioned into three sections, like this one from Tatsuo’s….

In this case, they’ve placed the rice under the chicken katsu, so the curry covering it will ooze through the rice bed (good choice), while the second partition is reserved for the namasu, and the third for the mac’ sal’. Poor mac’ sal’ is always kept away by his lonely self from the “party”. lol

Then once in a while you’ve got some places who have their priorities all wrong  (I’m saying that lightheartedly). Take for instance here at Queen Street Cafe, where they put the two scoops rice in the main section, while relegating the main entree to the little section on the side!…

Eh brah, no make! (hey man, what’s your problem?!), wassup’ wit’ ‘dat? (what is up with that?). Some places get around the “priority syndrome” by putting one scoop rice in the smaller third partition, and the other next to or underneath the main entree in the big section. This way you have rice “options” of either being smothered in gravy or not. Or as the Philly Cheese Steak folks say, “wit” or “wit’ out”.

For the mini plate, some places have scaled-down versions of the multi-partitioined white styrofoam clamshell takeout container. While others have these half-sized elongated containers, like they do here at Kanak Attack

In Zippy’s case, instead of the 2-partioned rectangle styrofoam container, their mini plates are served on a black plastic round plate…

While at some very generous places, the mini plate is served in a regular sized plate, and the only thing “mini” about it is often just one less scoop rice! lol

Again, personally when it comes to a dish with gravy, I want that stuff all over my rice, like this SPAM JAM Loco Moco Plate

And this Zippy’s Chili Chicken Plate…

See, again in this case, I have the tough chore of having to scoop my lonely, unsauced rice over to the side where the teriyaki is on this Zippy’s Teriyaki Meatloaf plate….

If plate lunch cooks around the state would only realize this simple concept of “rice needs to be with sauce”, life for us “grinders” wouldn’t be so difficult. lol

Plate lunches aren’t necessarily always served in takeout form. If you dine in, some places serve it up in much sturdier porcelain dishware. Like this Mahimahi and Teriyaki Chicken plate from Ethel’s Grill

It would have been nice if they added some green on there, like say a sprig of Parsley or sprinkle of chopped green onion. What? I’m being too “fu fu”? lol

See, at least  The Shack Waikiki threw on some julienned green onion for that color contrast on this otherwise dominantly brown gravy-colored Hamburger steak plate…

Then you have the question of “to sauce or not to sauce”. As in, should the sauce be poured on your food by the cook? Or should they provide it on the side in a separate container. Where once again we’re at The Shack Waikiki with their Chicken Katsu plate, this time with the Katsu sauce served separately on the side in a container…

For some reason, the oval shape of the plate inspires the cook to place the rice at the “12 o’Clock position, like they also do here at Sam Sato’s

And Sam Sato’s Chop Steak…

In this case, notice for “token color contrast”, the cook added a small helping of (green) peas, (orange) carrot and (light green) lettuce under the mac’ sal’. Ah heck, whatever works. lol

This is what I mean about Mr. Mac’ Sal’ always being alone, as is the case again with this plate from Boulevard Saimin

Brah, I want that teriyaki sauce kissing my mac’! Poor guy.

Back to The Shack Waikiki, some food looks better not on a plate at all, but in a basket that’s lined with checkerboard-printed paper like this Shrimp ‘n Chips…

I still can’t figure out what it is, but something about food wrapped in or served on paper has so much appeal to me.

Then there’s the plate lunch cousin from Japan, the Bento lunch box, which most often are presented in rectangle or square single or multi-partitioned vacuum formed containers shaped like the traditional wooden box they were once served.

Like this bento from K’s Bento-Ya in Waipahu…

And this one from Marukai

Or this one from Don Quijote, which I’ll affectionately name the “Brady Bunch Bento”…

Some foods need to be in served bowls, such as soup and saimin. Or in this case, since they’re name is ‘Poke Bowl’,  they can’t serve a ‘Poke Bowl’ on a plate or in a bento box, right? No, it has to be served in a bowl…

Then there’s the case of how those bento boxes are delivered or merchandised. Unlike plate lunches, which are prepared to order, bento lunch boxes are usually made far in advance (usually early in the morning) and kept at warm or room temperature either simply on a table for sale display…

Or in “Bento Man’s” case (Nippon Restaurant and Catering), they’re transported to neighborhood businesses for sale in coolers in the back of a van…

Yet not all bento lunches are premade, as is the case with the bento from Poke Stop, which is made-to-order…

Any other “plate lunch presentation” containers we’ve left out so far? Sure. How about the paper tray, where here we have one filled with fried noodles from the Punahou Carnival

With all this talk of paper and plastic, surely the thought about our environment and saving the planet must come to mind, which I’m all for. One place that’s thinking “green” is Eat Cafe Honolulu in Gentry Pacific Design Center, who now serves their takeout food in 100% biodegradable, recycled materials containers…

This material seems like a hybrid blend of paper and plastic by the touch. Very interesting. Will our cars one day be made out of this stuff?

There you have it. I probably didn’t cover every style of plate or presentation around out there, but for the most part I’ve covered the most common.

Personally I wish everyone would go back to paper, preferably recycled. If not, black is back.

BWS Cafeteria – Baked pork chops in mushroom gravy with rice and salad


19 thoughts on “Plate Lunch Presentation 101

  • March 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    So far in the poll, I can’t believe two of you thought “This subject of how plate lunches are presented is totally lame and stupid. Don’t you have better things to blog about or do with your time?”

    No ack! lol

    Thankfully so far a majority of you are in accord with me about the “classic” (as simple as it may seem) paper plate “presentation”, as well as the part about the main entree “saucing-over” da’ rice!

  • March 14, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Though it all ends up in the stomach, we do eat with the eyes first. And something about the box, esp with the hint of what’s inside with the little grease stain on the top. Like that good girl in high school who winked at you…

  • March 14, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    I’m more concerned with the environment than presentation. It takes more than 1,000 years for oil-based styrofoam or any plastic made from petroleum to “break down”. No organism on Earth breaks down petroleum-based plastics.

    On that basis, I’d much rather have paper-based take-away containers regardless of presentation or heat retention.

    Love your reviews, Pomai.

  • March 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I like the presentation of the black containers Blazin’ Steaks uses and the new Zippy’s plates, but I’m not a fan of the old school way with the paper on top of the plate because I hate when I peel it back and some of the rice sticks to it. Then I have to scrape it off to ensure I get every grain of rice.

  • March 14, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Marvo, I think the rice sticking to the paper gives the “experience” of peeling it back that much more “romance”!  

    Xiufetish, glad to hear you noticed my mention of the environment in the write-up. I think it’s a high-priority topic we all should be aware of for sake of mother earth.

    Ryan, that “little (actually major) grease stain” on the paper lining topping the plate lunch is the most appealing visual part about it!


  • March 15, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Speaking of old school packaging, how about the classic Tsukenjo’s plate wrapped in butcher paper with the rubber band around it? Complete with the name or order scrawled on the paper in grease pencil. I haven’t been there for a while, so I don’t know if they still do it that way, or if they’re even still around.

    Like Xiufetish, I don’t like seeing all those ubiquitous white styro containers for environmental reasons. I’d be willing to pay a few cents more for paper or recycled.

  • March 15, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Like the Tsukenjo way of plate lunch presentation also. Tsukenjo and Grace’s are my first memories of plate lunches. Not sure why but my parents never expose us to it. Probably since we lived in the country (Kahaluu). It wasn’t till I was in high school when my cousin first took us to Rainbow baseball games that we would go to Graces or Diners for the chicken katsu. Something about opening up the box and peeling away the paper to expose the grinds. BTW, Coco Ichibanya presents its curry to go very well.

  • March 15, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Pomai – i’m with you on the carboard shell like Rainbows. It’s like unwrapping a gift! One oh-so-ono gift!

  • March 15, 2010 at 11:24 am

    hiyn_boy, I couldn’t have said it better.

    Kyle, Coco Ichiban has a proprietary takeout container, with partitions designed specifically for the curry sauce, rice and entree and tsukemono.

    Spotty,  I mentioned in the write-up the same method Tsukenjo’s uses, Kanda “Kewalo” Lunchwagon used to use. The butcher paper with the rubber bands. Classic of the classics! FYI, Tsukenjo’s still has their lunch house on Cooke street, but they sold their classic faded red lunch wagon several years ago.

    Diner E tells me Toshi’s Delicatessen (Okazuya) still does that (paper plate, butcher paper and rubber band). Looks like I’ll have to go Toshi’s and check that out!

  • March 15, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Pomai, I perfer taste the most first than looks of plates of food. But it all depend how hungry you are for it. Now I am hungry looking at the maki sushi and got to make some at home for I can share with sisters and mom and dad and brothers.

  • March 16, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Ah, so desu. You did mention the original old skool method. I don’t want to shock you, but sometimes I’m more dazzled by the pretty pictures and don’t see all the words…

  • March 16, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I’m wondering how it would all fare if Hawai’i implemented the no styrofoam and no plastic bags rules like we have here in San Francisco!!! We are charged extra if we “need” a plastic bag, while some places provide you with sturdy reusable plastic bags, in the hopes that you will reuse them again and again compared to that of the usual “t-shirt” plastic bags. But most places have paper bags. And what kind of containers I’m sure you’re wondering the restaurants use? I did not expect the return of the paper Chinese food box. I’ve also seen recyclable paper containers that look like the syrofoam ones, but those don’t seem to hold saucy foods so well. While others use the clear plastic containers. I’m assuming those break down better than syrofoam? I’m interested to see how.

  • March 17, 2010 at 6:30 am

    I am stuck here in Georgia. Thanks for sharing your “food porn.” Now I hungry!

  • June 4, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Eh Bruddah,
    give you credit for eatin & blogging your way through all the food. The new “take out “containers are made with “corn plastic” with the help of some small kine genetically modified DNA put into da corn. Good for da Aina but now alot of the trash is shipped to Washington State as Oahu has no moa room for da opala.
    Keep on Bloggin….Love it, A Hui Hou

  • July 7, 2010 at 2:13 am

    I like the paper box/plate like Rainbow’s, except that when you leave it on the table a little too long the white outer layer on the bottom of the box can stick itself to the tabletop ( heat and condensation?) and rip off, leaving a bit of scrubbing to do( I left the fried rice sitting a little too long)….foam clamshells feel too artificial…

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