We're a nation defined by our lack of culinary definition. Ever since our nation was deemed legitimate for its food and restaurant scene, there's been a lot of soul-searching and reflection about the question: What is American cuisine?
To me, the answer is obvious: Our flavors are our people. For the moment, set aside any questions about the merits of Velveeta as an heirloom American food product. Instead, let's acknowledge the agricultural bounty, tectonic meeting of cultures and attitude that is Southern cuisine (with its many variations) or the German American breads and pies of the Amish. Or the influence chili peppers have on Southwestern cuisine.
Whatever region or cuisine, there's one common denominator in the uniquely American formula. I have encountered it in a renovated barn-turned-restaurant run by a Mennonite family where they serve huge breakfasts with caloric values to make nutritionists swoon, and diners in New Jersey where grease was required on every plate. Also here in Salt Lake City, where my friends anticipate the arrival of a dish known as "The Pile."
Most recently, I saw it incarnate at a franchise started in Hawaii that offers what they consider to be the best of the 50th state. A mound of meat (marinated, barbecued short ribs in this case) with two scoops of gluey white rice that continues to expand in the stomach, and a scoop of mayo-laced macaroni salad that after three bites becomes strangely addicting. This was one of the plate lunches at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. Fast food, Hawaiian-style, delivering meat and large portions.
The short ribs ($6.35, $7.35) are pretty good -- not tender but not tough, with sweet and sizzling flavors. They were even better than some I've eaten at Korean restaurants.
L&L's menu reflects the mosaic of cultures and immigrants, mostly working class, that developed the lineup on the eatery's menus. Saimin noodles ($3.85-$4.99) are ideal for ramen lovers. By that I mean ramen sold in fried and dehydrated blocks, not the ramen chefs are trying to authentically re-create. Manapua ($2.15) might strike some as an oversized char siu bun you'd find at dim sum, only it's a bit more stale.
L&L's mild, thick curry hails from Japan, and is created from curry concentrate that dangerously resembles bars of chocolate. It's the ultimate comfort in Japan and anywhere where Japanese immigrants live. The shrimp curry ($6.45, $7.99) features surprisingly tender and large prawns in the thick sauce.
Musubi ($1.95-$2.49) is nigiri sushi with its seasoned rice foundation and belt of nori; only at L&L, the rice is kissed with a bit of gravy before it's topped with the most beloved of canned meats (in the Pacific, anyway), Spam.
But it's the real meat, such as the short ribs, that are noteworthy. All dishes, even the regular-sized portions, are priced at under $10. Mini-sizes are microscopically smaller, with one less scoop of rice and a bit less meat. Barbecue chicken ($6.25, $7.55) and beef ($6.35, $7.35) offer decent flavors, are not too sweet or tough, and cooked to order.
Kalua and lau lau ($9.95) are made especially for pork lovers: two incarnations of porcine goodness. One is chuck steamed in a pocket made of taro root, giving the tender meat a deep almost medicinal quality. The other is roasted pork. We could let our imaginations run wild conjuring outdoor pig roasts and parties, but I craved a bit extra salt as well, since that's all that was needed to make something good even better.
"Katsu" denotes a cut of meat that's been dipped in egg, flour, and the wonderfully light panko breadcrumbs. Consider, then, chicken katsu ($6.25, $7.55) as a nice piece of fried chicken, crisp and moist and suited for dipping in a pool of Sriracha chili sauce.
Still, there's something even heftier and even more satisfying on L&L's menu. Loco Moco ($6.35, $7.65) is essentially a mountain of hamburger patties that taste like breakfast sausage, served with rice and brown gravy, and then capped with two fried eggs, sunny-side up. It's a bit of a monstrosity. But the odd-sounding combination is quite comforting and filling.
L&L's messy large layers of seemingly incongruous flavors illustrate the forces of American food. Once you experience these odd, jumbled things together, you find that they're actually quite good.
Here's one facet to American cuisine: Fast food, Hawaiian-style with huge portions, affordable prices and lots of meat in Hawaiian plate lunches with short ribs, crunchy chicken katsu, and kalua and lau lau.
Location » 358 S. 700 East, Salt Lake City; 801-596-8300; 158 W. 1230 North, Provo; 801-818-2888
Hours » Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Children's menu » Yes
Prices » $
Liquor » None
Reservations » No
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major